‘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.
Camera Obscura: View of the Manhattan Bridge, April 30th, morning, 2010
Light Bulb was the starting point for Morell’s investigations into the ancient concept of the camera obscura. Translated from Latin as ‘dark chamber’, 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. 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.
Abelardo Morell on location for a ‘tent-camera’ shoot in Brooklyn
Whilst teaching an introductory photography course at Massachusetts College of Art Morell was inspired to make his classroom into a life-size camera obscura to help his first year photography students understand the internal workings of their cameras. He covered the classroom windows with black plastic and cut a small hole in the material. Turning off the lights in the room, the wall opposite the window was immediately covered in a blurry scene of the road outside the window, upside down. ‘When I saw how these savvy, techie students were charmed and disarmed by the image on the wall,’ he remembers, ‘I knew this was something very potent.’
When Morell became a father he found himself in the family home more and, wanting to explore the concept further, turned his living room and his young son’s bedroom into life-size camera obscuras and photographed the results. The early camera obscura images show scenes of Morell’s son’s toys strewn across his bedroom with the leafy street outside the house superimposed on top to produce an otherworldly, illusory space. ‘I was giddy’, he says, ‘I felt as if I had discovered photography – I had never seen a photograph that looked like that.’
Camera Obscura: View of Saint Lazare Train Station, Paris, 2015
Morell went on to reinvent famous scenes through the gauze of his camera obscura views. On finding the scene that he wanted to capture, he then faced the task of finding a room with the view and a facilitating inhabitant who was willing to humour him during his eight-hour exposure times. The process was laborious, taking months of frustration and meticulous fine-tuning to perfect, but the results were often monumental. Classical principles of perspective and scale are uprooted as scenes of the world’s most recognisable monuments confront life on an intimate, domestic scale. The gargantuan skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan – surging symbols of commerce, wealth and the American Dream – intrude on the modest, wooden furniture of a sombre interior. The Eiffel Tower is projected down the wall of a bedroom in the dingy Hotel Frantour, with its pinnacle comically protruding across the rumpled bed sheets. Canaletto’s masterpiece of perspectival painting at the Piazzetta San Marco is reworked through the projection of the scene into an austere nearby office.
The owner of a large palazzo invited Morell to Venice in 2007 to capture the scenes from its windows. In one image the Santa Maria della Salute church takes on a hallucinatory presence inside the palazzo bedroom. The scaffolding surrounding the church’s dome only increases the decadence of the Baroque façade, the whole scene blending into the bedroom’s ornate wallpaper. The indistinguishable blur in the gilded Rococo mirror embodies one of the pervading themes of Morell’s work – the photograph as construct. Morell exposes the ‘truth’ invested in the photograph as faulty. Ripping up the smooth surface of the photograph, he compels us to reconsider the trust we place in the photograph as a mirror of exterior reality and to climb through the looking glass with him.
Morell’s ‘tent-camera’ photographs extend the dizzying scope of the camera obscura concept. First used in the nineteen century to record views of the American West, Morell’s tent photographs took inspiration from the Westerns he had loved as a child in Cuba. He asked a Californian tentmaker to make him a bespoke prefab dome tent with a periscope protruding from the top to project images of the outside environment onto the ground. Taking the tent around the national parks of North America and erecting it on the rooftops of New York, he used the periscope to project the outside world onto the interior ground of the tent. Switching from sheet film to digital equipment reduced his exposure times, allowing him to capture fleeting light. The tent-camera photographs have a painterly quality arising from the meeting of two outdoor realities on the ground within the tent.
‘I love the increased sense of reality that the outdoors has in these new works,’ he says. ‘The marriage of the outside and the inside is now made up of more equal partners.’ First used before the invention of photography itself, the tent-camera technique connects Morell to the historic dawn of the photographic age, to a time when the intrepid inventors of the medium had to toil to bring an image into existence. He says that he draws satisfaction from working physically hard to reach the uncanny effects of the tent-camera: ‘To me, taking my time and working like the nineteenth-century photography pioneers makes me feel as if I have earned the results. Abstraction resulting from working on the solid ground places me in a tradition of work that I like very much. To make everything up in Photoshop would be dreadfully boring and ultimately unconnected to life.’
Tent-camera image on ground: rooftop view of the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn side, 2011
For other projects 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.’
Morell’s interest in these pre-digital processes stems from his desire to use a natural process in order to make constructed, imaginary landscapes. ‘My pictures are acts of imagination,’ he says. ‘I want to invite new landscapes but not from scratch. What I love about my camera obscura images is that they are made with a totally natural process. A certain room faces a particular thing and that relationship exists in reality.’ This ‘natural’ process might encumber Morell physically – with tents, tripods, lenses and not to mention many thousands of air miles – but it frees him creatively. ‘I like abiding by the rigour of reality,’ he says. ‘There’s a nice Zen saying about how if you want to write about a tree, you have to go to it.’
Flowers - for Lisa #2, 2015
More recently though Morell’s dogged purism about his technique has softened a little. Taking up still life as his genre of choice, he is still looking to the past with references to the Dutch flower painting tradition, but he seems to have forayed down the dreaded gingerbread path to Photoshop. Using multiple exposures, Morell revitalises the genre’s ubiquitous themes about the passage of time and the fragility of beauty. The wonderful blur of the floral arrangements arises from Photoshop’s attempt to right the chaos of the multiple superimposed images.
‘The flowers are real but the rendering is a compromise between me and the computer,’ he says. Morell has found a way to work the element of chance that he relishes in his camera obscura photographs into the predictability of digital production. Speaking about his long-term bugbear, Photoshop, he says, ‘in my old age I’m more happy to give in to chance’. Maintaining his uncompromising curiousity, Morell seems to have found a digital niche no less labour-intensive than his camera-less, tent-made serenades to the nineteenth century. Perhaps his computer will prove a more gracious looking glass than he thought.
Flora La Thangue, interview with Abelardo Morell conducted February 2016
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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