American Grotesque and the Pacific Ocean |

American Grotesque and the Pacific Ocean

“American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen” (Feral House), Larry Lytle and William Moynihan, examines the life and work of the infamous Hollywood photographer of the early twentieth century.

Mortensen started out taking celebrity photographs of the leading screen stars of the day—such as Fay Wray and Jean Harlow—but soon branched out into phantasmagorical, manipulated photos depicting scenes of witchcraft and propaganda often populated by devilish figures and sensuous nudes.

Drawing upon art historical traditions of the grotesque in art—including Bosch, Durer, Breughel and Goya—the photographer immersed himself in what he referred as “creative pictorialism,” using any and all means of photographic technique and manipulation to obtain the images he desired, a strategy that presages today’s digital mash-ups.

Blending historical and mythological figures with then contemporary figures—and turning one thing into another by fooling the viewer as to how it was done—he created an idiosyncratic body of work, one that Ansel Adams and other purists sought to erase from history. The volume is a fascinating overview of an overlooked artist.

Simon Winchester is the author of a number of “odd” things including the Oxford English Dictionary (“The Professor and the Madman” and “The Meaning of Everything”) and the history of modern geology (“The Map That Changed the World”).

His latest effort is “Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers” (Harper Collins).

It is a far ranging portrait of the modern Pacific Ocean — the world’s largest body of water — from the 1950s on, what it once was and what it portends for the future.

From atomic testing on small atolls, to the rise of Gidget and surfboard culture in Southern California, how the transistor radio sparked a youthful revolution and led to Silicon Valley, as well as assessing geopolitical shifts and the rise of box boats as well as how climate change has, and will, affect Earth’s biggest pond, Winchester assembles a host of nooks and crannies, historical snapshots of amazing diversity and relevance.

Winchester is a gifted storyteller and connector of disparate things and his survey of all things “Pacific” is compelling, whether read straight through or dipped into at random points.

Kirk Robertson covers the arts and may be reached at