U of S | Mailing List Archive | alt-photo-process-l | Re: Mortensen

Re: Mortensen

To answer Christina's question as to what she thought Mr. Van Dykes'
fear was....

Well - other than the VanDyke outburst provoked by my question AS to
whether Van Dyke had changed his opinion of Mortensen's work....
my opinion is based on historical knowledge....
Group ƒ64 promoted photography as a fine art on its own terms- sharp
rectilinear lenses, large depth of focus- crisp blacks and whites of
realistic true-rendered subjects...
They fought the pretentious art crowd that saw photography as a lesser
art- and why did they judge photography so- it was the newest art and
depended on technology.
Drawing and painting and sculpture still needed the direct application
of the human hand- but not photography....
BTW- the harpsicord and clarinet were considered less artistic
instruments at first due to their mechanical nature... but were as we
know eventually accepted....

So - Mortensen comes along and prints paper negatives and even dares
to do pencil work on them. Its not drawing- its not photography-
its photo illustration- but not to sell beer and wristwatches- but for
purely artistic purposes. In fact- only now with photoshop can one
duplicate the sort of thing he was doing-
well without following his techniques of paper negatives.
I ran across Mortensen's Monsters and Madonnas in 1977 and could not
figure out what it was- I though the work was pure pencil illustration
misfiled in the photo book section.
I thought - no wayyy is this photography...
Yes- Ansel Adams had been nearly successful in killing the memory of
this man's work... but there were too many old books of his techniques
lying around to
erase his legacy.
In my humble opinion - Mr. Van Dyke saw Mortensen as a traitor to
photography- which they saw the true vestal flame of which to be in
the straight category.
his fear- and the root of his hatred- stems from thinking that
Mortensen was muddying the waters of pure photography and would have
it devalued as a fine art form.
VanDyke may have seen Mortensen as a freak- perhaps to be placed in
either the world of the fine arts of drawing, painting and mixed
media- BUT NOT as a photographer.

I think Mortensen is even today greatly underappreciated... it has
been noted that Ansel Adams tried to track down and destroy all of his
work in any significant photo collections.

Mortensen was greatly invested in the nude female figure- which has
long been a prime subject of fine art- but not so much with the
slightly more prudish members of the ƒ64 group.
Also - Mortensen used the nude as a drawing card for his ( mostly male
students ) in his photo classes. I have been told that over 20K
students went through his classes over the years he taught.
Mortensens own justification for all the female figure work was that
it was the underlying structure under all clothed peoples compostions.
Sort of why docs study the skeleton in anatomy...

Here I will also make a direct defense for his use of the female nude-
they simply in general have more artistic bodies than men-
A survey a few years ago found that even female photogs most often
specialize in the female form.

BTW- I saw the inscription on a 1935 Mortensen book on nudes that read
something like "to Frank from Lauren"- a gift from a very
understanding wife?
A gift from Frank's model and lover?
or perhaps a gift from a sister in a very progressive open artistic
yes when it comes to anything concerning the nude - even in the case
of fine art- there is still the obvious titillation factor. ( no pun
intended )

On Nov 9, 2008, at 10:56 AM, Christina Z. Anderson wrote:

Oh what a wonderful story, Richard!!! When someone reacts so
strongly to another, what do you think the fear about Mortensen
was? I wonder if he was just so obnoxious, or if they thought
schlocky nudes would take over the world or whatnot...

BTW, talking of female body parts, I was able to see Adam Fuss's
Vulva series (I don't know if that is what he called them) that if I
remember correctly were daguerreotypes?? Someone can help me out
here??? Anyway they were at the Corcoran Art Gallery in D.C. in
2005. Talk about detail...very dark and very sharp. But I cannot
seem to find them on the web and I wonder what kind of criticism he
received. I know Robert Hirsch was there, viewing them at the same
time....so he might remember tho he is not on the list.


Christina Z. Anderson
----- Original Message ----- From: "Richard Vallon Jr." <rvallon@cox.net
To: <alt-photo-process-l@usask.ca>
Sent: Sunday, November 09, 2008 8:07 AM
Subject: RE: Mortensen

This is directed to the gentlemen , Brian and Eric- that were
conversing on Mortensen's
opinionated do's and dont's....

I just purchased his book on the problems of posing- and yes- he is
very opinionated-
however his influence is classical art- painting , drawing and
sculpture and I think quite a lot of what he
presents is spot on...
I think the lesson from him is to show the Dont's- because if the
teacher never presents anything bad
he himself has generated- well then this falls to the reviewing of the
students work.

Now Mortensen was over-opinionated - and this is fine for his work- I
do agree with the general spirit that rules were meant to be broken-
and following one master is simply blind obedience.
and why not do all of his don'ts to present a campy swarmy view of the

I remember seeing Bob Guccione's mid 1970s images of close ups of
female "naughty bits" shot though some sort of vaseline
and cheesecloth. I found these neither erotic nor clear enough to be
anatomically instructive for a college boy.
you can add those images to the Don't list...

AnyWAY - the real reason I am posting is that Willard Van Dyke came to
the New Orleans Museum of Art a few months before he died.
This was back in the early 1980s to my remembrance.
You may know he was the last surviving member of Group ƒ64.
I knew he had had a long running feud with Mortensen, and asked if
time had softened his opinion of Mortensens work.
( Mortensen died in 1965)
Well - Mr. Van Dyke turned red and erupted into a minute long tirade
against Mortensen and pictorialism.
I think he used words such as abominations and schlock....
Anyway- many of the members afterwards congratulated me on having such
knowledge of the history of photography
- and one scolded me for interrupting his nap by agitating the
Anyway- several months later Mr. VanDyke was gone...had I loosened a
with my inflammatory question?

Sincerely, Richard Vallon Jr. from New Orleans

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