Not Fade Away: Farewell to Shawn Mortensen

image Shawn Mortensen with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

When word came that photographer and BlackBook contributor Shawn Mortensen had passed away, our last issue had just come in from the printer. In it was a portfolio of Shawn’s most recent work, including some of the most fabulous images we’d ever seen of the Gossip’s Beth Ditto and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and a soulful moment with Clive Barker in his studio. It was an art issue, and Shawn’s images were both celebrations of the wild forms of self-expression from these creative types and works of art in their own right. Shawn wasn’t the kind of guy to sit still, and his lust for life came through in his subjects. He had an uncanny way of working with people, who often became more like collaborators in his photos, ignited by his passion.

image Mortensen’s favorite shot of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

When I last saw Shawn, he was thrilled about the turnout for his art gallery opening and the number of books he had signed the previous night, and excited to embark on all kinds of new creative adventures. A television show was in the works, one that would see him travel the world as an artist and activist. Shawn was always turned on by art and music, and it was part of his mission in life to turn others on to it, too.

image A candid moment from his Beth Ditto shoot.

That morning, when we met for brunch at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, he was raving about two new accessories designers that I just had to write about: Dee and Ricky, whom he’d just photographed. Over a round of strong coffees, he insisted on giving me the white Lego heart brooch they designed, which he had pinned to his chest. Similarly, he’d given Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a red version of the heart when he shot them for BlackBook; she loved it so much she wore it in the pictures for our shoot and left with it. Shawn was that kind of guy: always at the ready to give a little piece of his heart. The soulfulness in his art, and in his own heart, left a lasting impression.

image Dee and Ricky, photographed by Mortensen.

Clive Barker’s Art Has Bite

A masterful storyteller and prolific artist, Clive Barker revels in the darkest corridors of the human psyche. As the sun sets on his studio high in the Hollywood Hills, the hell-raiser reveals the method to his terrifying madness.

Entering the main hallway of Clive Barker’s Beverly Hills home, the first thing one sees is a bust of the horror author’s most famous grotesquerie: Hellraiser’s menacing Pinhead character, whose likeness also lines the walls in the form of posters, refrigerator magnets and action figures. Pinhead has been good to Barker, as evidenced by the numerous sci-fi and horror genre awards, some in the shape of perched gargoyles and other frightful guises, all displayed proudly.

A few yards down the road, in the last of his three Spanish-style houses on this breathtaking whip of road high up in the hills, Barker stores the bulk of his artwork. An orgy of graphic art—fantastical paintings of creatures frightening and beautiful, many of which have come to life on the pages of his 15 novels and numerous films—covers every inch of the walls. An affable Barker offers up a round of diet Cokes—fittingly, they’re special limited-edition Halloween cans—and pauses to pose in front of a massive 22-foot, floor-to-ceiling painting of his mythical world of Abarat, comprised of 25 islands, each representing a different hour in the day. It’s no wonder the nonstop creative has dreamed up a world with extra time on the clock; the prolific author-painter-filmmaker clearly puts each waking minute to use.

“If you go to this red island,” he says, pointing to the top of the piece, “it’s midnight there. Everything that the human psyche ever conceived of which is midnight-esque—black masses, witches, things that go bump in the night—is completely concentrated on that island.” This particular spot on the map is the setting for his forthcoming novel, Absolute Midnight (due out later this year), the third in a series of five Abarat books. Several feet across the canvas, it’s three in the afternoon on the island of “the Nunce”—“everything that is sleepy and lovely, basking in the sun in hammocks and reading a boring French novel that you fall asleep halfway through” takes place there.

The mural is, in essence, a playground of possibilities of the human experience throughout any given day. “We are different human beings at eight in the morning and at eight at night. We aren’t even recognizable to ourselves: very often there are things we’d do at midnight that we’d never do at noon… many fun things!” he says, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. “The point is we change, and that’s to be celebrated. We are not fixed beings.”


Barker is living proof of that. The celebrated horror-fantasy writer and filmmaker has consistently genre-hopped between media and methods while disseminating his ideas on the human condition. He’s made horror films and acclaimed indie dramas like Gods and Monsters; he’s written best-selling sci-fi tomes and children’s books; and now, he’s sharing photographic explorations of the pains and pleasures of the naked, physical form. That he works in spitting distance of the high-gloss Hollywood machinery is just another delicious contradiction for the Liverpool-born artist who has called L.A. home for 18 years now.

“The things created in this town are antithetical to what I’m doing,” he says. “They are corporate, glossy, made and judged by committees, and approved by group reviewers who are snatched off the streets of Westwood.”

Art is happening all around Barker: in one corner of his work studio, a trove of artfully shot male nude photos, which will eventually find their way into a coffee table book, spill out across a bench. Outside in his driveway in the dusky L.A. night, a young Iraqi war veteran, whom Barker is mentoring through a film program at UCLA, shoots an independent film. Scanning the walls of his creative oasis—just doors down from Tyra Banks, who lives around the bend—he says, “This is my fuck-you to the world that I spent a lot of time making money in, no question. I have three houses on the property, I’m very happy about that, and the money for that all came from movies. But I didn’t get freedom there. Look at this picture of this man I shot 10 days ago,” he says, pulling a nude from the files scattered before him. “This has as much power and theater and beauty as I can ever want, plus nudity, thank God.” Barker thinks of it as akin to a still from a movie that would never get green-lit in this town.

Barker’s still making movies, but doing it his way (much like he did while serving as executive producer on 1998’s Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters): by staying true to his vision and getting it done on the cheap, calling in favors when necessary. “I’ve sat in a lot of rooms watching my ideas diluted by people throwing their own visions into the pie. Now, I have to go and do my own thing. I have a William Blake quote on the door of my office: ‘Make your own laws or be a slave to another man’s.’ That’s what I see every day before I do my creative work.”


Photography by Shawn Mortensen.

Shawn Mortensen, Rest in Peace

It’s impossible to write anything that might even begin to do justice to the life and works of the exceptionally gifted and kind photographer Shawn Mortensen, who passed away two nights ago. Shawn, during his frequent contributions to BlackBook, proved himself to be a man of incredible talents and someone whose energy and creative passion were genuine, refreshing and unparalleled. There aren’t enough superlatives in the world to describe what a unique and special man he was. It’s an awful day, and Shawn will be terribly missed. Still, his images will continue to inspire, even in the face of such tragedy.