Monsters and Madonnas

William Mortensen (1897-1965)

It is hard to know where to begin with this, Mortensen's most famous book and, with the much newer American Grotesque (Feral House 2014), the best illustrated.

First, there are two very different editions. The 1936 Camera Craft original is small and all in black and white while this 1967 edition from Jacques de Langre is 11x14 inches (28x35cm) and has eight colour plates. The two books are sufficiently different that you really need to read both: each has its fierce advocates. The newer edition is something of a bastardization, but the pictures make up for it.Both editions are quite hard to find and expensive when you can find them.

Second, it owes so much to his friend, collaborator, model and ghost writer George Dunham that it is a bit naughty to credit Mortensen as the sole author. Together they had a wonderful turn of phrase. Consider for example their description of the prudy-nudy nude who “disposes of her hands with such accuracy and cowers in such an ecstasy of modesty that the blushing observer feels a kindred embarrassment.”

Third, the “monsters” are not his famous grotesques, as many imagine, but what he calls “the machine”: the camera as the focus of consumerist and technical obsession, as master rather than servant. As he says, "The Monster, symbol of all that is mechanical, technical and mathematical in photography has its opposite pole in another symbol, one of infinitely greater antiquity . . . the Madonna."

Monsters and Madonnas is an attempt to reconcile these two poles. It is not always successful, but it is still well worth reading, and in the newer edition the pictures are worth looking at even if you don't read the text. Mortensen is far less well known than he should be, as a result of a vindictive campaign against him by Ansel Adams and his cronies, who hated the way he manipulated pictures, combination printed them, used pencil-work and generally went as far as is readily imaginable from their self-declared "purism".

Some of his work seems very old-fashioned nowadays, but some of it is curiously up-to-date in a digital world; and it is well worth seeking out.

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