William Mortensen was a popular celebrity portrait photographer in the 1930s, churning out glam images for the movie magazines. But he was also a rebel whose special effects images prefigure the age of Photoshop.

Above, you can see Mortensen's photograph called "Warlock," and at left is a picture he described as a person being tortured into confessing during the Inquisition.

Book critic Cary Loren has a great essay about Mortensen's work on bibliophile blog A Journey Round My Skull. He writes that Mortensen's arresting, bizarre work has been mostly forgotten because it didn't fit into the early twentieth century's passion for photographic realism. Unlike influential contemporaries like Ansel Adams, Mortensen refused to reproduce what he saw realistically.


Here's an image illustrating Edgar Allan Poe's famous story "The Pit and the Pendulum." Instead of realistic photography, Mortensen preferred the photographic techniques of the late nineteenth century, called Pictorialism. He doctored his photographs by painting over them, retouching them, and giving them various chemical washes to produce images halfway between photo and painting. By looking back to an earlier era in photo technology, Mortensen managed to get a jump on the CGI revolution about 60 years early.

Though celebrity hounds in the 30s would have recognized Mortensen's work - such as this portrait of actress Jean Harlow - few in the photography art world considered his work important. It was seen as anachronistic, too fantastical for a modern age.


Still, Mortensen continued to ply his old-fashioned, new-fangled art. He published a book of his photographs, which he advertised in magazines and newspapers - here you can see one of the original ads. Based on his images, I would have to agree that it probably was "one of the most unusual photographic books" that people in the early twentieth century had ever seen.

Read more about Mortensen at A Journey Round My Skull.