Me and Mortensen: Photography with the Master

Text from the book jacket:

In 1956 Robert Balcomb studied with American Master Photographer William Mortensen in his Laguna Beach studio. This long-awaited book on Balcomb’s time with Mortensen is a richly illustrated, inside look at one of the world’s finest Pictorialist photographers of the last century. The author delves into the lessons that he learned from the Master, and describes how he took the teachings and made them his own over a successful fifty-four-year career as a fine portrait photographer.

In addition to the numerous photos and illustrations accompanying the text is a gallery of over 80 portraits, still lifes, and pictorials from Balcomb’s long career, and six Mortensen prints — some being published for the first time.

There is not a great amount of information written about William Mortensen, one of the true American masters of photography, and so this long-awaited book from his former student is a treasure trove from an insider’s point of view, a man who was considered by Mortensen himself as his protégé.

Mortensen’s ethic was the polar opposite of Ansel Adams’ — the pre-eminant photographer of the time — and that of the entire Group f/64, who believed in photorealism without manipulation of any kind. The result was that Adams, with the help from prominent photographers such as Beaumont Newhall, Willard Van Dyke, and Edward Weston, were successful in ostracizing Mortensen and having his name omitted from significant histories of photography. This book is an attempt to remedy that.

Balcomb’s studies and close association with Mortensen, along with his subsequent fifty-four-year career as a highly acclaimed portrait photographer, are chronicled in great detail in this important book.

Chapter topics include Balcomb’s time studying with WM in Laguna Beach, the WM Pigment Process, Paper Negatives, Prismatics, a discussion of Portraits vs. Pictorials, and “A Day with Jayne,” about how Balcomb came to shoot the finest portrait ever taken of Jayne Mansfield. The appendices include “The Mortensen Books,” “Materials and Formulas,” “Texture Screens, ” and detailed “Notes on the Photographs.”

The book will arrive around February 1, but I highly encourage you to sign our mailing list to have first crack at reserving an autographed, first edition. Once the publisher’s ordering page is up and running, you will receive a notice to reserve your book. You can view sample pages and sign the mailing list here:


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Robert Balcomb’s “After Series”

Influenced by Vermeer’s “Milk Maid,” William Mortensen produced a signed three-color Pigment print of his own “Maid Pouring Milk,” or “Pouring Milk.” During my last visit to his Laguna Beach home studio in 1957 he saw how taken I was with the print and gave it to me. Much later, after Mortensen’s death, Myrdith Mortensen sent me a large box containing notes and samples of his Pigment Printing that he and collaborator George Dunham had amassed during their long sessions of developing the process, his answer to the old laborious Bromoil printing. In those notes were the three color prints (red, green, and black) he used in making the final print, along with several trial prints. I later donated the collection to the Center for Creative Photography at The University of Arizona in Tucson AZ.

Many of the notes and samples, along with an explanatory treatise, can be found in TheScreamOnline.

After several years I began my own attempts of producing similar prints depicting my interpretations of the works of the great master painters. My first model was a girl from Germany, whom wife Mary Balcomb fixed up with a head scarf. The result was a print that reminded me of another Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” That print began for me a series of studies that I have named my “After Series.” Click to see my “After Vermeer.”

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The Center for Creative Photography (CCP)

CCP is located at The University of Arizona, Tucson. Housed in its own three-story building, it contains over forty-thousand photographs of 20th and 21st Century American photographers, along with some of their writings and correspondence. In 1925 Ansel Adams donated a large collection of his prints, accepted as the Ansel Adams Archive, beginning the institution that it now is. Later, CCP was given a collection of writings and prints of William Mortensen, after his death, which resides as the William Mortensen Archive. All the collections at the Center are available for anyone interested in photography to see, by appointment.

In 2000, a friend told the Center’s archivist Amy Rule that my portraits display the Mortensen technique I had learned during a 1956 six-month study with WM. She invited me to show her my work, which CCP accepted as the Robert Balcomb Collection, including correspondence between me and Myrdith Mortensen, the beginnings of my biography of Mortensen, a camera he had given me, and later the box of Pigment notes and samples. The biography has metamorphosed into a book entitled Me and Mortensen, which I hope to publish late this summer.

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A Day with Jayne

In close to half-a-century of sittings the one that sticks out in my mind as the most unique is when Jayne Mansfield sat for a portrait at my studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. What started out as a possible disaster resulted in a fine portrait — once I had cleared the room of her entourage. Read the full story in TheScreamOnline.

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Portraits and Pictorials

It seems there is no definitive set of rules guiding portraits (of people) as opposed to pictorials (of events). Perhaps no such rules are needed — sometimes rules become albatrosses around the neck of an artist, who struggles to achieve acceptable artwork. But let’s consider one rule that might have merit.

My techniques of portraiture I learned from William Mortensen. He was an artist, born with talents passed down through genes lost in the unrecorded mists of his family history — talents recognized by his various art teachers and by his study of masterworks in art books. First a painter, he then became involved with photography, which became his life’s work. What he inherently knew, learned, and practiced he passed on to those too-few students who could understand and apply that knowledge to their own artistic endeavors. My background is similar — inherent ability to draw, time spent in art schools, study of past masters in art and photography, and ability to discern good art from mediocre art. With what Mortensen taught me I came into my own successful portrait business of over 48 years.

Through three decades Mortensen produced countless portraits of customers, but they were his “bread and butter.” His main endeavors were pictorials, what he was mostly known for, along with nine books about his photographic techniques (portraits were seldom involved in the books).

He taught me that a portrait is simply a presentation of a person, whether head, torso, or full-figure. It entails only what is necessary to define the person: no extraneous props that would detract from that person, or hands held meaninglessly against the face, or huge toothy smiles, hats, furs, jewelry, obviously included to show-off something. A true portrait is simply the countenance of the person, without a story or anything that would “date” it.

In comparison, a pictorial does tell a story. Mortensen used anything and everything to tell it. He was a master at hinting at a “costume”: pieces of cloth to suggest a costume, bits of jewelry, and backgrounds drawn on the prints with charcoal pencils to help round out the story. To him, the ends justified the means. (He did not use actual costumes, feeling a fancy costume to be there just for its own sake.)

My business has been with portraits. I never “do teeth” or “do hands.” A display of teeth will in time become a distraction, hinting at story (Miss America), increasingly boring up on the wall day after month after year, whereas straightforward, unadorned portraits will live forever. The inclusion of a hand under the chin, holding up the head as if it would otherwise collapse out of the picture, is a distraction, totally unnecessary, including fads and showy clothing — I ask customers to bring several plain tops to choose from. And I make the final choice of which proof to make into the final portrait. So far, forty-eight years of success tells its own story.

Portraits, pictorials — each has its own place, not to be confused, one with the other.

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