Ansel Adams has called him the anti-Christ, and with admirers including Anton LaVey, William Mortensen is the master of the macabre. Shunned by his peers (Adams wasn’t paying him a compliment), Mortensen fell into near obscurity after the 1940s, despite his prolific career in film and photography. After working alongside Tod Browning and Cecil B. DeMille, Mortensen explored and mastered his technique in portraying the occult in his images. Visions of witches, demons, and monsters came to life in his photographs, creating a specific look of horror unparalleled even now.
Newly published from Feral House is an immense retrospective of Mortensen’s career, entitled American Grotesque, and a reproduction of Mortensen’s own The Command to Look, out of print for decades. American Grotesque contains over 100 plates of Mortensen’s work, and a biographical account of his life along with his own eloquent manifesto called “Venus and Virtues”. The Command to Look, Mortensen’s own insights into psychological laws that impact the way people react to photographs and to one another. Anton LaVey was so impacted by this work that he co-dedicated The Satanic Bible to Mortensen, and included in this edition is an essay by Michael Moynihan on the influence of this book on the “lesser magic” of the Church of Satan’s founder.
In this modern era, we can appreciate Mortensen in a way that was perhaps taboo during his career. We have more openly embraced the occult (at least, the readers of Haute Macabre have, as I doubt we have many right wing fundamentalists in our subscribers), and can admire the grotesque, the beauty, the ecstasy, and the sadness that Mortensen has portrayed in his images.