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Mortensen/Dunham collection

Identifier: AG 43

Scope and Contents

The strength and bulk of this collection resides in 37 typescript manuscripts of published and unpublished articles and monographs, some with handwritten annotations or corrections, written by Mortensen between 1933 and 1950. From the early 1930s until the end of the 1940s, Mortensen, with the aid of his model, friend, and editor George Dunham, produced numerous articles and books on photography. Eight published monograph titles are represented in this collection. These books span his writing career from his first book, Projection Control (1934), to the third edition of How to Pose a Model (1956).

The collection also includes approximately fifty magazine articles that Mortensen published from 1933 to 1948 in such journals as Camera Craft and Popular Photography. These articles reveal his personal, technical, and critical considerations on portraiture, the printing of negatives, pictorialism, the bromoil process, and other contemporary concerns. Several of these articles were later expanded into books. Some of the articles contain handwritten annotations.

Correspondence is represented in the collection with 46 letters, mostly incoming, from the editors and publishers of Camera Craft, Popular Photography, Morgan and Morgan, and Simon and Schuster. There are also a few miscellaneous letters about the bromoil process and other technical problems discussed in Mortensen's books. George Dunham, acting as Mortensen's assistant, handled some of this correspondence.

The collection also includes miscellaneous printed items such as calling cards, catalogs, and pamphlets describing the Mortensen School of Photography. There is also a series of illustrations done by Mortensen in the early 1930s for the Milk Commission of Los Angeles County. Clippings of Mortensen's monthly advertisements and illustrations regarding his publications and school, as well as reviews by others of his published works are included. Four rare pamphlets, published in 1954 in a series titled "Mortensen System," outline his approach to the negative, texture screen and model.

While fine prints are not part of this collection, 149 work prints are included. The majority of these are gelatin silver prints of various sizes, mostly untitled and undated, consisting of landscapes, figure studies, and portraits. These prints were probably done between 1935 and 1955; some of them were used to illustrate his publications.

This collection contains no records of business activities in Hollywood or Laguna Beach, his personal life and daily activities, exhibitions, or experimental photographic processes.


  • circa 1930-1964


Language of Materials

Material in English

Conditions Governing Access

To access materials from this collection, please contact

Conditions Governing Use

It is the responsibility of the user to obtain permission from the copyright owner (which could be the institution, the creator of the record, the author or his/her transferees, heirs, legates or literary executors) prior to any copyright-protected uses of the collection.

The user agrees to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the Arizona Board of Regents, the University of Arizona, Center of Creative Photography, including its officers, employees, and agents, from and against all claims made relating to copyright or other intellectual property infringement

Biographical Note

Please consult “William Mortensen: A Revival,” The Archive 33 (1998) for extensive biographical information including a chronology, bibliography, and essays about his life and career.

William Herbert Mortensen was a Pictorialist photographer born in 1897 in Park City, Utah to Danish parents who had immigrated to the United States, later moving to Salt Lake City when he was 11 years old. He was interested in art from a young age, and studied art under his high school teacher at East Side High School. Mortensen served in the army from 1916-1918; upon his release he attended Arts Students League in New York City, where he lived from 1919 to 1920. With funding from his sister Ellen, Mortensen traveled to Greece in 1920 and continued to study art. He traveled back first to New York and then to Salt Lake City, where he returned to East Side High School to teach art for a year before escorting actress Fay Wray, a friend’s sister, to Hollywood.

Once in Hollywood, Mortensen worked with filmmakers including King Vidor, Ferdinand Pinney Earle, and Cecil B. DeMille. Mortensen worked on the set of DeMille’s King of Kings, as well as at the Western Costume Company. While working in the film industry he painted scenery, made masks, and photographed film stars and scenes.

Mortensen married librarian Courtney Crawford in 1924. In 1931 Mortensen moved to Laguna Beach and opened both a studio and the Mortensen School of Photography. He remarried in 1933 to Myrdith Monaghan, who was featured prominently in his photography. The same year he met George Dunham, an actor and writer and another frequent model for Mortensen, with whom he collaborated on photographic processes as well as books, monographs, and magazine articles. Mortensen wrote 9 books on photography over his lifetime.

Mortensen was known for manipulation of the texture and content of his prints, influenced by his background in drawing and painting. He developed texture screens, techniques to turn black and white images into color prints (as in his Metalchrome process), and an abrasion tone process that he used to retouch images. He was a prominent figure in the Pictorialism Movement and among the Photo-Secessionists, advocating for the treatment of photography as a fine art and supporting the manipulation of photographs to elevate their artistic status. This movement was opposed by Purist photographers such as the group f/64 and Ansel Adams, who called Mortensen “the Anti-Christ” and with whom he engaged in back-and-forth arguments published in Camera Craft and other magazines.

Mortensen died of leukemia in 1965.


9 Boxes (5 linear feet)

Metadata Rights Declarations

  • License: This record is made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons license.


Papers, publications, and photographs, circa 1930 -1964, of William Mortensen (1897 - 1965), photographer, teacher, and writer, as collected by his assistant and co-author George Dunham. The bulk of the collection consists of published monographs and tearsheets, Mortensen’s manuscripts on the aesthetics and the techniques of photography, and his work prints of figure and landscape studies.


The Collection is arranged into the following series:

  1. Series 1: Correspondence, 1935-1965
  2. Series 2: Manuscripts, circa 1933-1965
  3. Series 3: Printed Materials, circa 1930-1960
  4. Series 4: Monographs, 1934-1956
  5. Series 5: Periodicals, 1933-1948
  6. Series 6: Pamphlets, circa 1937-1954
  7. Series 7: Photographs, circa 1935-1955
  8. Series 8: Correspondence, originals
  9. Series 9: Manuscripts, originals

Custodial History

Purchased from the heirs of George Dunham through the Alta Bookstore, Laguna Beach, California in 1980.

Related Materials

The Center has several archival collections containing materials documenting the life and career of William Mortensen. Researchers are invited to consult the: William Mortensen archive (AG147) William Mortensen Miscellaneous Acquisitions collection (AG191)

In addition, CCP has collections acquired from a number of Mortensen’s students: Robert Balcomb (AG180) Anson Beman (AG185) Richard Bennet (AG191) R. H. Cochran, Jr. (AG191) Ralph D. Hosenpud (AG227) Ben Maxey (AG112) Grey Silva (AG134)

Processing Information

Processed in September of 1984. Revised August 2009.


Mortensen/Dunham Collection circa 1930-1964
Finding aid created by CCP Archives Staff
© 2019
Description rules
Finding Aid Based On Dacs (Describing Archives: A Content Standard)
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid encoded in English

Repository Details

Part of the Center for Creative Photography Archives Repository

1030 N. Olive RD
Tucson Arizona 85721 United States