William Mortensen masterwork rediscovered and reassembled after 90 years in obscurity.


posted June 4 2017



William Mortensen - 3 panel triptych of Belphagor and the Lost Souls in Hell. circa 1926  - 1828

William Mortensen (1897 - 1965) was an American Photographer, primarily known for his Hollywood portraits in the 1920s-1940s in the pictorialist style as well as pushing the boundaries 
of what were thought to be the limitation of photography in the late 1920 and early to mid 1930's.   Ultimately because of his impassioned and very public debates with the likes of 
Ansel Adams, who was extremely influential in his time, by the time Mortensen died, he had been relegated to less than a footnote in the history of American photography and died in poverty 
and obscurity.
Mortensen’s methods often made it hard to distinguish whether the results were photographs or not. He used traditional printmaking techniques, such as bromoiling, 
and developed many of his own. He would create composite images, scratch, scrape and draw on his prints, then apply a texture that made them look like etchings, thereby disguising his 
manipulations. Consequently, every print was unique. Ultimately, Mortensen’s aim was to create something that, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be a photograph, yet portrayed 
scenes so fantastic they caused wonder and astonishment in the viewer.
His love of the fantastic and the grotesque was, then, partly an outward expression of his love to shock, but it had another purpose: by giving form to such emotions as fear and hatred, 
Mortensen, a Christian Scientist, believed “we are enabled to lessen their power over us”. He added: “When the world of the grotesque is known and appreciated, the real world becomes 
vastly more significant.”

It was these kinds of ideas that so angered Adams and his Group f/64 brethren devoted to photography that depicted a pure, unmediated reality. This began a spirited debate with 
Mortensen within the pages of the magazine that became ever more vitriolic. However, Adams did not stop there, suggesting in a personal letter to Mortensen that he “negotiate oblivion”. 
When fellow photographer Edward Weston wrote telling of his excitement at photographing a “fresh corpse”, Adams replied: “My only regret is that the identity of said corpse is not our 
Laguna Beach colleague.”
The critics Beaumont Newhall and his wife Nancy held the same view: Beaumont consciously excluded Mortensen from his grandiosely titled 1949 book The History of Photography, 
From 1839 to the Present Day. Their distaste would not even allow them to acknowledge Mortensen’s mastery of his craft. Ultimately though, for all the griping of Adams and f/64, 
it turns out that Mortensen was the true modernist all along, not them. For today, we are surrounded by images of the fantastic and unreal.

Since the re-contextualization of Mortensen's work as being less connected to mainstream photographic history, and rather being re-assessed as being visionary, shamanic, even being 
exhibited alongside the likes of outsider artists such as Henry Darger, Adolph Wolfli, Charles Dellschau, Martin Ramirez and other "Outsider" masters both at art fairs and within 
the walls of prominent curated museum exhibitions.

In 2014 Feral House press released "William Mortensen: American Grotesque" the first in depth monograph on the artist, to numerous accolades through out the world.  This effort 
perpetuated William Mortensen's visibility throughout the art world, along with a renewed presence of his works in galleries and art fairs and many online publications.  Suddenly,
William Mortensen became the hottest thing in photography, and was finally given due respect.
These works we all acquired through a private agent who represented the remains of the estate of Courtney Crawford, William Mortensen's first wife.  The third panel was originally acquired
as a work unto itself in early 2017, and the missing pieces, panels 1 and 2, were discovered amongst a large group of works acquired by the same anonymous Brooklyn collector later that year.
There is absolutely no question that the provenance of these works are correct and true.
In demonology, Belphegor (or Beelphegor, Hebrew: בַּעַל-פְּעוֹר‎‎ baʿal-pəʿōr - Lord of the Gap) is a demon, and one of the seven princes of Hell, who "helps" people make discoveries. 
He seduces people by suggesting to them ingenious inventions that will make them rich. Bishop and witch-hunter Peter Binsfeld believed that Belphegor tempts by means of laziness. 

Also, according to Peter Binsfeld's Binsfeld's Classification of Demons, Belphegor is the chief demon of the deadly sin known as Sloth in Christian tradition.

Belphegor originated as the Assyrian Baal-Peor, the Moabitish god to whom the Israelites became attached in Shittim (Numbers 25:3), which was associated with licentiousness and orgies. 
It was worshipped in the form of a phallus. As a demon, he is described in Kabbalistic writings as the "disputer", an enemy of the sixth Sephiroth "beauty". When summoned, he can grant 
riches, the power of discovery and ingenious invention. His role as a demon was to sow discord among men and seduce them to evil through 
the apportionment of wealth.[citation needed]

The palindromic prime number 1000000000000066600000000000001 is known as Belphegor's Prime, due to the significance of containing the number 666, on both sides enclosed by thirteen 
zeroes and a one.

According to De Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal, Belphegor was Hell's ambassador to France. Consequently, his adversary is St Mary Magdalene, one of the patron saints of France. 
Belphegor also figures in John Milton's Paradise Lost and in Victor Hugo's The Toilers of the Sea.

Center panel and details:


Left panel and details:


Right panel and details: