Mortensen Has Left the Building
Published April 23, 2009
A few times in my life I have had a friend quit the scene permanently and suspected a prank. It was almost like that with Shawn Mortensen, an amazing human being who was also an extraordinary photographer, an intrepid traveler, a hilarious raconteur, a crucial connection maker, a fabulous conspirator, an impromptu drawing room entertainer and an artist and adventurer in the broadest senses. When I heard that Shawn had left his body behind I simply could not get my head around the notion. How do you put away such energy and ambition and sheer liveliness? It just seemed inconceivable.
Shawn Mortensen was tall, dark and handsome, charming, and delightfully stylish and polite, although he could irritate you with the best of them—on the scale of say Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. But Shawn always sang for his supper.
Shawn in Ethiopia, with Hyena
He would disappear for a few months and then one day just ring my bell and enter dressed in an inimitable blend of fine tailoring, high fashion and folkloric costume. He always came with strange little gifts and even stranger stories of where he’d been and who he’d met and amazing photos to prove it.
Shawn was a great photographer and he left some fine books in his wake but his magnum opus has yet to be assembled. There is a great Mortensen anthology just waiting to happen. He is probably best known for his portraits of musicians like Tupac and Biggie, and artists from masters like Ruscha, Prince and Wool to young Turks like Dash Snow, Dan Colen and Mark Gonzales, but my favorite work of his was the crazy shit he captured when he was living with the Zapatistas in Mexico (which James Jebbia put on some T-shirts for Supreme), or slumming it in Jamaica or looking for the holy grail in Ethiopia (and I’m not kidding) or his amazing picture of an Apache Indian basketball squad or a large group of Tibetan Monks, not one of whom is looking at the camera.
Shawn was always off to some place like Outer Mongolia or Ethiopia. He was an explorer and an idealist. If he’d been around fifty years ago he probably would have been photographing Che Guevara and traveling with his guerillas. The first place he went after high school was Trenchtown, Kingston—turf of the Wailer and Lee Perry and one of the scariest places around. Shawn didn’t know anybody there, he just showed up because he wanted to hang out and shoot the guys making all that great reggae music. He was a totally fearless white boy, idealistic, honest and honorable. Shawn wanted to see it all before he died, and he saw a lot of it.
Mark Gonzales (met him through Shawn)
Shawn lived large on relatively little. Shawn would borrow $200 and then show up two months later in a fur coat and a pair of thousand dollar Margiela shoes on. He would give you some gift he’d schlepped five thousand miles, like the big gold tin castle he brought for my kid all the way from Addis Adaba, and he’d drink your wine and smoke your herb if you had any but leave you with priceless stories and when you were falling asleep at 4 AM he might get the hint and leave, telling you he was off to Antarctica the next day.
Dash Snow (another I met through Shawn)
Shawn took one of my favorite pictures of me. I know he got it because he never stopped talking and that got me talking and not thinking about posing. Photography is not all about having a great eye and technical skills. Shawn had that too, but he also had a way of getting into his subjects heads and making them collaborators not subjects.
The guy had a hard life. He had medical problems that resulted in terrible pain. Shawn loved life and he wasn’t a quitter. He fought his medical issues bravely, but he was betrayed by the system. The medications he needed were very expensive and recently Social Security denied him disability. He was always finding himself in those Catch-22 situations where he would be penalized for working. And working was his life.
Old Soul Mortensen
Shawn Mortensen was a great man and he deserved a better end. Knowing Shawn, he was a guy who would have charged with the Light Brigade. He was the guy who would have had his camera set up on the rim of Krakatoa when it blew up, making a sound that traveled around the world. Shawn would have flown a spaceship into the sun to see what it looked like, to get the shot. He was a visionary tourist on this earth. Shawn was 43 years old but a much older soul. He will be greatly missed.