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William Mortensen collection

Identifier: AG 147

Scope and Contents

Series one, Personal papers, 1897-1968, includes correspondence to and from Mortensen, biographical materials and scrapbooks, exhibitions, writings by and about Mortensen, and memorabilia.

Series two, Publications, circa 1925-1965, contains monographs, periodicals, clippings, and materials from Mortensen’s personal library.

Series three, Posthumous materials, 1965-1986, include clippings and periodicals about Mortensen, in addition to the papers of Mortensen’s wife, Myrdith Mortensen; scholar R. S. Balcomb; and curator Deborah Irmas.

Series four, Photographic materials, circa 1800s-1960s, includes photographs, transparencies, paper negatives, and printing plates.

Series five, Original art, 1919-1920, 1953, 1964, includes drawings and etchings by Mortensen.


  • circa 1890s-1986


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

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.


29 Linear Feet

Metadata Rights Declarations

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


Papers and photographic materials, 1890s-1986, of William Mortensen (1897-1965), photographer, author, and teacher. The bulk of the collection dates from 1950-1965. Includes manuscripts by and about Mortensen, incoming and outgoing correspondence with publishers, personal letters, family photographs, clippings, tear sheets, and posthumous correspondence between his widow and biographers and researchers including photographic historian Deborah Irmas. Documentation of the 1979 retrospective The Magic of William Mortensen at Oakland Museum is also included.


The Collection is arranged into the following series:

Series 1: Personal papers, 1897-1965, 5 boxes

  1. Subseries 1: Correspondence, 1920-1965, 3 folders
  2. Subseries 2: Biographical materials, n.d., 1920s-1965, 3 boxes
  3. Subseries 3: Scrapbooks, n.d., 1897-1961, 1 box/2 items
  4. Subseries 4: Oversize, 1930s-1948, 1 box/2 items
  5. Subseries 5: Exhibitions, n.d., 1927-circa 1965, 2 folders
  6. Subseries 6: Writings, n.d., circa 1947-1964, 5 folders
  7. Subseries 7: Memorabilia, n.d., 1945-1960, 1 box

Series 2: Publications, n.d., 1925-1965, 5 boxes

  1. Subseries 1: Monographs, n.d., circa 1925-1956, 2 boxes
  2. Subseries 2: Personal library, n.d., 1937-1954, 1 box
  3. Subseries 3: Periodicals, 1925-1965, 1 box
  4. Subseries 4: Clippings, n.d., 1925-1965, 1 box

Series 3: Posthumous materials, n.d., 1930s-1986, 3 boxes

  1. Subseries 1: R. S. Balcomb papers, 1965-1980, 6 folders
  2. Subseries 2: Deborah Irmas papers, 1930s-1986, 1 box
  3. Subseries 3: Myrdith Mortensen papers, circa 1963-1979, 1 box
  4. Subseries 4: Periodicals, 1968-1982, 1 box
  5. Subseries 5: Clippings, 1966-1980, 2 folders

Series 4: Photographic materials, n.d., 1800s-1980s, 17 boxes

  1. Subseries 1: Photographs, n.d., 1800s-1970s, 9 boxes
  2. Subseries 2: Transparencies, copy negatives, and printing plates, circa 1950s-1980s, 6 boxes
  3. Subseries 3: Oversize paper negatives and transparencies, n.d., 1933-1949, 2 boxes
  1. Series 5: Original art, n.d., 1919-1964, 3 boxes
  2. Appendix A: Contents of Scrapbook "A" in AG147:2
  3. Appendix B: Index to correspondence in Scrapbook "B" in AG147:2
  4. Appendix C: Description of etchings/intaglio in AG147:23
  5. Appendix D: Chronological/alphabetical list of student names from “Student lists, 1933-1962” in AG147:1/8
  6. Appendix E: Description of oversize file contents of AG147:26
  7. Appendix F: Description of oversize file contents of AG147:27

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was acquired from the estate of William Mortensen's widow Myrdith Mortensen by Deborah Irmas, who subsequently donated it to CCP in September 1993.

Related Materials

The Center has several archival collections containing materials documenting the life and career of William Mortensen. Researchers are invited to consult the:

  1. William Mortensen archive (AG147)
  2. William Mortensen & George Dunham collection (AG43)
  3. William Mortensen miscellaneous acquisitions collection (AG191)

In addition, CCP has collections acquired from a number of Mortensen’s students:

  1. Robert Balcomb (AG180)
  2. Anson Beman (AG185)
  3. Richard Bennet (AG191)
  4. R. H. Cochran, Jr. (AG191)
  5. Ralph D. Hosenpud (AG227)
  6. Ben Maxey (AG112)
  7. Grey Silva (AG134)

CCP also has collections related to other photographers from the Pictorialist tradition:

  1. Paul L. Anderson (AG40)
  2. A. Aubrey Bodine (AG139)
  3. Adolf Fassbender (AG168)


  • Balcomb, Robert. Chapter Two ‘And Mortensen.’ Amphora Editions, 2013, Accessed 16 July, 2020.
  • Lytle, Larry. THE COMMAND TO LOOK: The Story of William Mortensen, Part I. The Scream Online, June, 2001. Accessed 16 July, 2020.
  • Lytle, Larry. The Grotesque Eroticism of William Mortensen’s Lost Photography. VICE, VICE Media Group, 15 June, 2014. Accessed 16 July, 2020.

Processing Information

Initial processing by Alice Gillette in 1995. Further processing by Leslie Calmes in November 1996. Revised August 2009 by A. Rule. Further revisions December 2011 by Anne Richwine; and February/March 2012 by James Uhrig. Finding aid updated by Alexis Peregoy in 2018 and by Tai Huesgen in 2020.


William Mortensen collection circa 1890s-1986
Finding aid created by CCP Archives Staff
© 2020
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Finding Aid Based On Dacs (Describing Archives: A Content Standard)
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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