Mortensen’s Hypnotic Archetypes

Published by Angel


Diagram of William Mortensen's four hypnotic archetypes.

Twentieth-century American photographer William Mortensen believed that humanity is affected by four archetypal shapes. These, he always tried to represent in his photographs, using them for composition. These shapes first appeared when early man was trying to survive in hostile nature. They are: 

  • The dominant mass (such as a rock or mountain). 
  • The diagonal (related to the lightning flash).
  • The s-curve (related to the snake).
  • The triangular (related to the jaws of predators and to early weapons such as flint daggers). 

When we first faced such existential threats, we had no sense of self as we do today. (People had never looked into a mirror or seen a photograph of themselves, of course.) But, now in the age of the image (mirrors, selfies, Instagram, etc.) we can find equivalents of these potential threats to our own inner sense of self. Let’s take a look at them:

The dominant mass appeared threatening because a predator could be hiding behind it. Today, the dominant mass emerges in our own psyches as “the blind spot.” We are at risk of making mistakes or suffering when we cannot see our own shortcomings or when we pretend they aren’t there. 

The diagonal (the lightning flash) can be related to the flash of anger. Sometimes, we let our emotions boil, unwilling to address an issue with another person. We’re often keen not to offend someone else or fear that confrontation will be difficult. But the longer we leave it the more likely it is that our anger will suddenly burst out, damaging our relationship. The sooner we address a problem, the more positively we can address it. Most importantly, we can use the soft power of persuasion rather than the hard power of threats. 

The s-curve. Above, I mention that it’s related to the snake, and—mythologically—the snake is often associated with seduction. 

Persuasion is seduction primarily through our choice of words. But, of course, the s-curve suggests the body—especially the female body. (Take a look at the female figures of Indian sculpture, for example, in the Tribhanga (tri, “three,” and bhanga, “posture”) pose, with the body forming three triangles or curves, with the knee and shoulder bent in one direction and the hips in another.)

Seduction is only partly about how others perceive us. Our seductive power is rooted in our own sense of self and sense of purpose in life. These create a sense of presence that is often described as “magnetic” (to borrow a term earlier associated with hypnotist Franz Anton Mesmer).

Lastly, related to teeth and weapons, the triangular can signify the ruthlessness of thought—or the intellect—that enables us to focus. Notably, in the Tarot, the sword is associated with the intellect. Today, we say we need to “cut through the ‘B.S.’” When someone is being irritating and immature, we might tell them to “cut it out.” And when we’re in a bad relationship, we might say that we need to “cut him off.”

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