The art world is always pulling creators from the margins into the centerboth as a way of revitalizing interest in the market and as a means of clearing away stagnating trends. Historical artists long relegated to the shadows can also sometimes emerge into the light when we realize that their marginal status has been a grotesque mistake. This is most evident in current efforts to correct historical marginalization of those whose identities have left them on the sidelines of the art world (especially with regards to female, queer, and artists of color).

There are also those artists who simply did not fit the mold: rebels, eccentrics, and others with singular visions which cut against the grain of the linear, modernist narrative. It seems we are in a moment now when these oddballs are beginning to be reinvestigated.

A few shows from the past month have taken a closer look at such artists previously consigned to the margins as Penny Slinger at Fortnight Institute and Lee Mullican at James Cohan Gallery. Also an exhibition at the New York City Book and Ephemera Fair, titled “Celluloid Babylon,” curated by Brian Chidester (from the collection of the Stephen Romano Gallery), which delves into the archives of one of America’s strangest, greatest, and most under-appreciated photographers: William Mortensen.

Called a “devil” and the “anti-christ” by his most vocal critic, Ansel Adams, Mortensen’s dark, theatrical photographs have never hung comfortably alongside other giants of early American photography like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, or Anne Brigman. Though these photographers shared much of Mortensen’s romantic leanings, and belief that photography as an art-form could rival painting, the latter somehow became forgotten historically.

The current obscurity of Mortensen may be due to two factors: the frankly sexual, grotesque, and esoteric imagery in much of his work; and the fact that he was an artist who often blurred the line between reality and fantasy (as well as painting and straight-forward photography).

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Mortensen (1897-1965) was born in Park City, Utah, and seems to have begun his career with a desire to be a great painter or draughtsman. He recorded his occupation as painting when he enlisted for the army; briefly studied at the Art Students League in New York City; then spent a short time traveling the world and making sketches. A small ex-libris drawing on display in “Celluloid Babylon” which Mortensen made for his first wife, Courtney Crawford, shows an interest in Art Nouveau and especially Symbolists such as Aubrey Beardsley (see below).

Mortensen’s life was forever changed in 1920 when he chaperoned his friend’s sister, the soon-to-be star of “King Kong” (and overnight celebrity), Fay Wray, on a fateful trip to Los Angeles, so that she might pursue her dream of being in motion pictures. Wray quickly became one of the most famous actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood, while Mortensen befriended one of the industry’s most legendary directors, Cecil B. DeMille, who was soon to begin working on his biblical epic “The King of Kings” (1927).

Mortensen managed to acquire a job as the still photographer on DeMille’s film and his career in Hollywood, mostly doing still photography on movie sets, glamour shots, and costume design, was secured. This did not hamper Mortensen’s romantic imagination, however, nor his painterly inclinations.

By 1931 the artist had established his own photography studio and school in Laguna Beach, California, where he pursued wild darkroom experimentations which blended the Hollywood kitsch of his external world and the Symbolist mystery which no doubt lay still deep in his heart. In a few years time Mortensen began publishing his own books on photography technique and philosophy. Particularly noteworthy was his 1934 book “Monsters and Madonnas.”

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In brief: Mortensen saw photography as a duality. The mechanism of the camera was, to him, a monstrosity, i.e. it was everything cold and crass about the industrial age. It devoured light and time, he proclaimed, and gave nothing back but a blunt and direct reality. The imagination, the creative spirit of the photographer which persevered despite the mechanism, was what Mortensen saw as the beauty, or the “Madonna,” in photographs.

It is interesting therefore to see, in the intensely dark, erotic, and imaginative photographs collected in “Celluloid Babylon,” how he explored this tug-of-war between ideal beauty and ugly verism in literal ways, transforming bodies into the ethereal, perfect, and statuesque, as with his 1927 portrait of the actress Dorothy Cumming as the Greek poet Sappho, which may be one of Mortensen’s most beautiful portraits, or into the monstrous and demonic, and he did in an eerie, theatrical portrait called “The Old Hag” from 1926.

Mortensen’s entire phantasmagoria, in fact, made with tricks of lighting, masks and make-up, darkroom collage work, and sometimes a few painterly touches of the brush, pen, or razor, typically pulled on the most extreme ends of experience.

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As with many artists who are unafraid of trampling over the edge of horror there are images in Mortensen’s body of work which may still disturb or provoke uncomfortable conversations even today. A good portion of them indulge in the Orientalist sensibilities of nineteenth century art and literature too, recreating Eastern cultures with typical Hollywood artifice, as well as sensual beauty, dreaminess, and longing.

Within the context of his fascinations with witchcraft and horror, by turn, one might recall the explorations of darkness and decadence in William Beckford’s late-eighteenth century novel, “Vathek,” where Orientalist imaginings blend seamlessly into the gothic genre. See this progression in the series of images that follow.

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What many may find most difficult to process is Mortensen’s overt sexualization of the female body. His 1926 image, “Salome,” is particularly germaine of this point. A thin and elongated female form poses seductively with a man’s severed head (clearly a papier-mâché prop) between her legs, and it serves as a violent, sadistic parody of flirtatious desire.

The image also provides a tacit look into the unrepressed aspect of Mortensen’s work. It is that fearlessness, in fact, which best marks his photographs above everything else.

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Another work from the late 1920s, titled “The Sorceress,” also confronts the viewer with this type of bold sexuality. The composition is striking in its use diagonals; it depicts a black-masked and bare-chested woman wearing no more than a negligee. She stands against a tilting wall and grits her teeth as if she were fighting to keep her balance. 

As with all of Mortensen’s lustful images this work complicates the conventions of scandalous nudity with a suggestion of occult power. Though the artist may seduce the eye with such idealized female bodies he does not place his subjects in submissive or easily identifiable roles. 

Though the content of Mortensen’s work may still provoke controversy almost a hundred years later, it is actually his use of darkroom special effects, and the transformation he achieves in many of his images, that roots much of the resistance his work still receives today. At the time when his work was being made, photography was still struggling to find acceptance alongside painting as a legitimate fine art; and almost as a response to this, Mortensen manipulated many of his images using the darkroom and developing techniques that mimicked or drew on the look of painting and collage.

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Some prints show hair-thin markings all over their surfaces as though they had been gently drafted with a lithographic crayon. The artist achieved this effect by laying down a sheet of acetate over the paper he was printing on and scratching it with a needle point. Fuzzy, charcoal black shadows that seem to burst around the pale silhouettes of figures begin to look very painterly, and it sometimes is hard to determine if you are looking at a drawing or a photograph.

Embellishments such as this seem to have made it doubly hard for history to make room for Mortensen. Is he a photographer? Or does his special brand of art deserve its own category? Perhaps he is mixed-media? Or maybe indeterminable media?

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Apart from the excellent work of William Mortensen, private photographer, the masterstroke of “Celluloid Babylon” is its inclusion of ephemera from the artist’s archives, via gallerist Stephen Romano (who provided the fine-art photographs in the show as well). These include the papier-mâché masks that Mortensen made as movie props as well as the books and privately collected images that flesh out the life and inspirations of this enigmatic artist.

When the contemporary art world doesn’t seem to offer up much in the way of mysterious, dangerous, or exciting ideas, it is always good to know there are historians digging through the beautiful ruins of the past and coming up with dark, new gems. (Alessandro Keegan)

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