In 1956 Robert Balcomb studied with American Master Photographer William Mortensen in his Laguna Beach studio. This long-awaited book on Balcomb’s time with Mortensen is a richly illustrated, inside look at one of the world’s finest Pictorialist photographers of the last century. The author delves into the lessons that he learned from the Master, and describes how he took the teachings and made them his own over a successful fifty-four-year career as a fine portrait photographer.
In addition to the numerous photos and illustrations accompanying the text, Balcomb’s book contains a gallery of eighty-two portraits, still lifes, and pictorials from his long career, and eight Mortensen prints — some being published for the first time. Read part of Chapter II here!
Chapter topics include:
Balcomb’s time studying with WM in Laguna Beach, the WM Pigment Process, Paper Negatives, Prismatics, a discussion of Portraits vs. Pictorials, and “A Day with Jayne,” about how Balcomb came to shoot the finest portrait ever taken of Jayne Mansfield (previously featured in TheScreamOnline). The appendices include “The Mortensen Books,” “Materials and Formulas,” “Texture Screens, ” and detailed “Notes on the Photographs.”
R O B E R T B A L C O M B G A L L E R Y
Excerpt of Ch. II from Me and Mortensen: Photography with the Master,
by Robert Balcomb. © 2012 Amphora Editions
• AND MORTENSEN •
…Mortensen told me that one day in Los Angeles, while carrying his bulky camera, tripod, and glass plates through Griffith Park, he met another photographer taking pictures of a model, and stopped to watch. The man was Arthur Kales, manager of Radio Station KFI and a well known pictorial photographer and writer. Kales did not like being interrupted and gawked at, and he told Mortensen to leave, but took heart at the vanishing fellow photographer and called him back. They spent the rest of the day discussing photography and ended up at a photo shop to exchange Mortensen’s equipment for some that Kales advised was better. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship. Kales worked primarily with bromoil and was a master with the beautiful but complicated and laborious printing process. Through Kales, Mortensen in turn mastered bromoil, but later became impatient with it — through this experience he later developed a simpler method of producing the same effects, his Pigment Process (Ch. V).
Despite his Hollywood experiences, wherein he made thousands of photographs — portraits, pictorials, landscapes, and period set-ups with costumed models — Mortensen told me that he did not achieve one print he would later consider truly acceptable. He had sent prints by the dozens to galleries and magazines by the dozens, only for them to be rejected — he was beside himself, wondering Why? One day a print, “Salome,” was finally accepted and included in a national photography magazine. He studied it to determine what it had that his others did not. He delved again into an in-depth study of the Old Masters, trying to find out what made them forever enduring, and to determine what lacked correspondingly in his own work (other than Salome). [Note: “Salome” was not one he later considered among his best, but important to his understanding of composition. Click on photo for larger image.]
What he found out finally changed his approach to composition, as he later described in his fifth book, The Command to Look. A definitive gem on composition, it should be a permanent part of every artist’s library (It has been out of print for decades; searching in used-book stores sometimes pays off, but the best chance is through the Internet — don’t be surprised at the prices). A study of this little book will show the principles he learned from master artists of past centuries.
In 1931, after a long period of work in Hollywood, both in movie studios as a documentary photographer and in his own portrait studios, and along with the impending depression, Mortensen became disillusioned with Hollywood and moved south to Laguna Beach. There, in a more peaceful and slow-paced setting, he developed his philosophies and techniques of photography, and later opened a school to teach them to others. He spent the rest of his life in this ocean community, working with over 3000 students (his figure). And there he wrote nine books on photography — most important Mortensen on the Negative — along with countless monographs and magazine articles, with the help of friend George Dunham, who earlier in the 30’s he had met during a commercial photo shoot, using the local playhouse for its larger space. George was a sometime actor and writer. The two joined forces, developing a life-long friendship. With his considerable help, Mortensen produced the books and developed the Pigment Process. (After his death, two of his books were reprinted by a second party, but poorly done and actually re-worded in places, changing thought or meaning — a grave injustice festered on Mortensen’s name and his truly fine and useful books.)
The Pictorialist Movement culminated in the Photo Secessionists, as compared with Photo Purists. This movement developed into a large group who followed the same feelings, but eventually broadened its scope to include more modern types of subjects — still, though, maintaining the soft feeling in their prints. Mortensen became known as the best west-coast practitioner of the Pictorial Movement. The most vocal of the Purist Group f/64 was Ansel Adams, Purist to the core (except for his earliest years), who detested pictorial photography — Mortensen and Adams argued back and forth through publications such as Camera Craft throughout the 30’s and 40’s.
Adams was unquestionably the foremost genius of landscape photography and the backbone of Group f/64, which had been instigated by Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Willard Van Dyke in 1932. The term f/64 refers to the smallest lens aperture, which gives sharp definition, as demanded by the Purist thinking of that group. One of Weston’s early cameras had a Petzval lens with a brass barrel utilizing “Waterhouse” stops: a slot that accepted disks, each with its own f-stop hole. Weston made his own, a disk of tin foil with a hole punctured with a pin point — f/128! The group said that the camera should do all the work, as guided by the photographer, and that neither the negative nor the print should be “manipulated” with any kind of extra fiddling to produce effects not inherent in the pure negative.
In contrast, Mortensen believed that whatever work done to enhance or further add to the artistic merit of a print should be considered, as long as the photographer has the artistic ability to achieve it. In his unpublished monologue, “Meditations of a Reformed Pedagogue,” he said that to be creative, photography must go beyond what’s on a negative — it should be flexible to allow effects made by “various helps and tricks.”
For example, from a 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 (6×6 cm) negative he made a 14×11 paper print he called a “diapositive” (positive print darker than normal), on the back of which, on a light table, he penciled-in items of costume and background, and then contact-printed that print onto another photo paper, which became a negative print including what was on the first print along with what he had added to it. He then added to the back of the paper negative, as above, and contact-printed the worked-over negative onto any good photo paper for the finished final print (still with me?). The results are reminiscent of fine early pictorials and lithographic prints and certain etchings (see pp. 68, 73). Disregarding the Purist’s complaints, Mortensen’s approach to manipulations brought him increasing acceptance from the public and many museums and publishers. (A logical question arises at this point: Doesn’t this compare with digitally manipulated prints? My answer is that Mortensen’s style is completely human-hand done, as opposed to electronic manipulations — acceptable as long as they are admittedly done so.)
My own feelings are that the “Purists” of Group f/64 were so caught up in their own beliefs that they developed blinders to anything that differed from theirs, disregarding others’ talents and expertise. Theirs is the work of fine photographers, surely, but they should speak for themselves, not against others. Their argument concentrates on “Pictorialists,” whose techniques involve “soft prints” (not “stainless steel” sharp — Mortensen’s term), such as with bromoil printing. Curiously, Adams’ first efforts were Pictorial.
A former UNM art professor, the late Van Deren Coke, was once so adamant against all manipulation of photographs (heavily influenced by close association with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Paul Strand), that he publicly disparaged anything Mortensen. While my wife Mary was an art student at UNM, she met Coke and had me bring some of my work to him — he gave it an expected cool reception. But years later he did a turnaround, extolling the virtues of additions, subtractions, and distortions, especially to his own photographs.
Perhaps the most important division between Mortensen and Purists is his disagreement with their wide, confusing acceptance of the adage, “Expose for the shadows and let the highlights take care of themselves.” Based on “gamma” and “inspection,” this practice tends to result in pulling film from the developer before full development has taken place — in other words, shadow areas are well developed, but light areas lack tone (gradation), are “burned out” (below, Negative 3). Mortensen claimed better: “Expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows,” by which, after proper agitation during the time for full development, say five minutes, film can be left in the developer for up to two hours (or until developer exhaustion fogs it) without any problems. At the five-minute stage, film has received all development it is capable of, so that it just sits there — nothing can happen after that. This means that all highlight areas and all shadow areas have “taken care of themselves” by making sure all tonal gradations have been fully established (below, Negative 7). Of course, everything depends on correct exposure, in the first place.
Part Four of Mortensen on the Negative fully explains his 7-Derivative, 7-D, negative, as illustrated in the following (reading left to right, each line):
Number 3 shows under-exposure, under-development. Number 7 shows under-exposure, over-development.
Mortensen’s 7-D negative combines Numbers 7 and 8 because slightly less exposure is needed with Number 7, moving slightly into Number 8 (standard-exposure, over-development).
(From Mortensen on the Negative, p. 159)
To put it to practical use, in the portrait below, the light reading is taken at the highlight area on the forehead, to fit with minimum exposure (tweaked Number 3). Full development takes care of the rest (Numbers 7 and 8).
“Amy with Ribbon” by Robert Balcomb
(Either use spot meter, or take reading through one-inch hole
in black cardboard held against this area.)
In his Laguna Beach studio Mortensen did a great deal of work with models, both men and women, women both nude and in costume. He made up his own costumes with pieces of cloth, sashes, scarves, trinkets, whatever he could find to approximate costumes, feeling that using actual costumes ended up as photographing costumes for the sake of costumes, detracting from the figure and “story” being illustrated. These were not meant to be portraits, of course, but Pictorials. “Stamboul” depicts a semi-nude woman standing against a wall, with one hand resting on a ledge covered with cloth material.
She has a scarf on one shoulder and a skirt topped by a “girdle,” holding three daggers. (With only two actual daggers available, he used a screwdriver for the third, knowing that an odd number is better compositionally than an even number; on the paper negative he manipulated the screwdriver with charcoal pencil to more resemble a dagger and added tones for the background.)
The wall section behind her and the item the model was leaning on were packing boxes. The whole effect, involving the above paper-negative process (making the observer see just what the artist wanted him to see), is typical Mortensen wizardry. (That grinding sound I hear is the teeth of the Purist faction, I’m sure.)
After a long and costly period of intensive experimenting, Mortensen, with Dunham, simplified the time-consuming bromoil printing into his own Pigment Process (see Ch. V). But Mortensen later dropped even it, telling me during my last visit that it was “too time-consuming and laborious” (I think he simply was tired — possibly resulting from impending leukemia?). Myrdith gave me a large box of notes and samples for the Pigment Process experiments, most of which I donated to CCP.
Color test prints for final “Maid Pouring Milk” (page 169).
Photographers today who are not aware of bromoils, and especially the Mortensen Pigments, are missing out on a rich, rewarding experience. His Pigments give the effect of bromoils, but in a much less-complicated manner (one can find similar techniques known as Gum Dichromate, or Gum Bichromate, in books found in photo shops). Mortensen went through a long period of bromoil “Pictorials,” along with hand-retouched prints depicting scenes of monsters and people, some shown in all manner of dismemberment.
“The Glory of War” by William Mortensen
Until recently, only three histories of photography even give mention to Mortensen — one includes only one sentence with one sample of his work, a “Grotesque” (see “L’Amour” below), but never a “straight” portrait from his vast, superb oeuvre. I have a feeling that “L’Amour” was used as a point to “prove” the Purists’ complaints of his work. Too, I can’t find Mortensen-signed portraits of customers in any book. The best history, An American Century of Photography, built around the Hallmark Photographic Collection, does give due credit to Mortensen and his work.
“L’Amour” by William Mortensen
Throughout past years many well-known critics have stated their negative arguments, such as the late 1800’s English photographer P. H. Emerson, who spoke of “impure photography”; and the highly influencial arts critic Sadakichi Hartmann, who in 1904 made a plea for “straight” photography. Fortunately, the pendulum swingeth back in growing acceptance of more artistic renditions of the Photo Arts. To his own students Mortensen proved that photography can succeed in its simplest forms, yet take advantage of its complicated aspects and, if handled correctly, can maintain a rightful place in the world of Fine Art.
Of the positive treatises written about Mortensen, the most outstanding are by Larry Lytle and A. D. Coleman. Larry is a professional commercial and advertising photographer in Los Angeles. A devotee of William Mortensen, he saw my work in LA and introduced me to CCP. Larry has received numerous awards for his photographic work and has contributed writings to the books William Mortensen: A Revival (CCP publication) and Neon Signs of Los Angeles, in addition to scholarly articles and photography in the popular website TheScreamOnline. He is on the faculty of Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester CA, is associated with the Society for Contemporary Photography, and is Archival Coordinator and board member for the LA Museum of Neon Art (MONA).
A. D. Coleman, photographic historian in Staten Island NY, has researched Mortensen in depth. One monograph in particular relates the sad story about the concentrated exclusion of any mention of Mortensen by Ansel Adams, and especially Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, from the histories of photography. Indeed, they showed such a dislike for Mortensen, bordering on outright hatred, that through their ingrained high statures in the field they were successful in this outright purge. Also, Coleman bemoaned the fact that Mortensen left no written records other than his books — what a treasure a set of diaries would be!
Many of Mortensen’s prints and books can be found through the Internet, and interest has been such that prices are rapidly rising — still, well worth it. One should be wary of lithographic prints touted to be originals. Litho’s could be in the $100’s, but a true Mortensen can cost $2000-on-up. People have sent me prints bought through the Internet for $1000 or more, asking if real or fake — most were fakes, so far only one was real, a WM bromoil of “Woman of Languedoc” (see image at left).
In 1965, mid-point during my time at UNM, I read in the local newspaper that Mortensen had died from leukemia. When with him, I saw no signs of any such problem, other than that last-visit tiredness — the only worry I remember was his constant loading, lighting, and smoking that pipe.
The death of William Herbert Mortensen brought to an end one of the most colorful and enduring pages in the history of photography. His legacy now lives on in his prints and writings, along with the memories of him in so many who studied under him, especially those who are continuing with the techniques in traditional photography that he introduced to us.
photo © Larry Lytle
William Herbert Mortensen died 12 August 1965 of leukemia, at Scripps Clinic & Research Foundation in La Jolla, buried in Fairhaven Memorial Park, Santa Ana CA, 16 August 1965.
Myrdith Monaghan Mortensen died 6 August 1981 of cancer at South Coast Medical Center, South Laguna Beach CA, buried alongside her husband, 11 August 1981.
George Dunham died 25 June 1976 of heart failure in Costa Mesa, California (grave location unknown to me).
Mortensen images © 1998, the William Mortensen Estate, courtesy Deborah Irmas.
A D A Y W I T H J A Y N E
© 2000 Robert Balcomb
She swept through the restaurant like a cyclone. It was Jayne Mansfield! She was headed for a large table at the opposite end of the Tree Room in the La Placita where I was quietly having my lunch. Her progress through the room left a clatter of silverware hitting the floor as diners’ heads snapped up in surprise. Large-dark-eyed, startlingly blond Jayne was dressed in a daring low-cut gold dress with bare shoulders nestled in a fur stole. A loyal entourage of perhaps twenty followed her. Walking close by was her husband Mickey Hargitay, carrying the Chihuahua.
My wife Mary had informed me that Jayne would be in town to judge the Miss New Mexico Pageant. Its sponsor, the Brown Plumbing Company, had commissioned Mary to design and decorate their main display room, which would host a reception for the event. Nevertheless, I was taken by surprise at Jayne’s sudden appearance during my normally uneventful midday meal.
I was a regular at La Placita, since my portrait studio was located in the old Spanish courtyard behind the restaurant. The buildings were all part of a charming complex that is part of Albuquerque’s famous Old Town Plaza. The restaurant building dates back to 1706, when it housed the Territory Governor over 120 years before New Mexico became a state. Several artists’ studios and various shops surround the courtyard with a Spanish-tiled wishing well in the middle, making a colorfully creative and atmospheric place to stroll in for the locals and is a must-see place for visitors.
Anyhow, as I was finishing my traditional Mexican meal, Jayne and party entered, causing all the commotion. After watching the scene at her table for a while, I had to tear myself away to return to my studio. As I was leaving, I had a flash of inspiration: Do a portrait of Jayne! I asked my friend Mr. Elliott, whose family had owned and operated the restaurant for over three generations, if he would mind inviting Jayne to come back for a sitting after her meal. I was not really expecting anything from my request. Then, I remembered that I had removed all my portraits from the walls in preparation for a move to California. What if they did show up? With the walls bare, I would feel embarrassed at what might appear to be some kind of ploy to have Jayne “come into my darkroom and see what develops.” But somehow I felt confident. In 1956 I had been a student of the acclaimed California photographer William Mortensen and had worked with him for a year, gaining a unique style of photographic portraiture based on his techniques and philosophies. It is quite distinctive from the usual kind of work done in other studios—but now I had none to show. At least, however, the shooting rig was still in place.
Then to my surprise the whole group came crushing into my small one-room studio. Mickey (con Chihuahua) and the crowd filed in and lined up against a side wall. To my relief Jayne did not seem to have any problem with the empty look of my space.
I had Jayne sit on the stool facing the camera, and she immediately struck her usual sexy-glamour-oomph attitude. “No, Jayne,” I said, “relax, just sit—no ‘pose,’ no expression—I just want a picture of you.” She relaxed, breathing, “Oh, thank you!” She was obviously relieved to drop the assumed pose she had to live with all her professional years, and seemed eager to follow my directions. BUT, as I removed the metal lens cover from my camera, I accidentally dropped it, creating a loud clank on the brick floor, and when I stooped to retrieve it, I just as accidentally kicked it about three feet and when I stooped to grab it I kicked it another three feet and—all with perfect Laurel-and-Hardy clatter. At that point the assembly against the wall erupted into laughter, further adding to my fluster. Struggling to gain control I asked the group to leave and perhaps browse through the patio shops, and proceeded with the sitting. With Mickey observing, Jayne and I had a wonderful session. She was an ideal model, and I gleefully shot over half a dozen rolls of film.
It was not until after they had left that I realized I should have asked Mickey to sit for me as well—caught up in the excitement I somehow did not think of it. I am most sorry for that rude oversight and feel bad that he probably felt left out. And certainly his would have been a great accompaniment to Jayne’s portrait.
Jayne Mansfield and Robert Balcomb
The next evening Mr. Brown had the Pageant reception in his newly decorated showroom featuring a fur-lined bathtub with the bottom cut out. It was mounted on a raised platform, with Jayne sitting in it as guests one by one joined her, with only their heads showing over the furry rim, while a photographer snapped their pictures. Needless to say, I’m most fond of the one of Jayne and me. The reception was a huge success. Jayne was in her element: pleasing the admiring crowd.
During and after the party Mary and I spent a pleasant few hours talking with Jayne. We were impressed and pleased to find her a delightful and interesting person, very different from her “screen” person, a genuine homespun Texas girl—a side I’m sure few people ever had a chance to experience. Martha Saxton’s book Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties speaks in length about how Jayne reveled in sex and notoriety, furthering the thought that that’s all she wanted. Perhaps somewhat true, but our experience with the other Jayne convinced us that she also wanted simply to be herself but couldn’t find enough chance to do so or to find enough people to accept her that way.
I sincerely feel that my portrait shows her as she really was, not just a sex object (although she did have on that revealing dress that I had no control over), but a real person. I also feel that she would have been happy with it, too, but unfortunately destiny prevented her from ever seeing it. Again, in all the commotion I forgot to ask for her address!
At least, I can look at the portrait with fond memories of having had, for even that too-short time, the enjoyment of knowing the real Jayne Mansfield.
Robert Balcomb is a retired portrait photographer living in Washington State. Being a former student of William Mortensen, he is perhaps the finest living exponent of the Master’s teachings. More of Mr. Balcomb’s work can be seen at RobertBalcombPhotography.com.
Every now and then there comes along a photographer who, in every sense of the word, is an “artist.” Robert Balcomb is that man: He has accomplished with his camera what Master painters have done for centuries.
—John Isaac, former Head of the United Nations Photography Unit.
Balcomb’s portraits are original works of art on a plateau of their own. They are insightful… they are creative… they are live… they connect the observer to the person on the paper emotionally.
—Al Stewart, photographer, trumpeter for Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy May, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Della Reese, Judy Garland.
From the Foreword: Of all Mortensen‘s students, I have always felt that Robert Balcomb‘s work comes the closest to capturing the feel, both technically and emotionally, of his later images. For that he is to be congratulated. Robert truly took up the torch of Mortensen‘s work while clearly making his work his own. That is a difficult thing to do.
—Larry Lytle, Mortensen scholar, contributing author to Mortensen: A Revival, Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona.