William Mortensen: CELLULOID BABYLON


still from the 1927 Cecil B DeMille film "King of Kings". Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene

The New York City Book and Ephemera Fair celebrates William Mortensen's golden Hollywood years with a special exhibition curated by Brian Chidester. The exhibition will feature works from William Mortensen's personal collection that have never been shown before, as well as works from the estate of his first wife Courtney Crawford that will also be exhibited for the first time ever.

March 9 & 10, 2019, Sheraton Central Park / Times Square 811 7th Avenue New York

still from the 1927 Cecil B DeMille film "King of Kings". H. B. Warner as Jesus.
An artwork by William Mortensen "Sappho" with actress Dorothy Cumming who played Mother Mary in the 1927 Cecil B DeMille film "King of Kings".

His work was startling and new. It had the power to surprise, shock, even haunt the viewer. William Mortensen was a highly controversial artist during his lifetime, stirring up the photographic world in the early twentieth century with images that were in direct opposition to the prevailing realism of his contemporaries. Today we recognize Mortensen as the trailblazer he was —the first to use highly manipulated imagery in a way that wasn’t embraced until Photoshop almost a century later.

The New York City Book & Ephemera Fair will mount a special exhibition of the artist’s work when it returns to the Sheraton Central Park/Times Square hotel on March 9 & 10. Curated by author/art historian Brian Chidester, courtesy of the Stephen Romano Gallery, “Celluloid Babylon” draws from the artist’s Hollywood years in the 1920s and '30s.

still from the 1928 Tod Browning film "West of Zanzibar" circa 1928
still from the 1928 Tod Browning film "West of Zanzibar" circa 1928
An artwork by William Mortensen "The Old Hag" where he integrated a negative of a figure with a mask made for the 1928 Tod Browning film "West of Zanzibar" circa 1928
An artwork by William Mortensen "Preparation For The Sabbath" 1928. One of Mortensen's most famous photograph which incorporates elements of "The Old Hag" (above).

Mortensen, the son of Danish-born parents, was the first photographer to take live still photographs of actors on Hollywood movie sets while the action was being shot, rather than re-staging the entire scene for the photographs. He also photographed film stars like Jean Harlow, Fay Wray, Rudolph Valentino, and John Barrymore in posed studio settings. It all started when, as a still photographer on Cecile B. DeMille’s epic Hollywood film The King of Kings, Mortensen was tasked with creating a full book of pictorial studies instead of the usual type of record shot and lobby display. One of these handmade volumes, in fact, resides now in the collection of the Vatican.

Mortensen was also known for retouching prints with an abrasion process that used razor-blades, carbon pencil, ink, eraser, texture screens that emulated drawing, and a masking technique that allowed for multiple exposure of different negatives to create manipulated images almost indistinguishable from etchings or paintings. His subject matter was theatrical, gothic, and often strange. “The Command to Look” and “Monsters and Madonnas” are two of his best-known published books.

still from 1926 John Griffith Wray film "Hell's Four Hundred" featuring mask and costume by Mortensen
An artwork by William Mortensen featuring Courtney Crawford with masks the artist made as props for the 1926 John Griffith Wray film "Hell's Four Hundred" and the 1921 Rex Ingram film "The Four Horsemen"
A 1926 artwork by William Mortensen featuring Fay Wray with masks the artist made as props for films by John Griffith Wray, Rex Ingram and Cecil B DeMille.

Mortensen later clashed openly with the better-known Ansel Adams and his Group f-64 contemporaries in the 1930s and '40s. Adams’ classic and stately images of Rocky Mountain peaks and valleys at sunset were a world away from Mortensen’s pictorialism, as seen in photographs of satanic rituals, ancient Hindu goddesses, witch doctors with scary masks, and vengeful gorillas. Adams once wrote: “Photography is an objective expression and a record of actuality”—a philosophy which became even more influential after the hard realities of World War II. Mortensen disparaged such “literal recordings,” calling them “a good beginning, but not an end in itself.” Adams then dubbed him the “Antichrist of Photography.

An artwork by William Mortensen in which the artist used element of the photograph "The Old Hag" and a mask he made as a prop for a film.

Today, Mortensen’s altered images feel right at home in a world saturated by fantasy figures and layered images in movies, television, graphic novels, and video games. His work finds affinity with all forms of storytelling, however, be fantastic, horrific, or mystical, for he was, above all else, an artist with a keen talent for tapping into the most euphoric and sexual aspects of human life.

William Mortensen portraits of Fay Wray, Jean Harlow, Theda Bara and Anna May Wong circa 1924 - 26

From his early movie lobby cards, which were all about selling fantasy, Mortensen developed a visionary private art that took the Hollywood aesthetic into an even more timeless space, one which ultimately divest itself of the mechanical limits of the camera in favor of inventing new techniques that would bring his vision to fruition.

A photograph by William Mortensen which usues props and costumes from Ferdinand P. Earle's 1925 lost film "A Lover's Oath" which was based on "The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám"

Fair hours are: Saturday, March 9, 2019, 8AM – 4PM Sunday, March 10, 2019, 9AM – 3PM

Where: Sheraton Central Park / Times Square 811 7th Avenue New York, NY, 10019


Admission: $15 each day, With student ID – Free

Pre-purchase a weekend pass online and save $5, or register for a complimentary pass for Sunday, March 10


Festivals in NYC: New York City Book & Ephemera Fair (March 9-10)

ephemera.com: William Mortensen

"William Mortensen: Celluloid Babylon" curated by Brian Chidester at the New York Book and Ephemera Fair, March 9 and 10 2019


Photography’s First Superstar: The Work of William Mortensen on Display at NYC Book and Ephemera Fair By Elisa Shoenberger

Special Exhibition of William Mortensen's Photography

"William Mortensen: CELLULOID BABYLON" by Brian Chidester

Special Exhibition of William Mortensen "CELLULOID BABYLON"

NYC Book and Ephemera Fair Expands to Second Day

Called the “Antichrist of Photography' by Ansel Adams, Controversial Hollywood Photographer William Mortensen Spotlighted at New York City Book & Ephemera Fair Next Week

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For further information and visuals contact Stephen Romano at 646 709 4725 or email at romanostephen@gmailcom or Brian Chidester at bcxists@gmail.com

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