Meet the photographer Ansel Adams called ‘The Antichrist’

by Gannon Burgett

posted Tuesday, December 16, 2014 at 9:55 AM EDT

Mad Hatter, self portrait of Mortensen

Ansel Adams was a communicator who made no attempt to hide what was on his mind. But one photographer in particular drew out the worst in Adams, with him going so far as to refer to his contemporary as ‘the anti-Christ.’ 

This photographer was William Mortensen, an American fine art photographer whose pictorialist style often brought to life the stranger side of the human psyche. 

Popular and respected in most regards throughout his career, Mortensen’s grotesque and even erotic subject matter brought him a great deal of criticism from his contemporaries. In one letter, Adams went so far as to lament that it wasn't Mortensen's corpse depicted in a colleague's photograph. Indeed, up until the 're-discovery' of his images in the 70s and 80s, much of his work and progress in the field of photography was unknown by the general public.

A Family Xmas, 1914

Born in Utah in 1897, it was his move to Hollywood in the 1920s that brought him into the world of photography. There, he was introduced to a handful of filmmakers and talent. With his newfound connections and passion for photography, he began to carve a style of his own, mixing the romanticism of his painting with his deep love for Jungian psychology. These influences led him to the photographic niche of pictorialism, a late 19th/early 20th-century photography movement.

While Mortensen was successful by most means, his photographic contemporaries who favored realism – specifically the photography collective Group f/64 – criticized his work for being overly manipulated. In fact, according to art critic A. D. Coleman, it was Mortensen’s disagreement with Group f/64 that led many of the publications of the time to exclude his work.

In one letter, to photographer Edward Weston, Adams even lamented that it wasn't Mortensen's corpse depicted in a colleague's photograph.

Despite this exclusion, his work is by no means gone. In fact, a recent book, American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen, takes a retrospective look at his 'grotesque, occult, and erotic images.'

Below we've gathered for you a number of images from Mortensen that show off his pictorialist style of photography and the strange subject matter that inspired him.

The Possessed

To find out more about the life and work of Mortensen, you can head on over to The Smithsonian article that inspired this writeup. For a comprehensive review of American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen, LA Times has you covered.

Image credits: Photographs by William Mortensen, used under Public Domain

The Mark of the Devil
Pit and the Pendulum
Mark of the Borgia