Remembering Longtime LA Music Photographer Shawn Mortensen

Remembering Longtime LA Music Photographer Shawn Mortensen

The other night as M.I.A. was winding down her Coachella performance of "Paper Planes," she dedicated the song to longtime L.A. photographer Shawn Mortensen, who died last week at the age of 42. We've received a few notes of remembrance from friends and colleagues, and though we never met him, his photographs, as well as a fascinating YouTube clip of Mortensen talking about shooting a Jamaican dancehall DJ battle in Kingston, tell the story of a renegade.

Onstage at Coachella this weekend.M.I.A. dedicated "Paper Planes" to Shawn Mortensen, who shot gorgeous images of her.

Legendary hip hop A&R man Dante Ross, who signed, among many others, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes and Queen Latifah, wrote a remarkable snapshot of his longtime friend. Ross has kindly allowed us to reprint it here:

As a youth I was always fascinated by the idea of Los Angeles. It represented Dogtown, Hollywood nights, hardcore punk rock, chicano culture and emerging gangster rap. It was a place that held a deep mystery for me and somewheres I always wanted to explore. You could say it was destined to be my 2nd home.

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One of my first tour guides in my initial forays shortly after graduating High School into the culture or sub cultures of Los Angeles was Shawn Mortenson. In 1987 I met Shawn with my friend and travel companion Eric Haze. I was enamored with him ever since. Shawn was a special person, an amazing artist and a friend for more than 20 years.

Shawn was an activist, a thinker and a amazing photographer. Shawn departed the earth yesterday after many years of health issues. What was so amazing about Shawn was his ability to touch so many peoples lives with his wit,humor, compassion and his over all unique and powerful energy. His being translated across many cultures from high fashion to gangster rap seamlessly. Culturally he spoke many many languages something I always marvelled at.

In a city full of character's Shawn will always be one of the most colorful of all my friends in Los Angeles and synonymous with the heart of this city. Along with iconic people like Everlast, Chrisitan Hosoi, DJ Muggs, Esteban Oriole, Mr.Cartoon, Steve Olson and Cesario" Block" Montoya he will always be one of the shining stars within the culture of Los Angeles. He was also a courageous and valiant person full of honor and respect. I am beyond proud to have considered him a friend.

Today the light of the city of angels and my own heart are that much dimmer as we mourn and celebrate the life of this amazing man.

Shawn we all love you and when this moment of grief has passed and the tears have stopped flowing we will never stop celebrating you and your amazing life. Every time I come to LA I will always think of you and how you held us down all those years ago.

Shawn was simply loved by all.

Rest in power my brother

Ross then links to a Jamey O'Shea's ode to Mortensen.

Justin Warfiled of She Wants Revenge posted this on his Facebook page:

For the last few years I would see Shawn around the neighborhood in Los Feliz. I'd either honk and wave and he'd flash that amazing smile, or sometimes, when on foot, I'd stop and we'd have a chat by the Coffee Bean. The last time we spoke was a month ago, I was walking with my son, Bowie who he'd never met, and he was just so blown away that I had a child...he lit up, stared for a moment, then THANKED ME for bringing something good into the world. It struck me as a really beautiful thing to say. A few days later I hit him up on here and he wrote back saying he'd love to hang out, and that perhaps we could collaborate on some children's songs, that it was "his dream"!!


There's something about this city, and some of the characters you come across. They couldn't exist anywhere else, almost as if they were a creation of this place, but more often than not, they come here so they can be just who they are. Shawn was one of those people. He will be missed by many.

It's hard to imagine a Los Angeles without Shawn. He was an amazing individual that touched so many lives, both intimately and peripherally. There's nothing I can say that everyone else isn't already feeling, so I just want to wish love and peace to Shawn wherever he may be, and lots of love to his family, especially his sister, Melissa.

As well, Arthur Magazine's's Jay Babcock, in an email, recalled that without Mortensen Arthur Mag probably wouldn't have existed. Writes Babcock:

Shawn realized how it (culture, politics, love) all fit together; his success was in embodying it, to the degree that he could; his frustration was that others couldn't (yet) see what he did. But of course, who could, really? Who else among us had seen as much as Shawn had--the good, the great, the bad, and the really bad? Shawn was almost over-aware.

Shawn's photograph of Beck performing at Aron's Records was used in Arthur's pre-launch promotional materials. His photograph of Peaches ran in Arthur No. 1, in 2002. For our 'real' first issue, Arthur No. 2, he photographed Devendra Banhart (possibly Devendra's first-ever 'photo shoot'?) and Genesis P-Orridge & Douglas Rushkoff.

An interview with Mortensen in which he talks about being in the middle of a Jamaican dancehall DJ battle in Kingston. Fascinating.

On his website, journalist Drew Tewksbury remembers the first time he sat down with Mortensen to talk about a photo spread in Flaunt.

As he leaned against the wall in the art department he began to tell me about his life. He told me about photographing Snoop Dogg at 19, meeting a young Beck, and introducing Rage Against the Machine to the Zapatistas, who he met in Chiapas, Mexico. Mortensen looked fucking cool as he leaned in the corner near the layout wall, chatting with Todd, the art director. He was tall with a pin-striped business shirt opened slightly, a necklace of what appeared to be a silver dragon's tooth dangled loosely. His sensible leather dress shoes had no laces, and later he confessed he got them from some designer for free. He quoted Dolly Parton, "some people pay a lot of money to look this cheap." But Mortensen did not look cheap, he had the hands callused with experience, and a salt and pepper beard just starting to grow on his face. I was engrossed in his casual eloquence, confident gesticulations and peripatetic gray eyes as he painted a picture of being a "cross pollinator of creativity" in the 1990's.

Tewksbury also reprints the notes to a potential Mortensen Flaunt feature. Check out the guest list at this party that he threw:

This would be the innocuous begining invitation to an underground arty party for the wildest sides L.A. had to offer in'88- '89. I was an Art Student at U.S.C. & was looking to create what Joseph Beuys called 'Social Sculpture'. Egalitarian to the extreme, my crew & I pulled in the most ecclectic crowd since the Star Wars Cantina- MIXED of Club Kids-Artists; Keith Haring,Jean-Michel Basquiat, Koivisto, HAZE, Fab5Freddy, DOZE - musicians; Public Image Ltd.,Beastie Boys, Fishbone, Joe Strummer, Keith Richards, Wasted Youth, Ice T, Flavor Flav, Chilli Peppers, Brat Pack Actors like Rob Lowe {the week of his sex scandle},Matt Dillon, River Phoenix, Mickey Rourke,Ione Skye, NYC Club Scene makers; Eric Goode, Serge Becker, Haoui Montaug, James St.James, Bruce Weber & Herb Ritts Models; Tony Ward, Lisa RosanaDetail's NightLife Columnist Stephan Saban, Tim Kelly, Club Kids, Punks, Vatos, Gang Bangers, Drag Queens, Rap Crews YOUFUCKING NAME IT . . . AND the MOST AGGRESSIVE MUSIC {N.W.A. was new,punk, rap, funk, disco} ALL in One ... One on One ... Never too much of ONE thing, nor of ONE crowd AND ALWAYS ON THE MOVE .

Mortensen's website has information of the service, which happens today from 1-8 p.m. in San Pedro:

McNerneys Mortuary

570 West Fifth Street

San Pedro, CA 90731

But definitely the better snapshot of the wide swath Shawn Mortensen cut through Los Angeles will be tomorrow night at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, where friends and family will be holding a "Celebration of Life" from 7 p.m. to midnight.

(thanks to Jay Babcock for the heads-up.)

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