CI instructor’s book wins acclaim for resurrecting a photographer’s place in history
Larry Lytle’s “American Grotesque” sheds new light on 1930s Hollywood photographer William Mortensen, once condemned for photo manipulation and images of the grotesque, occult and erotic

Camarillo, Calif., Jan 12, 2015 – A new book co-authored and edited by CSU Channel Islands (CI) lecturer, photographer and writer Larry Lytle is winning critical acclaim for helping restore the historical legacy of a disgraced photography pioneer.

Lytle recently released "American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen," a book he co-edited and authored with Michael Moynihan. For Lytle, the book represents the culmination of 20 years of research piecing together the lost biography and work of trailblazing Hollywood pictorialist photographer William Mortensen (1897-1965).

Mortensen’s vivid hand-retouched images of monsters, witches, torture and nudes won fans like Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, but incurred the wrath of powerful foes like realist photographer Ansel Adams, who called Mortensen “the Antichrist” and engineered his removal from art history.

Since the book’s recent publication, “American Grotesque” has earned favorable reviews from the L.A. Times Book Review, The Guardian and Smithsonian magazine and was named to the Huffington Post’s “Top 10 Art Books of 2014” at No. 6. In a front-cover review late last month, the L.A. Times Book Review called “American Grotesque” “the most extensive work on one of the strangest and most compelling artists of the 20th century.” The book’s publisher, Feral House, ordered a second printing due to its popularity.

Lytle, considered a leading Mortensen expert, first became captivated by the disgraced photographer as a student in the 1980s. After gobbling up accounts by photo critic A.D. Coleman and curator/writer Deborah Irmas – two Mortensen experts credited with rediscovering him in the 70s – Lytle was left with numerous questions about how a groundbreaking photographer who inspired such passion could fade into obscurity.

“His work was so extraordinary and unique, yet it had been dismissed by art historians in such an offhand manner,” Lytle said. “As I delved deeper into his work, it became sort of an underdog thing for me. I became a caretaker of his story. I think Mortensen needs to be acknowledged as the first American visual artist that used the grotesque as the focus of his work. And he was the first to use highly manipulated imagery in a way that wasn’t embraced until Photoshop almost a century later.”

Mortensen rose to fame in the 1930s for his portraits of Hollywood stars and his striking still images depicting the grotesque, occult and erotic at a time when horror themes dominated cinema. He worked alongside film directors like Cecil B. DeMille and helped launch the career of screen star Fay Wray with his still photos. Mortensen also operated a popular L.A. photography school, authored numerous books on photography, merchandised name-branded equipment, and was an American pioneer of pictorialism, a force within photography that promoted retouching, hand-worked negatives, chemical washes and artistic, painterly manipulation.

With the rise of realism and straight/documentary photography, Mortensen was broadly dismissed as vulgar and overly-romantic. He was relegated to obscurity by vocal purist opponents such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston until fans like Coleman, Irmas, Moynihan, Lytle and Feral House Publisher Adam Parfrey emerged to resurrect his legacy.

“Adam Parfrey at Feral House was actually the driving force behind ‘American Grotesque,’” Lytle said. “He had read one of my articles on Mortensen and lobbied me to do the book.”

In addition to a biography by Lytle and essays by Moynihan and Coleman, “American Grotesque” includes over 100 of Mortensen’s photos, many published for the first time. As a companion to “American Grotesque,” Feral House also released an expanded reprint of Mortensen’s book, “The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze.” The book features essays by Lytle and Moynihan and 66 images widely considered Mortensen’s best work.

For Lytle, an L.A.-based photographer who has taught at CI since 2003, the reviews are an unexpected surprise.

“It’s overwhelming and humbling,” he said. “I researched and collected Mortensen’s biography and work mostly as a hobby. In the process of satisfying my obsession, I just became an expert. … I’m kind of surprised they’re capturing attention. It’s like winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects That Include a Mummy.”

A free public exhibition at CI’s John Spoor Broome Library in February will showcase dozens of Mortensen’s works selected by Lytle as well as some of Lytle’s research materials for “American Grotesque.” Lytle will also give a talk on Mortensen and his work during the opening reception, Thursday, Feb. 5, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

For more information on Lytle, visit

Visit the publisher at

Read early reviews of the book at,, and

About California State University Channel Islands
CSU Channel Islands (CI) is the only four-year, public university in Ventura County and is known for its interdisciplinary, multicultural and international perspectives, and its emphasis on experiential and service learning. CI’s strong academic programs focus on business, sciences, liberal studies, teaching credentials, and innovative master’s degrees. Students benefit from individual attention, up-to-date technology, and classroom instruction augmented by outstanding faculty research. CI has been designated by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic-Serving Institution and is committed to serving students of all backgrounds from the region and beyond. Connect with and learn more about CI by visiting CI’s Social Media.

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