In the first decades of the 20th century Englishman FJ Mortimer (1874-1944) was an acclaimed pictorialist photographer. A pioneer of the bromoil process, famed for his dramatic seascapes, he strove as both artist and editor for photography’s recognition as an art form.
This exhibition which includes Dutch scenes, patriotic British WWI home-front images and examples of Mortimer’s refined techniques, displays for the first time the major gift from the artist’s daughter.
Growing up in Portsmouth, the sea and sailing life remained a lasting influence on Mortimer...with his self-styled waterproofed camera he clambered rocky headlands or set sail in boats during high seas to photograph wild storms and vessels in distress. Big wave hunting 1901-14, taken off the Scilly Isles by his nephew, depicts Mortimer in action, secured by meagre rope around his waist. On display, alongside several of his seascapes, are sophisticated bromoil images of harbours and canals. Water is a recurring presence in much of Mortimer’s work, underpinning the scenes of Dutch life, Naval training, and seaside leisure he recorded.
His daughter Molly wrote of her father’s deep admiration for the lifeboat crews that attended Scilly’s treacherous seas and lighthouses. In his dedicated way, Mortimer assumed a beacon-like role in British pictorialist photography. Through his editorship of Amateur photographer & photography (1908-1944) and Photograms of the year (1912-1944) he promoted photography as an art.
Mortimer’s support of the large amateur photographic societies of his day was tireless and extended beyond Britain. In Australia he was held in high esteem, not simply because of his high publishing profile but in 1911 he had assisted the emerging NSW Photographic Society by dispatching an exhibition for their benefit.
A member of the British Royal Photographic Society from 1904, elected to the Linked Ring Brotherhood in 1907, and key in the formation of the London Salon of Photography in 1910, Mortimer became an increasingly influential figure amongst Britain’s photographic elite. He was also honoured as being the only European member elected to the Australian Salon in 1924. The Australian Salon was intended as an international exhibition dedicated to pictorialist photography. Its executive members where drawn from the NSW Photographic Society and the Sydney Camera Club. It held only two such shows in 1924 and 1926.
Mortimer favoured manipulated image techniques such as the oil and pigment process of bromoil and composite negatives. Whilst proponents of ‘purist’ negative-perfect photography dismissed such methods as print-making mimicry, Mortimer felt that through manipulation images of the imagination could be realised and those of the natural world enhanced.
Mortimer, although conservative in his aesthetic approach, was conscious that photography had to adapt to remain relevant in a changing world. He felt this most keenly with the impact of war. His 1917 War-time types images, such as Tommy from the trenches was his attempt to demonstrate how photography could contribute to the war effort, by paying homage to the sacrifices made by countless individuals at home and on the battlefield.
Mortimer’s images of women ranged from dainty and sensual expressions of Edwardian femininity, such as the intimately sized Untitled (nude woman on a leopard skin) c1917 to portraits of females in uniform and austere factory garb.
Mortimer remained dedicated to communicating new developments in photography up until his death in 1944, when he died by a result of injuries sustained by German bombing on his way to his editorial offices. In contrast to ever-developing world of photo technology, Mortimer to the last continued to photograph what were to him essentially timeless subjects - the sea and its traditions.