‘I’ve told my family to shoot me in the head if I ever use Photoshop,’ Abelardo Morell has said. 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 what he refers to as the ‘natural’ method, prohibiting the 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’. 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. Look a little longer and Morell’s photographs become ‘curiouser and curiouser’.
Morell was born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, into a working-class family. The Cuban Revolution wreaked chaos in the years of his early childhood and his father was imprisoned several times by the Castro regime before being tipped off that he was marked for the firing squad. The family fled Cuba in 1962, less than a year after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, settling eventually in New York where they lived in a basement apartment. Morell’s father worked as a caretaker in an apartment building. 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.
Camera Obscura: View of Volta del Canal in Palazzo room painted with jungle motif, Venice, Italy, 2008
Attending Bowdoin College on a scholarship, he failed first year physics but enrolled in a photography class in his second year that he took to quickly. Whilst at Bowdoin Morell hosted a show for the college’s radio station exploring experimental music, especially John Cage and John Coltrane. He later undertook a Master of Fine Arts degree at Yale University School of Art, graduating in 1981.
Thinking that in order for photography to be art he ‘had to do some surgery on it’, Morell’s early photographs toyed with darkroom techniques that he saw in the Surrealist art on display in the New York museums. He quickly turned to working in the strictly ‘straight’ style espoused at Yale, influenced by street photographers Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank.
But unlike his contemporaries, Diane Arbus and Helen Levitt, who would go on to carry the torch for the American documentary tradition, Morell started turning his lens on the subject of the camera itself, and the medium of photography. This resulted in his breakthrough work Light Bulb (1991) – a photograph that explains how a photograph is made. The image of a light bulb is projected into a Martini & Rossi box that has been made into a crude camera obscura. One side of the box is left open to expose the ethereal image of the inverted light bulb inside. In a single image Morell manages to convey the complex principles of the photographic medium.
Translated from Latin as ‘dark chamber’, the camera obscura is an optical device that led to the invention of the photographic camera. The phenomenon was first described in the fifth century BC by the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti. It was then noted by Aristotle, drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, and later adopted by Canaletto and Vermeer as a tool to aid painting. The principle of the device is deceptively simple. When light enters a dark, enclosed space through a pinhole the rays hitting the top of objects are reflected downwards whilst the rays reflecting off the bottom of objects are reflected upwards. The rays enter through the pinhole and cross to create an inverted image. As the pinhole is made smaller, the image becomes sharper.
Nineteenth century illustration of a man using a tent camera obscura in a rural setting, taken from E Atkinson’s Natural Philosophy
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the camera obscura was thought to be a trick of ‘natural magic’. Described in Giovanni Battista della Porta’s influential 1558 compendium Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic), the device provided the kind of visual trickery that fascinated scholars of the time. The first cameras were camera obscuras with plates coated in light sensitive chemicals placed inside them.
Nineteenth century illustration of a camera obscura
23 March - 16 April 2016
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3-5 Swallow Street
Monday - Saturday
10.00am - 5.30pm
Telephone: 020 7434 4319
All images © Abelardo Morell.