Abelardo Morell’s photographic life and work can be largely defined by the physics of optics. This is a fancy way of explaining the simple fact that, “If you create a little opening in a dark room, looking out through that opening, an image of the world comes in upside down on the opposite wall,” he explains in a recent video for the San Francisco Museum of Art.
In a career spanning more than 30 years, Morell has ardently explored this basic principle—from his earliest experiments with light, time, and optics to his widely celebrated camera obscura work, and beyond. At their core, his photographs reflect a fundamental need to funnel the complexities of the outside world into a container suitable for continued reflection. Morell notes, “This process enlarges the idea that photography is really about more than just depth of field and f-stops, and ISO. Of course, that is crucial, but I think the tool of photography is used best when it’s influenced by life.
Photographs © Abelardo Morell /Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery
Above Photograph from Camera Obscura: Late Afternoon View of the East Side of Midtown Manhattan, New York, 2014
Born in Cuba, in 1948, Morell arrived in America with his parents and sister in 1962, settling in the bustling metropolis of New York City, which he initially found to be a confusing, frightening place. After completing high school and learning the rudiments of English, he received an affirmative action scholarship to attend Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. It was there that a photography course taught by Professor John McKee would alter his life’s trajectory.
“John was an amazing teacher who really inspired me, and I got to discover this thing that I immediately fell in love with,” says Morell. “I was just a young refugee, and Bowdoin College was a real test for me. But visually, I think I had some skills, and photography was a way to make sense of the world, and so it became very easy for me to accept photography as a way of speaking.”
Initially borrowing from the street photography tradition of legends such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, and Diane Arbus, Morell wandered the local neighborhoods with a 35mm Nikkormat and black-and-white film, eventually shifting to a Rollei for a bigger negative. “Photography took all my preoccupations to the streets,” he recalls. “It was just a way of making meaning purely in visual terms. But it really seemed like I didn’t have to learn that. It felt like that was a language that I was born with.”
Connecting to this visual language was a key to helping Morell come to terms with being in exile, adapting to his new environment and trying to become something. “Photography felt like an important talent that I wanted to be good at,” he says. “There was a way to get ahead, and to be recognized. I didn’t know at the time what I wanted to do, but I liked it when people liked my pictures.”
His classroom experiences with Professor McKee were equally enriching. “It was a very full approach to photography,” Morell notes. “John would play Bach in class, and he would show Navajo rugs, so it was not just photography. It was a way of seeing and a sensitivity towards design, and linking all kinds of crafts, and academic, intellectual sources.”
After graduating from Bowdoin, Morell continued his studies at Yale, earning a Master of Fine Arts in 1981. That same fall, he took up teaching, as a sabbatical replacement for McKee at Bowdoin. In 1983, he landed a position at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.
Discovering A Private Vision
With the birth of his son in 1986, Morell’s work took a decided turn. He gave up the hunt for decisive moments in the street in favor of more domestic subjects, photographed with a 4x5 Sinar view camera and 400 ISO Kodak black-and-white sheet film. “It’s a much slower pace having a child, so I wanted to do slow pictures in the house with a 4x5,” he explains.
He became fascinated with the idea of a child’s perspective on the world, and he began to explore this in pictures. In addition to making photos of his infant son and playthings, Morell’s sense of visual wonder extended to other everyday details of his surroundings, such as water pouring into a pot, and the visual distortions caused by reflections in a wine glass, or a fork placed in a glass of water.
This new way of working, “Really dramatically changed everything—my sensitivity, my patience, my interests in looking at small things, but not boring things,” he says. “And I loved the 4x5 rendering of things, so that was a big, big change for me.”
Morell also became infatuated with the optical world, and the interface between lenses and light, phenomena that forms the very foundation of photography. As a teacher, he sought to engage with his students by exposing them to the connection between these fundamental elements. In 1991, he built a rudimentary camera obscura out of a cardboard box and an enlarging lens, and then photographed the device in operation as the lens projected the image of a lightbulb on the interior wall of the box. Moving up in scale, he sealed the windows of his living room with black plastic and cut a dime-sized hole in the center to serve as an aperture for the passage of light, which projected an inverted image of the exterior scene onto the opposite wall. He documented the visual effect of this scene by positioning his 4x5 camera in front of the projected image.
While the tiny hole used for Morell’s earliest pictures provided sufficient depth of field to render an image, he admits it was “not exactly very sharp.” The image it projected was also very dim, requiring an extremely long exposure time for it to register on film.
Yet the many challenges involved in transforming an entire room into a camera only seemed to inspire Morell to seek out new locations in which to channel the external world into a private view. One of his early camera obscura pictures from New York was made inside an apartment across from the Empire State Building. After sealing up the room and creating an escape route for himself from layers of black plastic, he spent the 8 hours needed to expose the photograph having lunch, visiting his gallery, and going to a movie. “As opposed to being in New York and shooting five rolls of pictures, I had one 4x5 negative in my bag on the train back to Boston,” he says. “It was an interesting new take on how photography looked to me, and a very different way of making pictures.”
Despite his success with this work, the unpredictable nature of such long exposures became an important motivation for Morell to upgrade his tools and technologies. “The evolution of these pictures has changed a lot over time,” he notes.
The first step was to replace the open hole in the plastic with a diopter, a custom-made glass element resembling a reading glass lens. “A good optical lab can grind you a 2-inch lens that can focus at a designated distance,” he explains. “If the room size is right, then the image will be very sharp.”
This change cut his exposure time roughly in half, down to 3 to 4 hours using black-and-white film. But before long, Morell tried swapping black-and-white for Kodak 400 ISO color film. Not only did this lengthen his exposure time by an hour or more, he discovered that making long exposures in color can lead to unwelcome color shifts. “Trying to correct for all those shifts when making c-prints from my color negatives is kind of impossible,” he admits. “Luckily at the beginning of my color film era, I began looking into digital, which helped a lot.”
In March 2010, Morell began working with a Phase One P45+ 40MP camera system. He now uses a Phase One XF 100 camera with an IQ3 100MP digital back, and Schneider Kreuznach blue ring lenses from Mamiya Leaf. “They’re amazing in combination with the Phase One,” he says. “I have a 35mm, 55mm, 80, 120 and a 240mm, but the 55mm, 80mm and 120mm are the lenses I use the most.”
His exposures for camera obscura setups now average 2 to 4 minutes, using an aperture of f/8 or f/11 and an ISO of ISO100 to ISO200. These significantly shorter exposure times allow Morell to capture momentary light, such as clouds in the sky or shadows cast by large objects. “That’s a huge difference, which has totally changed the way my pictures look,” he says.
Reimagining 19th-Century Landscape Photographs
Shortly before his switch to digital, Morell was commissioned to make pictures in Big Bend National Park, in West Texas, a remote desert setting with no interior structures in which to set up a camera obscura. His improvised solution came in the form of a store-bought, 14-foot diameter tent, to which he fitted an adjustable lens that looks out onto the landscape. “I had to work on that idea for a while,” he admits. “We went to a fabricator, who housed a 90-degree prism within a metal housing, and then in front of the prism we put a 7-foot focusing lens. Then, with the help of one of my assistants, we poked holes in the top of the tent and created a support, using a giant Gitzo tripod to hold the housing. When we lift that up with the tripod peeking out of the tent, it becomes a true periscope.”
The prism projects an image downward at a 90-degree angle, so that it falls on the ground inside the darkened tent, with Morell’s camera hovering above, ready to capture the scene. While an uneven landscape can make the focusing process rather tedious, “We’ve found ways to make it work,” he adds.
Morell’s first tent pictures were shot on film, resulting in 3- to 4-hour exposure times. “That was kind of weird, especially in a hot desert,” he says, “but I soon began to use the digital camera, which cut my exposures to a minute or two.”
In these landscapes, the texture and color of the ground play an equally important part in the image. “The challenge is that you have to walk the desert, and walk the pasture. I kind of know what I want,” he says. “But I also have to find a surface that’s interesting. For instance, grass is not very interesting, it’s way too green and it doesn’t hold an image too well, so dirt is better.”
In some instances, Morell has replaced the ground beneath his tent with a surface that complements the landscape he is photographing. While scouting for a shoot in a flower garden near Seattle, Washington, Morell and his assistant found some old wooden planks. “We brought that in and it’s quite interesting to see an image of the gardens on this weathered wood.” he says.
In addition to producing an extensive body of tent camera images in America’s National Parks, in recent years Morell has also taken his tent camera to Europe, where he explored bucolic landscapes and gardens in France and England to make work reminiscent of European masters of landscape painting.
“I used the tent in Monet’s Garden, and I also made pictures where the British painter Constable worked, so I’m quite interested in the idea of following landscape artists and revisiting these sites where they painted with my own approach.”
While Morell’s picture-making techniques may have evolved dramatically since his earliest experiments with a basic pinhole technique, his motivation in using optical properties to make sense of the world has remained remarkably consistent. Along with describing his early efforts with the camera obscura as, “making this private spectacle from a private need to bring the whole world into a smaller, more manageable place,” he characterizes his tent-camera images as having, “a straight photography attitude with a lot of technology behind it. It’s basically straight pictures over an extraordinary thing,” he adds. “That’s the way I like to work.”
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