Mortensen, Preparation for the Sabbat, 1936
William Mortensen, Monsters & Madonnas. A Book of Methods (San Francisco, CA: Camera Craft Publishing Company, 1936), contains the above plate, titled “Preparation for the Sabbot” [sic].
According to this essay by Cary Loren, the book “was a distilled manifesto of [Mortensen’s] thoughts and a response to the dominance of straight photography.”
Mortensen (1897–1965) championed “Pictorialism,” a photographic method that promoted retouching, hand-working negatives, using chemical washes, and adopting an artistic, painterly approach to photographic art. It was a losing battle, and Mortensen’s obscurity today is the result of the success modernist approaches captured, for me, by Max Dupain’s “Sunbaker” of 1934 (see here).
“Preparation for the Sabbot” was one of twenty photogravure reproductions of Mortensen’s work, “prepared and arranged so that they may be removed for framing without damaging the book” (as the advertisement informs us).
Also “accompanying each picture is a complete exposition of the methods used in producing the print and the artistic principles involved.” Mortensen’s Monsters & Madonnas is now an expensive book (ca. USD400), and even individual, highlight plates, such as this one, are not cheap (you can pay almost USD100 for this plate alone!).
Since I wanted a plate from the first edition, and I couldn’t afford the whole volume, I missed out on the “complete exposition of the methods …” One day I hope to get a copy of the book and when I do I’ll do a further post on the image, or update this post.
Unfortunately—putting aside the photographer’s methods—this composition is utterly conventional. The young witch being anointed by an older witch, the young witch, front and centre, illuminated against a dim and gloomy background, the peasant clothes and furniture, the soft focus. (See here and here—photo no. 2—for similar treatments.)
The only thing at all different is the “broom stick,” which is appears to be a branch from a palm tree, a hint that Mortensen worked primarily among the palms in Hollywood.
It is not that I don’t like this photograph. I love it, and I wouldn’t have bought it if I didn’t! The model is very pretty, she has lovely pale skin, gentle curves and a very mischievous smile—but I am very easily pleased when it comes to pictures of witches. And even I can see why Dupain’s “Sunbaker” is considered an iconic 30s image, while Mortensen’s “Preparation for the Sabbot” is not.
Still, this is not a bad thing for us, because if Mortensen’s photograph was valued as highly as Dupain’s I would never have been able to buy a copy and you would never have got to see it in such detail!