Finding William Mortensen
By Larry Lytle, Lecturer in the Art Program
About 12 years ago I began researching the life of American photographer William Mortensen (1897 – 1965) for a biography and a reevaluation of his work. While his name is unknown to us today, his photographic adversary, Ansel Adams, is one of the best-known and beloved American photographer/artists. As happens with conflicting art-movements — two sides clashing over technical and theoretical ideology — one wins and one loses the argument. History always favors the winner, and such was the case between Adams and Mortensen.
I first saw Mortensen’s images at a show in the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, in 1979. His work was unlike any I had ever seen. I couldn’t tell if they were photographs, etchings, drawings, or all three. I decided that I wanted to learn more about him, beginning a quest that has lasted 30 years. After the show I began to look for books by Mortensen; he had written nine in all, most with multiple editions. In addition, he wrote over 100 articles on photographic techniques with friend and coauthor George Dunham. It took me years to collect them (all long out of print by the 1980’s) and as I read them, I began to wonder why Mortensen never made it into the formal history of photography. It was clear that he was, during his time, an important and influential photographer.
In the mid-nineties I finally met a photography dealer who had handled part of Mortensen’s estate. I quizzed him about Mortensen, asking him why a book had never been written. Possibly as a way of getting rid of me, he encouraged me to write that book. So I began my research in earnest, checking museum collections and contacting and interviewing former Mortensen students— he operated a photography school from 1931 until his death. I catalogued all of his photographs that were used to illustrate his books and articles. I found and read the few articles that had been written about him by critics and historians. Through primary research I added to information about Mortensen. As a result, due to my contacts and what I had uncovered, I was invited to contribute to a book on Mortensen published by the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona. This is the archive where Mortensen’s estate is housed. It’s an interesting ironic twist, as CCP was in part the brainchild of Ansel Adams and Adams’ estate was the first of many to be archived there.
I’ve begun to write the story of Mortensen’s life. It’s been a long, incredible, sometimes frustrating journey that’s taken me to many locales, libraries and archives. I’ve met so many wonderful and helpful people. Through all of this, my wife has been amazingly supportive. And, I know that when I have written the last word in the last chapter of the book, I will miss my time spent with William Mortensen.