Alibi V.23 No.46 • Nov 13-19, 2014 

Book Review

Antichrist Superstar

The Command to Look: A Master Photographer's Method for Controlling the Human Gaze

paperback
photography
$20

All photos by William Mortensen

The politics of yesteryear's photography scene was every bit as cutthroat as today's harshest elimination-style reality TV. As the 1920s dawned, a photographer named William Mortensen escorted a friend's sister, an actress named Fay Wray, to Hollywood. Women traveling solo was hard to fathom in those days; so was notion that Wray's escort would produce an erotic, grotesque body of work that would lead him to be reviled and revered in equal measure.

After a chance encounter with Cecil B. DeMille, Mortensen began work as a glamour photographer in the studio system. From the 1920s through 1950s, Mortensen was a renowned American portrait photographer. His photos of the era's stars—including Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, Lon Chaney and Peter Lorre—were widely published both as cinematic promotional materials and in influential mags like Vanity Fair. He wrote a series of instructional photography texts and a column on the pictorial craft for LA Weekly. His career upended the notion that artistic fame rarely precedes death.

William Mortensen, “Black Magic”
William Mortensen, “Black Magic”
[click to enlarge]

Making pictures was his calling, and he was late to the Pictorialism party. Products of the Pictorialist movement were marked by alteration—even adulteration—as its aesthetic required chemical, focal and physical manipulation. The movement's heyday lasted from 1885 to 1915. Mortensen's career had barely begun then, and already Modernism and its attendant sharp focus and stark depictions were capturing the popular imagination. But the success of Mortensen's photography career afforded him the ability to strike out on his own. So he populated his own photography studio and school with eager students and a cast of characters that would make David Lynch and circa-1980s Joel-Peter Witkin green with envy.

William Mortensen, “L’Amour”
William Mortensen, “L’Amour”
[click to enlarge]

For Mortensen, the only subject that was ever in serious competition with the female form—in various states of undress—was stranded sideshow performers who were set adrift when public enthusiasm for circuses waned. Think bearded ladies, dog-faced boys, pinheads and so on. The evocative power of Mortensen's theory and method made for pictures that ensnared or repulsed beholders with their visceral psychological and emotional impact. Almost two decades before celebrated nuevomexicano master of the macabre Joel-Peter Witkin was born, Mortensen was engaging fear and the grotesque photographically to fantastic effect.

William Mortensen, “Torse”
William Mortensen, “Torse”

The heart of this tome is the reissue of Mortensen's 1937 formula for making pictures. Originally titled The Command To Look: A Formula to Picture Success, the manual features a) illustrations and text on subjects like the “pictorial imperative,” analysis of impact, forestalling protest, the four picture patterns—diagonal, S-curve, triangles and dominant mass—and subject matter and theme, and b) over 100 photographs annotated by Mortensen and witty coauthor George Dunham with insight into patterns, sentiment and theme.

William Mortensen, “Belphagor”
William Mortensen, “Belphagor”
[click to enlarge]

Mortensen has been largely relegated to cultural footnotes in institutional art history scholarship. His descent from well-known-if-eccentric artist to great unknown resulted from a protracted revisionist history campaign waged by “purists” like Bay Area collective Group f/64. Whereas Mortensen literally wanted to make pictures, Group f/64's aesthetic involved depicting reality. American landscape photographer Ansel Adams was the group's shining star; his black-and-white landscape photography of the American West exemplified the group's aesthetic mission statement and stood in direct opposition to Mortensen's focus on patented portraiture techniques and attraction to outré subjects.

William Mortensen, “The Mark of the Devil”
William Mortensen, “The Mark of the Devil”

In an included essay, Larry Lytle notes that Mortensen was “both technically and philosophically in opposition to straight or purist adherents.” So virulent was Group f/64's revulsion to Mortensen's work that mere loathing and forceful critique weren't enough. “The anti-Christ” and “the Devil” were among Ansel Adams' nicknames for Mortensen. Deliberate attempts to exile the photographer and his work from straight scholarship and cultural memory were largely successful.

Mortensen's how-to guide for controlling the gaze had been out of print for more than half a century when Feral House came along to hip a new generation to a master photographer whose memory was intentionally underexposed. If, like me, you never progressed beyond Art History 101, The Command to Look offers solid advice for conjuring images that engage the beholder and their emotions. After all, there's a reason why Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, called upon Mortensen's artistic aesthetic and psycho-optical theories when creating LaVeyan Satanism and iconography of the Church. But you don't have to be the Black Pope to appreciate or make use of Mortensen's trademark techniques for commanding the gaze.