The Witches and Bewitched Young Girls of William Mortensen
Each one a visual bewitching, these witches are part of the archive of the occultist photographer who had been lost in the annals of history.
His name is William Mortensen. If you don’t know him it is because photographers such as Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, the so-called “purists,” did a great job of removing him from museums and galleries, art books and magazines, and in general purged him from the dominant narrative of 20th century photography. Ansel Adams even called him “the Antichrist.” However, his approach to the medium that he followed, within the genre of “pictorialism,” included practices that were central to photography in prior decades: events set up for the camera, photo montage, combinations of images and text, “alternative processes” and others. William Mortensen, above all, possessed an esoteric sensibility that produces chills in the observer, and that nobody has had since then.
His images, and with manifest bravery, are about occultism and black magic, the grotesque and dark beauty, but above all they were about that “magic” that a photograph can exercise over the viewer: being compelled to look. In an irreverent and revolutionary book that he titled The Command to Look, and which is now a cult object that had been out of print for more than 50 years until recently, he talks about the “visual bewitching” that he attempted with some of his photographs. This book, among other things, had a significant influence on occultist researcher Manly P. Hall and the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton Szandor LaVey, whose “Bible” was partly dedicated to the photographer.
This series of photographs of witches and bewitched women, taken between 1926 and 1927, catalog his interpretation of the link between a young woman and black magic, and which must have been deliciously subversive some 90 years ago.
Unfortunately, thanks to the aesthetic antagonisms, the neglect of his work during so many decades has resulted in the disappearance or dispersion of much of his archive: original prints, essays, negatives and manuscripts… And so what we do have of his work is only a portion. His witches are only some of his witches. But each one of them, nevertheless, is a spell in itself.
In recent years, the work of William Mortensen has been shown around the world. Two of his books have been republished and his work is part of a magnificent exhibition in the Morbid Anatomy Museum.
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