West of Zanzibar (1928) shows in Unspeakable: The Films of Tod Browning, running March 17 - 26, 2023, at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.
He referred to them not as photographs but as pictures, akin to John Ford’s self-description as a “picture-maker.” This was not by accident or due to eccentricity, for there was a war happening among photographers. One party, represented best by Ansel Adams’s Group f/64, advocated a “pure” photography in which sharp focus and an eye for “realism” aided the photographer’s holy scientific task of capturing the immense object of reality. The other less-centralized party, sometimes called Pictorialists, chose to depict reality by representation and exaggeration. For William Mortensen, who lauded and exemplified the Pictorialist vision when it was most unfashionable, the camera was simply another artistic tool to be revered and used alongside graphite or clay. What mattered was not the photograph but the manifestation of what once existed in the mind’s eye, the picture.
A cursory glance at a work by Mortensen may trick the eye into first seeing a sketch, especially in his 1927 Off for the Sabbot where a witch hovers over a small hamlet in nonchalant free-fall. Her relative size to the frame is small for a Mortensen subject, but her ecstatic posture creates a dynamic shadow across her body like ink on paper, and his signature texture screen turns the “ink” of the shadows into charcoal marks. His straightforward photographic portraits have no background in order to emphasize the outline of the subject as in his Circe (1930), or they may be bordered by a superimposed title as in Johan the Mad (1931). Scratch marks become more obvious when the subject is closer to the lens (or if the viewer simply gets closer to the photo) just as Ben-Day dots appear in old comics—this works both as a technical illusion and places the subject into an impressionistic reality far away from the sharp-focus world of Group f/64. These collective techniques, rather than Mortensen’s usual occult subjects, are what incensed Adams to famously label the artist “the Antichrist.” This war nicely parallels with a similar scuffle in cinema history in which the Lumières of realism (later the Bazinian realists) are often pitted against the Méliès of artifice and editing (later the Eisensteinians). Mortensen was not necessarily a partisan in his camp, but he was feverishly devoted to spectacle. Naturally, he would take his talents to the kingdom of American spectacle: Hollywood.
Meanwhile, a similar celebration of dark spectacle was taking place in Germany through the Gothic-inspired landscapes and exaggerated makeup in the films of Robert Wiene and the mangled furniture and hallways of set designer Robert Neppach. These two Roberts would stay in Germany, but many German master directors emigrated to Hollywood and continued this Expressionist technique even though the studios of the 1920s overwhelmingly opted for lighter fare. A tragic romance, such as F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise or Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven, represented the pinnacle of middlebrow mass art, but even these darker pictures, fully indebted to the Expressionist tradition, could find the gilded edges of their chiaroscuro lighting and be thought beautiful. By borrowing this style and some of the chthonic imagery that could be found in Mortensen’s work, two figures in America’s pantomimic art dared to introduce the grotesque to these same audiences: director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney. Their legacies were defined by early monster stories featuring purposefully ugly protagonists and a sprinkle of the occult. But even these two rebels had received help from a younger, less-experienced artist who nevertheless understood the popular power of the grotesque like nobody else in Hollywood. They both knew, taught, and learned from a young costume test photographer: William Mortensen.
Long before Hollywood audiences were entranced by horrific shadowplays, Renaissance artists marveled at the elaborate frescoes of the ancient Roman grottos (the etymological origin of the term, grottesca) which added ornamental flair to standard architecture. Smooth curves along a table may billow out into spirals or scrolls, or perhaps a satyr’s face would provide the shape of an urn. This pleasant, elaborate design, far from an imitation of nature, was, to these artists, “grotesque.” Since then, the term has taken disparate definitions depending on the discipline, and many, especially architecture, stick close to the original. But as snub-nosed creature motifs became more common in the architectural grotesques, the term migrated to describe the creatures of fictional works. It is in literature where the grotesque’s now-familiar connotations of monsters and demons appear: François Rabelais, Mary Shelley, fairy tales, and Southern Gothics use deformities, ghosts, ugly little creatures, and the uncanny almost-human to ornament their stories. In these tales, monsters do not induce shock and fear only to slump back at the appearance of a moral hero; instead, a grotesque character must be one that induces fear or uneasiness yet asks the reader for their continued attention. Frankenstein’s monster epitomizes this point when comparing himself to John Milton’s Satan: “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.” In fiction, both empathy and villainy form the Gordian knot that is the grotesque.
This, the humanized monster or the monstrous human, became Mortensen’s key spectacle, and his instinct for this spectacle landed him high-profile Hollywood jobs. Though Mortensen’s name never appears in a single movie’s credits, his connections to Babylon’s elite were innumerable. It is thanks to Mortensen that Hollywood had Fay Wray, the younger sister of Mortensen’s girlfriend Willow, who tagged along when he moved to California to get fresh air for her chronic illnesses. He originally came to Los Angeles by way of actor Robert Gordon (an early screen Huck Finn) who was stationed with him during his Army duties in the first World War. And, in a remarkably lucky break unimaginable today, the young artist fell in with Cecil B. DeMille’s troupe, first making masks and paintings for the 1923 The Ten Commandments, and later befriending DeMille himself, enabling Mortensen to work in nearly every department on his sets. He would take still photographs on The King of Kings (1927) during the production itself rather than during the conventional cheaply made restaging—the stills were so well-celebrated in the DeMille crew that Mortensen’s method became the norm for production still photography in Hollywood. On top of all that, according to Mortensen’s fibby autobiographical chapter in his philosophical how-to-photograph book The Command to Look, this collection of the King of Kings prints is the only photography book collected in the Vatican library. Quite the accomplishment for the Antichrist.
His work on the massive sets of Ferdinand P. Earle’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and DeMille’s entire 1920s oeuvre taught Mortensen that spectacle, not realism nor subtlety, commands the viewer to look. If the viewers do not look, they will not see your picture (the italicized “see” often contrasted with “look” for Mortensen), and, according to Mortensen, you will promptly be forgotten, no matter your talents or labor. The picture must not only be a work of art with enough formal interest to stand the test of time, but it must work as its own carnival barker. And nothing attracts an audience like a freak show.
Tod Browning, a Kentuckian contortionist who left Louisville for the traveling circus, naturally understood how to use American snake oil salesmanship to sneak art in front of the widest possible audience. Though Browning’s Freaks (1932) would be made after Mortensen left Hollywood, the director’s affinity for the grotesque was already evident in his many collaborations with Lon Chaney. By working with Chaney’s star image as a chimerical monster (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera), Browning reinvented Chaney as a sympathetic (but slightly monstrous) huckster who doesn’t let a missing limb or two deter him from pursuing power, romance, or a decent living. His signature colloidal makeup allows his face to take on the features of a life lived hard (or, in some unfortunate cases, standard yellowface) to match Browning’s stories of criminals and outsiders. Lon Chaney’s thousand faces, like Mortensen’s pictures, command to look, but rewards a sustained seeing as Chaney’s characters shift and evolve to tragic ends. Browning, Chaney, and Mortensen only worked on one picture together: the frustratingly beautiful West of Zanzibar (1928). The movie includes despicable characters with evil intentions, stock racist stereotypes of African cannibals, and enough blunt prostitution and booze to upset even those audiences in the pre-Code heydays. Lon Chaney’s performance(s) as the magician Phroso (later “Dead-Legs” who drags his paralyzed legs with his upper body even during the action sequences) is the quintessential Browning-Chaney creation, a forgotten man who has been exiled from the real world and becomes a failed king of the outsiders, not unlike Milton’s Satan. Likewise, Mortensen’s masks for the cannibal tribesmen create uncanny cartoon monsters with crooked snouts and impossibly wide eyes, just as those contemporary poets of the grotesque, the surrealists, painted after first encountering tribal art. But it would mark the beginning of the end for Browning, whose masterpiece, Freaks, used scrapped ideas for Zanzibar, but which bombed following the success of Dracula (1931). Browning continued to make movies for another decade, but his professional standing at MGM was not the same after Irving Thalberg, one of his only cheerleaders inside the studio, refused to champion the man who made Freaks. Though he would still make genre fare such as Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil-Doll (1936), Browning played safe in the now well-established horror genre that he helped create. Chaney would die having made one talkie in 1930; William Mortensen would move to Laguna Beach, make the best works of his life, but never work in Hollywood again.
My favorite of Mortensen’s pictures is simple. Human Relations (1932) depicts a greasy-haired man, his body obscured by a curved line Mortensen called “the world,” leaning forward in blank transfixion as a disembodied arm plunges its fingers into the face’s eye sockets. The arm couldn’t be straighter, resembling the trajectory of a javelin more than the curved intimacy of a fight. The ornate metal wristlet, Mortensen said, “adds strength and cruelty to the gesture of the arm.” The model’s face contorts unnaturally toward the center, likely thanks to Chaney’s colloidal makeup lessons that Mortensen (and every makeup artist) used for the rest of his life. The title “Human Relations” appears bluntly at the bottom. Oddly enough, Mortensen notes in his successful book of photography Monsters & Madonnas that he got the idea for it when the telephone company overcharged his long-distance calls. The picture is pure Mortensen, as it commands the viewer to look at the violence, the ugliness of the face, and the uncanny blank expression, but seeing it reveals confusing asymptotic lines, a hint that “the world” is the same shade as the arm’s flesh and that the face may have been long dead. It’s also so comically direct that I often laugh when I see it now, though humor and the grotesque are uncomfortable bedfellows (would you publicly laugh at a model with a deformity, even if the model explicitly intended the picture to be funny?). With the publication of the largest comprehensive Mortensen study, American Grotesque, and a republishing of The Command to Look in 2014, Mortensen has been resurrected from the tomb Ansel Adams built, only to be met with muted fanfare. If Mortensen’s pictures lack their punch today, it’s likely because ugliness’s beauty has gone through the postmodern ringer enough times to become a truism—“I like it because it’s imperfect” is now both an accepted aesthetic argument and a banal self-help mantra rather than a subversive reminder of humanity’s need to see that which appalls them. Mortensen, more than nearly any other artist of the twentieth century, understood why the central image of every major cathedral, no matter how beautiful, is a corpse upon a cross.
Thankfully, even if Mortensen’s grotesque aspects aren’t as shocking as what an active imagination and a stable internet connection can conjure, his pictures retain imprints of Hollywood’s devils. His nudes own up to the sexual nature of the nude genre without being pornographic—they might as well be succubi who are punished for their very nature. His monk series features robed figures placing his women subjects in restraints and poses that an audience of today would identify with kink and sadomasochism, though their historical setting simultaneously evokes the horrors of the Inquisition. Each of his monsters, especially Belphegor (1930), are homages to Lon Chaney because they do not play boogeymen in the recesses of the dark, but pose as a product of nature, well-lit, perhaps even earning a close-up. No matter the content, the ghosts in his pictures beckon, then taunt. “Made you look.”