“He had lately become a devotee of the William Mortensen school of photography. Mortensen, of course, is the leading exponent of fantasy in photography; his monstrosities and grotesques are widely known.”
— Robert Bloch, “The Sorcerer’s Jewel” (1939)
William H. Mortensen, the “leading exponent of fantasy in photography,” was born in Park City, Utah in 1897 to Danish immigrants. In high school he caught the drawing bug from his art teacher, James Taylor Harwood, who attended the Académie Julian (1888-1890) and the Beaux-Arts (1890-1892) in Paris, his time at those schools overlapping as it happens with Robert W. Chambers.
Drafted into and released from the Army in 1918, Mortensen stayed in New York to study at the Art Students League in New York City under George Bridgman (another Chambers overlap, at the Beaux-Arts from 1883-1889). He left art school on an impulsive trip to Greece in 1920, returned broke, and after a year teaching art himself in Salt Lake City moved to Hollywood in 1921 as a chaperon for his 14-year-old fellow Utahan Fay Wray.
While keeping Fay out of trouble and getting her into pictures, he worked with the directors King Vidor and Ferdinand Pinney Earle as a matte painter, and then on costume design with Cecil B. DeMille on his Ten Commandments (1923) then (as his photography business expanded) as a still photographer on King of Kings (1927). He designed masks for and learned makeup from Lon Chaney, Sr., with whom he worked on Mr. Wu (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928).
Following a scandal exacerbated by Fay Wray’s mother, a brief dalliance with Jean Harlow, and the not-unrelated destruction of his marriage he leaves Hollywood for Laguna Beach in 1931. There he opens the Mortensen School of Photography, marries one of his longtime models Myrdith Monaghan in 1933, and breeds Persian Blue cats. Even at that remove, he retains his cachet with Hollywood: his 1941 photograph of aspiring actress Martha Vickers gets her a contract at RKO without a screen test. His Hollywood photographs regularly appear in Vanity Fair and Colliers, he writes a column for LA Weekly, he mounts exhibitions as far away as London.
In the 1930s, Mortensen reigns as the king of the “Pictorialist” school of photography, pioneering techniques of photo-manipulation with lenses and razors to create bizarre and impossible images, and defending his principles in books like Monsters & Madonnas (1934) and The Command to Look (1937). His success with the grotesque and unreal sparks the hatred of Ansel Adams and the “Purist” photographers of the f.64 movement. Adams despises Mortensen and everything he stands for: wishing him dead in print, calling him “the Devil” and “the Anti-Christ.”
Perhaps Adams fixates on those terms thanks to Mortensen’s series of photographs depicting witches, demons, and monsters. Mortensen begins what he calls his “Pictorial History of Witchcraft and Demonology” around 1926, continuing it through at least 1935. He consults with his friend the occultist Manly P. Hall on the topic, freely borrowing from Hall’s library of 20,000 mystical tomes. At some point in the late 1930s he suddenly stops creating grotesques, switching almost entirely to nudes and rural workers (sometimes clad in Renaissance garb) as his subjects. At least a third of the approximately 150 images he created for his witchcraft and demonology series have disappeared.
The Shadows From the Shutter
“That is why the beings cannot be photographed on the ordinary camera films and plates of our known universe, even though our eyes can see them. With proper knowledge, however, any good chemist could make a photographic emulsion which would record their images.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”
Adams’ enmity, and changing public tastes, eventually drove Mortensen into obscurity and penury. On August 12, 1965, William Mortensen dies of a nosocomial infection in the La Jolla hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Myrdith sends a file of his negatives, prints, and scrapbooks to small time Hollywood publisher O. Howard Lucy (b. 1900?); he publishes botched editions of Monsters & Madonnas and The Command to Look in 1967.
And at some point, DELTA GREEN hears rumors about “The Last Mortensens,” a series of pictures briefly offered to collectors in the late 1950s. Supposedly the culmination of his “History of Witchcraft and Demonology,” taken in 1937 or thereabouts, they depict his most grotesque images yet: thoroughly alien shapes and beings in stark silver-gelatin prints. Perhaps a dead occultist (stumbled over or produced in the course of a previous investigation) has one print, and his eager letters point to more out there.
The Agents head for California, to interview Myrdith: she claims she only got half the material back from Lucy. Lucy says he gave it to his photographer partner Jacques de Langre (b. 1925), a lecturer on alternative healing and enthusiast for the magical powers of salt. De Langre claims he returned everything to Myrdith’s “intermediary,” who may never have existed. Manly P. Hall (b. 1901), an increasingly grumpy and neglected guru in Los Feliz, happily discusses Mortensen’s theories and learning but likely has no lead on a missing folio.
The Agents might also look up Mortensen’s old friend, model, and collaborator on his books, the former stage actor and director George Dunham, currently living in Corona del Mar. Or they might be attracted to the rumor that San Francisco magician and publicity hound Anton LaVey uses insights from The Command to Look to develop the “lesser magic” and psychological manipulation core to his new Church of Satan. (LaVey dedicates the 1969 edition of The Satanic Bible to, among others, “William Mortensen, who looked … and saw.”)
Another lead (via the dead occultist or a LaVey hanger-on) points to another interesting Mortensen collector: the psychic investigator Hereward Carrington (1880-1958). When the Agents go to his home in L.A., they discover that his widow Marie keeps Carrington’s immense collection of journals and photographs intact as an archive. Has it been robbed? Who can tell? What other secrets does it hold?
Perhaps it holds the patchy records of Carrington’s work with a band of Investigators in the late 1930s who selflessly rescued renowned photographer William Mortensen from the hideous Things he had unwittingly called up with the angles and alchemies of his lenses and emulsions. Shaken, he resolves to abandon grotesquerie and return to Myrdith. But, bitter and impoverished twenty years later, he made one last set of prints for a few rich and eminent collectors …
Fall of DELTA GREEN Handlers can riff on “From Beyond,” “The Trap,” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and on the images of monsters retained in glass in “The Unnamable,” for that prequel Trail of Cthulhu adventure. Did Mortensen learn these hypergeometric techniques in Greece, and Carcosan ratios from Chambers’ friends? Did he find unnatural clues in Manly Hall’s library, or in a Hollywood horrorist’s drunken rant? This works even better if you ask the players to describe the photos when their Agents find them in the 1960s (“oh, it’s a boiling sphere covered in eyes”). Then, in the 1930s, their Investigators have to face those unnamable models from their own imagination – and save Mortensen from them.
The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.