“The Command To Look imparts no technical information whatsoever. It is best seen as a treatise on the use of psychology and visual perception to construct a picture. Early in the book Mortensen, instructs the reader that “any picture that ‘goes places’ does so by following a definite psychological formula.” The “formula for picture success” which he then explicates is actually a primer on how to use the brain’s hardwired receptors to manipulate or control the viewer’s interest in and reaction to a photograph.” – Larry Lytle, The Story of The Command To Look: William Mortensen, Creative Pictorialism and the Psychology of Control
While I’ve never had any difficulty enjoying a picture, I admit I am but a slight notch above ignorant when it comes to a knowledge of photographers. However, the one name I hold highly is William Mortensen. I have wished to write about him ever since I’d obtained the 2014 printing of The Command To Look (first printed in 1937). The cover featured a coloured-version of Mortensen’s photograph The Tantric Sorcerer, and the back held a ringing endorsement: “In this book Mortensen provides insights into psychological laws that impact the way people react to photographs and to one another. Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey was so influenced by Mortensen that he co-dedicated The Satanic Bible to him, and employed his principles in what he called “Lesser Magic.”
Mortensen sidestepped the poetic and pretentious explanations of photographers behind what made their art of value. He was a rebel with a creative spirit, and his journey was a fascinating one. I would enter discussion of it, but I wish more to leave impression of the work with its relation to society, (so I’ll simply leave the link to a great essay you can read if you so choose – here)
Now, back to discussion of The Command To Look itself. In the chapter on the Pictoral Imperative, the formula (look, see, enjoy) is brought together with a sentiment. Mortensen writes that artists must do their art with the desire to influence people by their work. This romantic vision of the artist is one who demands notice and response. Additionally highlighted is the inherent power which artists feel with their ability to create and shape worlds.
For optimal effect the artists work must ring a bell, sound a signal, or speak a command. Those three (or a combination of different possibilities) will then have an impact on the person experiencing the art. However the most striking, and the most ‘attention grabbing’ of styles are to no surprise those of which evoke fear, specifically our deep rooted ancestral fears.
Typing this brings to my mind a show which I do not remember the name of. I can say however that it was about the brain, perspectives and perception. I believe it was from National Geographic, though I digress… one segment of this show featured a ‘rapid slideshow’ of images which would flash in random order on the screen – the objective given to the viewer beforehand was to count the keys which would appear, or something like that. In the images were sunglasses, beach balls, the aforementioned car keys, palm trees, but also spiders, and snakes. Despite the spiders and snakes being flashed up for tiny amounts of time, and in far less rotation than the majority of images, the brain still caught the deepest impression and took notice of the ‘fear inducers’ the most.
“There are four types of visual stimulus that directly call forth our fear response. These are:
1. Something that moves swiftly across our field of vision. We may not know what it is, but we know that it moves – and with swiftness and determination.
2. Something that approaches in a slithering, furtive fashion.
3. The threat of sharpness, whether of tooth or blade.
4. A massive stationary object that blocks our path. It may be a man or beast or just an inanimate object, but it is compact and formidable and indomitably awaits our coming.” – Chapter 4. Analysis of Impact, The Command To Look
(These 4 patterns can be seen in the articles header image, on the right side)
Ideal subject matter of impactful art is what fires the instinctual, our “reptilian” brain into action and our limbic system preparing to enter into fight, flight, or fuck mode (I was determined to stick with the ‘f theme’). In Photography for a successful image there are the Sex, Sentiment, and Wonder themes.
Utilizing the formula without the intent to “say something” or provide a subject will create incomplete art – shock art – or what Mortensen calls “Wolf! Wolf!” (after the story of Peter and the Wolf). This is art that assaults the senses, startles, and then does nothing further, producing no animal, presenting no “wolf”.
There are several phases to the formula and multiple elements to put together alchemically. Studying this material would be beneficial to any artist. William Mortensen was charming, open, and his writing (and the contributing essays by Michael Moynihan and Larry Lytle), along with a large number of his images provides much fodder for later thoughts to digest about Lesser Magic, and the wacky world of performance and presentation all around us.
Visit Feral House for more information, and for the ability to purchase the Command to Look.