The subject of Mortensen’s arresting bromoil pictorials were usually biblical, mythical, of legend and folklore. Aside from famously being labelled ‘the antichrist’ by the purists of the time such as Ansell Adams (“To us, Mortensen was the antichrist”), Mortensen also wrote theoretical and practical books on photographic technique, most notably the posthumously published ‘The Command To Look – A Masters Photographer Methods For Controlling the Human Gaze’ (2014). Mortensen developed a technique for commanding an audience to look at his photographs, born out of curiosity as to why he was not gaining more work and print sales at the time.

Fig.1: William Mortensen. circa 1937. Peter Lorre as Napoleon

Mortensen developed strategies to theories about what made pictorial photos successful in obtaining, holding and staying with the viewer by generating what he called ‘Ancestral and Primal Universal Sources of Emotional Appeal‘. Recognising three category sources of pictorial interest: Sex, Sentiment and Wonder, Mortensen understood that Fear is the strongest arousal in humans, not sex, and he devised what he termed the ‘Four Picture Patterns‘ (‘The Diagonal’, ‘The S-Curve’, ‘Triangles ‘and ‘Dominant Mass’), as seen in fig.2, which invoke the 'Fear Response', which is central to creating the 'Ancestral and Primal Universal Sources of Emotional Appeal'. I learnt about this many years ago, I am not saying I adhere to the concepts in all my work, and the themes could easily be added to considering they were devised over a century ago - I would argue small solitary desolate figures in large open expanses is a theme of more contemporary photography which evokes fear via solitude. The pictures patterns are what humans instinctively (ancestrally) react to in which commands them the take notice of the image, this is what Mortenson called 'impact'.

Fig.2: My notes on William Mortensen’s methods, theories and approaches to making ‘impact’ pictorial images.

THREE SOURCES OF PICTORIAL INTEREST:

1. SEX: Sex is the most primitive and direct of the three categories. The nude is most commonly associated with the theme of sex, in art. However, the fact of nudity is secondary – A picture might be sexual but contain no nudity, and also might contain nudity but with sex not being the primary interest – Sentiment and Wonder taking the primary role. - “A picture may be sexual in its import without including the nude. On the other hand, sex is not always the primary interest when the nude is used… It is probably no longer necessary (port-war) to explain and justify the use of sex motive in art. Psychologists have recognised sex as a great energising influence in life. As such, it is bound to play a large part in all forms of art “. (Mortensen, 2014:55)

2. SENTIMENT: Sentiment is concerned with the ‘soft’ and ‘tender’ things in life. Humble and lofty emotions, that which is familiar, that which is touched by grandeur. Ordinary objects are made interesting by the personal touch, for example – laughter and tears. That which is romantic can be read by the audience by certain lighting, shadows, shapes and texture. Most importantly, the concept of nature and what is natural evokes sentiment. Mortensen devised a list of sentimental ‘things’ which are always readily recognisable and appreciated by the audience:

  • Hardships of humble life
  • Children
  • National pride
  • Animals
  • Landscape
  • Domestic life
  • Soft aspects of sex
  • Glamour of the past.

3. WONDER (UNKNOWN, UNCERTAIN, MYSTERIOUS): Despite modern understanding, we still have many mysteries remaining to us today. We are still conscious of the nightly shadows, unknown forces, creatures of the twilight… and more than anything, the mystery of what happens to us after death. “The wonder theme appears in many mutations…It is ingenuous and childlike in the form of fairy stories. It may turn morbid in the mal-forms of life….It may draw near to the fringes of fear in the supernatural, witchcraft and demonology. And the final manifestation of the wonder theme is that silent Mystery of Mysteries, Death, before which we all pause appalled and fascinated”. (Mortensen, 2014:57)

GENERATING ‘IMPACT’ VIA ‘THE FEAR RESPONSE’

To create what Mortensen’s manifesto refers to as ‘Impact‘, an image must make you look at it. We, as humans, give our primary attention to sense impressions that represent things that we once, far back in history, feared. The image must strike universal fear into the audience. “The picture that claims attention the most immediately and completely is the one that in its first visual impression, relates itself to ancestral fear”. (Mortensen, 2014:46). William Mortensen identified four types of stimulus which call forth what he refers to as the Fear Response’:

  • Something that moves swiftly across our field of vision – we may not know what it is but we know it moves and with swiftness and determination.
  • Something that approaches in a slithering furtive manner.
  • Something threatening with sharpness – be that with tooth or blade.
  • A huge stationary object that blocks our path – man, beast or inanimate object – it is solid/compact and formidable, and awaits us.
Fig.3: Nic Shonfeld. 2021. Untitled from Interminable Chain work in progress. The image adheres to the themes of 'dominant mass' and secondly 'triangles'.

THE 4 PICTURE PATTERNS

The four basic fears mentioned above express themselves in four basic picture patterns…

DOMINANT MASS: Dominant mass is the most frequent of all the picture patterns which invoke the Fear Response. It is the obstacle of our path/movement – the ‘huge stationary object that blocks our path – man, beast or inanimate object – it is solid/compact and formidable, and awaits us‘. The Dominant Mass must dominate, and this can be contributed to by:

  • UNITY – Several individuals gain strength by being linked together
  • COHESION – The mass is more dominant if it is compact – like a clenched fist as opposed to an open hand.
  • ISOLATION – Mass gains strength if it is separated from surroundings or background.
  • CONTRAST – Light against dark and vice-versa.
  • SIZE – The mass is more threatening if it is larger.
  • STABILITY – The mass is more formidable if it is planted or immovable – for example, Pyramid forms.

THE S-CURVE: The S-Curve is what we also know as ‘Contrapposto’, as discussed in the last post about Renike Djikstra’s Beach Portraits. The S-Curve is ‘The Line of Beauty’ as coined by William Hogarth in his ‘The Analysis of Beauty‘ (1753) – which was actually the real basis of William Mortensen’s fascination. The S-Curve is secret and furtive. It is snakelike and approaches in a slithering manner. There is an ancestral fear hidden danger in the enemy of a serpent.

TRIANGLES: Triangles carry the threat of sharpness – be that with tooth or blade, and they are solid, planted and pyramid-like, and by being so are formidable in their solidity.

Nic Shonfeld. 2021. Untitled from Interminable Chain work in progress. The image demonstrates the 'diagonal' theme.

THE DIAGONAL: The diagonal is a symbol of swift and menacing movement. A primitive source of terror being ‘lightning’. A diagonal form is something that moves swiftly across our field of vision – we may not know what it is but we know it moves and with swiftness and determination.

REFERENCES:
Mortensen, William and Dunham, George. 2014. ‘The Command To Look – A Masters Photographer Methods For Controlling the Human Gaze’. Feral House; Reprint edition.