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                                      Mortensen Revisited
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Half-tones and delicacy of gradation are the unique contribution of the photographic medium...                         --William Mortensen

Mortensen Revisited
An Analysis of Mortensen’s 7-Derivative Technique

by Ed Buffaloe

Ansel Adams and his f/64 cohorts held their contemporary, the pictorialist William Mortensen, in high contempt.  Willard Van Dyke went so far as to describe Mortensen's work as "disgusting."  All regarded  him as "the enemy" of straight photography.  Mortensen's photographs were highly manipulated, often worked over with razor blade and carbon pencil. Occasionally Mortensen seems to have had spectacularly bad taste, but we have to remember that at least some of his work was aimed at what we might call the “Hollywood sensibility,” which I would characterize as being overly-dramatic. (William Crawford describes his style as “Pictorialism gone Hollywood.”) On the other hand, Mortensen was a master of lighting, produced wonderful nudes, and did important work in several alternative processes.


Today, the f/64 Group is considered the example par exellence of great photography, while Mortensen is virtually forgotten. But is this fair?  Not all of Mortensen’s work is forgettable and his prints and books have, in fact, become quite collectable.  Considering his reputation in his own era (he published regularly in Camera Arts), the question remains: Did Mortensen know what he was doing in  the darkroom, and what can we learn from his technique?  Setting aesthetic considerations aside, I will investigate Mortensen's method of making a negative.

Mortensen on the Negative was published in 1941. In it Mortensen tells us that the most important factors in making a good negative are: (1) Correct range and distribution of local tone, (2) Correct lighting of the subject, (3) Correct exposure, and (4) Correct development. [Page 125.]  These seem to be the words of someone who knows whereof he speaks. Let us examine each item individually.

Local Tone

Mortensen defines local tone as “local differences in color” which “appear in photography as various tones of gray.” [Emphasis mine.]   Here we have what Henry Peach Robinson devotes seven chapters to in his famous book Pictorial Effect in Photography under the heading “chiaroscuro.”  Robinson defines chiaroscuro as “not only the means of representing light and shadow, but the arrangement and distribution of lights and darks of every gradation…so as to produce pictorial effect.” [Emphasis mine.] Mortensen elaborates:  “Some of these differences in tone are due to differences of local color: i.e., the grass is green, the flowers are pink, the eyes are blue, the hair is brown, etc.  Other differences in tone are due to differences in illumination: i.e., one side of the face is more strongly illuminated than the other, there are gleams of high light on the forehead and the tip of the nose, and there is a shadow under the chin.  Both kinds of differences--of local color and of illumination--are alike converted in the negative into various tones of gray.”  [Emphases his.  P. 125]



The second factor, lighting, Mortensen holds to be “fundamental, not decorative.”  While acknowledging that light is “infinitely fluid in character” [p. 225] he analyzes it into two basic types, texture light and tone light, “based on certain fundamental differences in the surfaces before the camera.” Some surfaces are characterized primarily by texture, others primarily by local tone or color gradation. Texture light is typically angled from 20 to 90 degrees off the camera-to-subject axis and is best suited to revealing surface textures.  Tone light is never more than 15 degrees off the camera-to-subject axis, either horizontally or vertically, and is best suited to revealing surface tonalities.

He does not classify his light sources as hard, soft, spot, or diffuse, but Mortensen does state that direct sunlight produces too much contrast to be used as tone light. “One must pick a day on which the sun is veiled by light clouds or high fog.”  At one point he refers to tone light as “flat light”, but says that is really a misnomer. “Properly understood and used, the Tone Light is probably the most beautiful of all photographic lightings.”   [P. 237]  Mortensen states that tone light casts virtually no shadows. From these clues we may deduce that tone light is soft, diffuse light from a broad source. By extension, texture light is strongly directional and typically from a point source.

In Chapter 8, Mortensen identifies four axioms for lighting which bear on what he considers to be a properly exposed negative.  They are worth repeating. (1) “There is never any interest in a completely black area.”  Large black areas are to be avoided, with the caveat “…a tiny accent shadow…is, in fact, itself a detail.” (2) “There is never any interest in a light area without gradation.” [Emphasis mine.] The eye is always drawn to the light areas in a photograph, so they must contain recognizable detail. (3) “The greatest volume of light on the subject must fall on the item of greatest interest.”  If the eye is always drawn to the light area of the print, that area must contain the item(s) of principal interest. (4) “No matter how many lighting units are used, there must be only one dominant source of illumination.”


Mortensen tells us that “in photography the most crucial factor is the negative, and the most crucial act is that of exposure.” [P. 129] He devotes a considerable portion of his book to an analysis of the nine “ringaround” negatives, which are as follows:

        1. Underexposed, underdeveloped
        2. Normally exposed,underdeveloped
        3. Overexposed, underdeveloped
        4. Underexposed, normally developed
        5. Normally exposed, normally developed
        6. Overexposed, normally developed
        7. Underexposed, overdeveloped
        8. Normally exposed, overdeveloped
        9. Overexposed, overdeveloped

Ringaround prints

The even-numbered negatives are dismissed out of hand as the result of incomplete standard procedure and thereby “generally unsatisfactory.”  [P. 160]  The worst of the lot are numbers 1 and 9, the under-under and over-over.  The standard negative, number 5, is criticized as not having “…the maximum degree of separation in either…” shadows or high values (i.e., it doesn’t have proper gradation). But the number 3 and 7 negatives are given special emphasis. “Being…self-compensated, they are much the best of the variants…and…have important photographic uses.”

The number 3 negative’s technique, overexposure and underdevelopment, is probably the most common manipulation performed--necessarily so since one is more often confronted with long scales that need compression than with short scales that need expansion--and with the number 3 negative’s technique of compression “one is assured of certainty of results, even under adverse circumstances.”  [P. 164]. But typically the compression takes place in the high values, resulting in an overall muting of the most interesting tonalities. For Mortensen, this is rarely a satisfactory outcome.

A derivative of the number 7 negative is what Mortensen on the Negative is all about. Mortensen calls it the 7-D negative.  “Instead of compressing a long-scale subject into the photographic medium, let us rather expand the scale of a short-scale subject and exploit its fine gradations to the utmost that the medium allows.” [P. 191] Here is the very heart of what Bill Mortensen is trying to tell us.  It’s the gradation. His 7-D negative has better gradation in the high values and is therefore more aesthetically pleasing than any other permutation.

Print from a Mortensen 7-D negative

Oak Leaf
Super XX, EI 160, developed for 35 minutes in Agfa 17 at 70 deg. F.

In a nutshell, Mortensen’s method is one of slightly underexposing a subject with a very low brightness range and giving very full development to the resulting negative. According to Mortensen, his 7-D technique produces a superior negative because even with normal exposure and development (the number 5 negative) the high values “are shoved over into the peak of the curve (the region of overexposure).”  [P. 200]  In combination with the loss of separation caused by “light scatter” during enlargement, “…this…results in the destruction of the finest qualities of the photographic medium—the extremely delicate scale of half-tones in the light area.” [P. 201]

“The new rule of thumb for negatives for projection is almost the reverse of the old adage: EXPOSE FOR THE LIGHT AREA AND DEVELOP FOR THE SHADOWS.”  [P. 202]  While he admits that this results in slightly less than normal exposure, he is adamant that this “does not mean underexposure” [emphasis his]. “Thus the 7-D procedure is in line with the sound pictorial practice of giving the fullest rendering to those parts of the picture that are most interesting. The greatest interest in a picture lies normally in the lighter areas of the principal subject.” [P. 265]

His reversal of the traditional exposure and development axiom may have been Mortensen’s way of thumbing his nose at the f/64 group, but we gain a little more insight into the origin of the 7-D technique when we read Mortensen’s earlier book, Pictorial Lighting (1935). After reading this book, we come to realize that Mortensen was first and foremost a portraitist and that, in portraiture, if you expose for the shadows you may very well overexpose caucasian skin tones--which is precisely what he was trying to avoid with his 7-D technique.  In Pictorial Lighting [p. 47] Mortensen says: “...‘exposing for the light-area’ is to be interpreted as ‘exposing for the light-area of the flesh tones of the subject.’”  We may interpret this to mean zone 6 (or possibly zone 7, if he is using a highlight).  Mortensen warns that “this system of lighting and this rule for exposure and development are interdependent in their working. Any effort at using one without the other will end in disaster.” [Pictorial Lighting, p. 48]

Lacking accurate exposure meters, Mortensen’s 7-D technique was an effort to prevent overexposure, which was a sure recipe for bad portraiture. “The 7-D exposure is a very precise value allowing of little latitude. A little less, and you are definitely underexposed; a little more, and there is too much blocking up of the light area…”  [P. 267]  In fact, Mortensen recommends development by inspection for large format negatives. When it comes to roll film, inspection is not a very useful option, so Mortensen recommends bracketing exposures, developing to the fullest extent possible (see below), and then chosing the negative with the best gradation for printing.


The fourth and final factor in the making of a good negative is correct development. Mortensen specifies what he calls “gamma infinity” development, which he defines as “the fullest development that it is possible to secure without the intervention of chemical fog.” [p. 202] His theory is that the reduction in exposure in the low values will be at least partially made up for by a very full development.  To this end he recommends that “developers of a rather low potential should be used,” [p. 277] and development times should be extended to one-half hour or longer [p. 274].  A major omission in his otherwise very complete book is a total lack of information on agitation.  It took me quite some time to figure out that the reason Mortensen doesn’t mention agitation is that he rarely used any.

Although Mortensen never mentions the word “compensation,” he is essentially recommending a compensating development, to pull up the shadow values without over-developing the highlights, utilizing low-energy developing agents such as paraphenylenediamine, pyrocatechin, or metol with a weak accelerator such as borax or sodium metaborate.  He specifically mentions lengthy developing times with a pyrocatechin developer, but does not recommend a formula containing that developing agent.

Records are available for some of Mortensen’s developing times.  An example is the “Figurehead” nude from Monsters and Madonnas.  This photograph was taken in 1935 on Kodak Verichrome, and developed for 1.5 hours in a metol-borax formula.  Another photograph from the same book, entitled “Fragment,” was shot in 1930 on Agfa par-speed Ortho and developed for two hours in a glycin developer.  Yet another photograph, “The Pit and the Pendulum” was shot in 1934 on Dupont Superior film and developed for 1.5 hours in “Souper Soup,” whatever that is (this negative was reproduced by the bromoil transfer method).

Lynn Jones, head of the photography department at Austin Community College, worked as an assistant for Bill Mortensen in the early 1950’s. He tells a very interesting story of Mortensen, in an on-going quest for gamma infinity, developing film for up to a week by keeping the developing can in the refrigerator and agitating once a day. Lynn asked him when he planned to take it out and he responded, “just before the emulsion falls off!”

None of the films recommended in Mortensen on the Negative are available today.  All were slow films by today's standards and we may presume that most had the so-called “old-fashioned thick" emulsion. How modern films might respond to his 7-D technique is a matter for further investigation.

Mortensen’s list of developers includes mostly well-known formulas such as Agfa 12, Defender 6-D, and Eastman D-76.  For miniature negatives he recommends Agfa 17, Defender 12-D, Eastman DK-20, or Edwal 12. I can only speculate that the metol-borax formula mentioned above might have been Defender 6-D or Eastman D-76 minus the hydroquinone.  He does give his personal variant of the “standard glycin formula:”

          Water (125º F.) . . . . . . . . . . . .  24 ounces
          Sodium sulfite . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5/8 ounce
          Glycin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1/8 ounce
          Sodium carbonate . . . . . . . . . . . 5/8 ounce
          Cold water to make   . . . . . . . . . 32 ounces

In a correspondence with Mr. Anson L. Beman, who was a student of Mortensen’s during the period from 1951 to 1954, he relates the following:  “As to his film development methods at that time: He had a tank that would take about 4 or 5 rolls of 120 Gevaert film (that was what he was using then) vertically (clip on the top and a weight on the bottom). The developer was D-76 because I mixed it for him. One very important thing I found out the first time I made a new batch was that he did not throw out all of the old developer but saved some to which he added the fresh developer. Otherwise he said it would be "too hot".  At that time we developed film without any agitation, for an extended time, but not really timed.  You were right about producing the "7-D"--we did it by lots of bracketing and then picking out the best negative later. The real thing that he taught his students was which was the correct negative to use.”

To sum up the 7-D technique:

    1. Choose a subject that is characterized by surface tonality rather than texture, and one that does not contain large areas of pure black (textured surfaces will be more likely to require a number 3 negative).

    2. Utilize a diffuse light source no more than 15 degrees off the camera-to-subject axis.  If outdoors, a cloudy-bright or even foggy day is best.

    3. Meter for the high values of the subject and give slightly less than normal exposure for those values.  Always bracket your exposures.

    4. Develop for gamma infinity by using a developing agent of low potential, utilizing little or no agitation, and extending the development time.  Development by inspection is recommended, where feasible.

To quote Mr. Anson Beman again, 

    ...for me at least "it's not in the books", you have to see it and do it.  The most important thing is that it is a whole system and you can't do just a part of it. For example, if you don't light the subject right, develop the negs right, it all falls apart.  I learned a lot more after studying the Zone System and some sensitometry.

    Simply put, you light the subject with a "flat" light, give minimum exposure, and maximum development and select the best neg to print.  When I was there Bill was using 2 1/4 X 3 1/4 roll film and the "inspection" went on after development and fixing. If you want to recreate Bill's results you will have to do a lot of experimenting with today's materials and use the books just for reference. So much for the books!

Conclusion and Speculation

Larry Lytle’s third essay on Mortensen, “The Command to Look: The Story of William Mortensen, Part III,” throws considerable light on the writing of Mortensen’s books (all written in collaboration with George Dunham), and hints at a separation between Mortensen’s writing and his actual teaching of students. “Aside from the important and apparent art historical ramifications of Mortensen’s writings, more than any photographer of his time he used the books and articles as a fulcrum to raise the level of his celebrity.”  I hope someday Mr. Lytle will write a full biography of Mortensen.

I have gained further insight into Mortensen through a brief correspondence with his student, Anson Beman, whom I quote again:

    Let me give you an example of how he arrived at and proved his theories. When I was taking his course on Pigment Printing he said at one point to me that you must use Pottengers Ivory Black pigment in the process. I asked him "but isn't that just a water color pigment ?"  He said yes it is. So then I said won't any water color pigment work just as well? He said no and then showed me a drawer (about 2.5 feet square and about a foot deep) that was full of little tubes of water color pigments. Bill said to me "I tried all those and they did not work".

    The point is that most of his theories were from experience, trial and error, and knowing what he wanted.  Don't forget that he was an artist before he was a photographer. As to negative making I don' t personally know how he arrived at his methods but he must have tried many things before he quit.  By the way he never really quit but when he got a process or method that he could teach he would stop for a while.  He once told me that over the years he had developed several processes he could do but couldn't teach to students so he dropped them.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading and researching Mortensen on the Negative, but in the end I found little technical information I could use in my own work.  What I came away with was more a fascination with his printmaking techniques (though I also learned a lot about lighting from him) as evidenced in his books Print Finishing and Paper Negative.

Based on everything I have read by and about Mortensen, I am prepared to speculate that his primary métier and enthusiasm, his avocation as it were, was printmaking. He was a master printmaker.  His portrait photography and teaching were his vocation, his way of making a living, but not necessarily his first love (which is not to say he wasn’t a good portraitist or teacher).  Mortensen’s technique for making negatives was derived by trial and error from his portrait work. His 7-D technique was perhaps the best way he found to get the gradation he desired from portraits made under artificial light, without spending a lot of time worrying over development. Someone who simply hangs his film in a tank of developer and comes back an hour or two later can hardly have held film development as a primary concern. His book, Mortensen on the Negative, was a concretion of theory around his rather haphazard method of making negatives.  But making negatives was not Mortensen’s primary interest.  He was first and foremost an artist and printmaker. Dare I suggest that his prints, rather than his writings, will be his lasting legacy?

Controlling Gradation with Contemporary Materials and Techniques

William Crawford.  The Keepers of Light.  New York: Morgan & Morgan, 1979, p. 103.
Patrick Dignan.  "Developing Agents: Glycin."  Publication reference lost [if you know the source, please email me].
Gordon Hutchings.  The Book of Pyro.  Granite Bay, California: Bitter Dog Press, 1992.
David Kachel.  "Zone System: The Primacy of Local Contrast," Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques, Jul/Aug 1991, pp. 24-27.
William Mortensen. Mortensen on the Negative.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941.
William Mortensen. Pictorial Lighting.  San Francisco:  Camera Craft Publishing Co., 1935.
William Mortensen. Print Finishing. San Francisco. Camera Craft Publishing Co., 1938.
Henry Peach Robinson. Pictorial Effect in Photography. Pawlet, Vermont. Helios, 1971, p. 116.
Judy Siegel. “Looking for William Mortensen,” Post-Factory Photography, #3, May 1999, pp. 3-10.

Some Photographs by William Mortensen
George Eastman House Mortensen Series
The Command to Look: The Story of William Mortensen, Part I
The Command to Look: The Story of William Mortensen, Part II
The Command to Look: The Story of William Mortensen, Part III
The Mortensen Pigment Process
The Metalchrome Story
Mortensen’s Wet Paper Negative Process
Texturefects Texture Screens
Catalog of the Mortensen Archive
In Defense of William Mortensen and the C.C.P.

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