Renowned for his appropriation of defunct photographic processes, Abelardo Morell (born 1948) is one of the most innovative photographers working today. Producing images that connect the antique beginnings of photography to the modern environment, Morell uses a variety of unusual methods including tintypes, glass negatives, wet plate collodian, cyanotypes, cliché verre and, most famously, the camera obscura.
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Camera Obscura: View of Saint Lazare Train Station, Paris, 2015
Nadelman / Hopper, Yale University Art Gallery, 2008
Camera Obscura: Manhattan View looking South in Large Room, 1996
Upright Camera Obscura: the Piazzetta San Marco looking Southeast in Office, Venice, 2007
Camera Obscura: View of Volta del Canal in Palazzo Room Painted with Jungle Motif, Venice, Italy, 2008
Blurry Upright Camera Obscura: Santa Maria della Salute with Scaffolding in Palazzo Bedroom, Venice, 2007
Camera Obscura: the Brooklyn Bridge in Bedroom, 1999
Camera Obscura: Garden with Olive Tree inside Room with Plants, outside Florence, Italy, 2009
Tent-Camera Image on Ground: Rooftop View of the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Side, 2011
Tent-Camera Image on Ground: View of the Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, Yosemite, National Park, California, 2012
Camera Obscura: 5:04 AM Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, Rockport, Massachusetts, June 17th, 2009
$7 Million, 2006
Camera Obscura: Central Park Looking Northwest in Office, 1999
Watch: Exhibition Tour with Abelardo Morell
Abelardo Morell discusses the works included in his 2016 retrospective exhibition, Through the Looking Glass
Morell: And essentially, a camera obscura is any sized room, a small box, or room this big, with a small opening looking out onto something bright, you know, a bright scene outside. I had begun to teach at a place called Massachusetts College of Art. I taught photography by converting, you know, rooms into camera obscuras, and things like that just to show them the very properties of photography, and how beautiful the idea of photography was, and how simple and how mysterious at once it was.
So I made this picture of a very expensive camera called Martini Rossi, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it... this is the most simple idea of photography: a small opening like a lens allows a light bulb to come inside a box. Its not, you know, you don’t have to have the latest camera to love the basis of photography. Anyway, a cheap box with a cheap lens – Yeti or something, absolutely pristine and pure, and gorgeous. And this picture led me to think… wow, look at this, the photography itself could be a subject. So I thought ok, maybe what I’ve been doing with my classes, which was to turn a whole classroom into a camera obscura, maybe that’s a subject as well.
I made my first camera obscura in 1991, this image actually came inside the room. It just took me a while to figure out how to expose this, and it turned out that it was an 8-hour exposure. Its dim and film is slow, but I was so encouraged I thought, wow, I like invented photography or something, you know. I got invited to friend’s houses who had cool views, like the Empire State building. Put… poke a small hole looking out and then this image would come into the room. But it was fascinating, I felt like I had discovered photography in a way, because I had never seen this kind of usage of it.
So this guy calls me up and says I’ve got a palazzo in Venice and would you like to come and make some pictures here, camera obscura pictures. So, my wife, daughter and I went to Venice and found a terrific bedroom in his place and colour began to play in my pictures. So this is the picture that came out of it. So, colour began to be a very important thing for me. Complicating it… instead of Zen now, its rococo, its just over the top. And a few things have changed here: instead of just the whole, I’m using a lens to make things sharper. I’m using colour and what else is new? To write that up. Yeah, so I found a way to write it up, you know. So, radical changes. But it really felt very painterly, and this is still film, which it took about seven hours to make. And then I found another place in Venice, in a crazy apartment decorated in Colombian jungle style on the Grand Canal. I like, really like the idea of a room being complicated, or a room being made into something else. And that certainly was…
My pictures are dreamlike and surreal, but in fact when the pictures are being made there’s a camera in there recording that dream in a very physical, awake way. And photography’s power is to make even dreams seem quite concrete. The last change that I’ve made in this photography is that I no longer use film, which took from five to seven hours to expose. It’s the nature of film, film doesn’t respond to light when it’s very low, it takes longer than you think. So now I’m using a digital back which can make an exposure from seven hours to five, ten minutes now. But I’m also getting images that have a sense of a specific sense of time, light. So before, I wouldn’t have been able to make this kind of series.
This is a morning view of the bridge… afternoon… and evening. And it was great to have the ability to, like the way Monet could record specific light with painting. A nice little apartment overlooking West Central Park allowed me to make a Spring image… a Summer… a Fall… and a Winter. I really like Monet a lot, and it felt like it was that kind of meditation on a place, and changes in the seasons.
I remember going to west Texas a number of years ago, and I had the fantasy of being able to photograph there. And of course, in a desert there are no rooms. So I thought well, I can make one. And the best way to make a room outside is to use a tent. This is a large tripod holding a periscope with a lens so an image like that comes this way and then through a mirror, gets projected down there. At least that was what I wanted to do. And then somewhere I would have a camera photographing that event. Anyway, the picture that came out was this sandwich, natural sandwich of an image in the nearby landscape, actually projecting on the ground itself. And the tent in some ways became a vehicle from which to see the surrounding landscape.
I’m not inventing anything, I’m just photographing these extraordinary realities that appear naturally. The way I make pictures now, it’s always a real physical challenge, so I think it matters as, maybe philosophically, that it is the truth. Instead of having a wall, now I have the ground merging nearby landscape onto the stones and the grass and the twigs… became… just such a fun new way of looking at the world. When you’re there, its extraordinary, you feel like you’re in some alien world.
I’m now using a digital camera, which means that it’s a shorter exposure, its not hours, its minutes. So clouds can come in, which feels very nice, feels like a moment in life rather than a generic six hours. But the idea of the structure, the rock structure beneath me, having a conversation with the larger structure out there, having this meeting ground between them to me it feels like what I got into photography in the first place, to make some kind of larger union take place.
Abelardo Morell was born on 17th September 1948 in Havana, Cuba to a working-class family. His father was imprisoned several times in the chaos of the Cuban revolution and under increased threat he decided to move his family to America. They settled in New York when Morell was 14 years old. Speaking no English when he arrived in New York, Morell earned enough working as a pharmacy delivery boy to buy a box Brownie camera. Overwhelmed by the scale of the city that became his new home, Morell photographed his family as they took to life in America. He graduated in 1977 with a BA in Fine Art from Bowdoin College, Maine, and went on to gain an MA in Fine Art from Yale University School of Art in 1981.
The internationally renowned and critically respected photographer has not settled for the easy life. In our image-saturated, media-conglomerated age, Morell has rejected the technology at the fingertips of photographers and taken instead to what he refers to as the ‘natural’ method, prohibiting composite Photoshop images that have spread beyond advertising and become de rigour in the heady world of fine art photography. ‘If it comes too easy,’ Morell says, ‘it might be suspect.’
Unlike his contemporaries, Diane Arbus and Helen Levitt, who continued in the American documentary tradition, Morell started turning his lens to the subject of the camera itself, and the medium of photography. This resulted in his break through photograph in 1991, Light Bulb which explains how a photograph is made. Using a Camera Obscura technique, Morell produced black and white images of interiors that reflect a view of their outdoor surroundings. Allowing a small ray of light to shine into the unlit room from outside, he then captures the reflection on his large-format camera, often exposing the film for up to 8 hours. From the interior spaces of his own home, he went on to create many more Camera Obscura images in rooms all over the world. Carrying heavy equipment up mountains, into deserts and onto New York rooftops, he has travelled the world to photograph famous landmarks with a piquant curiosity. The Eiffel Tower, San Marco Square, the Manhattan Bridge and Yosemite are all immediately familiar and yet eerily altered.
In 1995 the first collection of these pictures were published in a book, A Camera in a Room. Other early works focus on household objects, that he examines with extreme close ups, showing the viewer a familiar object at an unusual angle. While his style has remained unchanged, in his various projects he has photographed books, maps, people and works of art. Morell’s recent images evolve from his early subject matter, which he now photographs in colour.
Morell has used tintypes, glass negatives, wet plate collodian, cyanotypes and cliché verre all rejuvenating out-dated techniques to force us to look from unseen perspectives and to marvel in the mundane. ‘I love the period of the invention of photography,’ he says. ‘Especially the work of Fox Talbot. The idea that photography grew as the product of optics, chemistry, philosophy and curiosity has been an inspiration to me in my work with the camera obscura, tent-camera, photograms and cliché verre pictures. I don’t want to be those inventors but I want to drink from where they drank. I’m ultimately interested in making contemporary works but as something reworked from the past.’
Exhibitions and Awards
Morell has received the Infinity Award from the International Centre of Photography in New York in 2011. He is also a professor of art at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. His work has been exhibited in some of the most renowned galleries and museums in the world, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Notes, News, Press and Exhibitions