Flowers for Lisa: Abelardo Morell’s Enduring Gift of Images


When Abelardo Morell decided to turn a floral bouquet into one of his celebrated photographs as a birthday gift for his wife, little did he know that this touching gesture would evolve into a major series of his work and become the subject of his forthcoming coffee-table book.

While his initial motivation to create a colorful floral still life was because it “felt more enduring than actual flowers, something in the making of that first photograph gave me a newly found spark to experiment in ways I had not done before,” he says. “Precisely because flowers are such a conventional subject, I felt a strong desire to describe them in new, inventive ways.”

Above: Flowers for Lisa #76 - After Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 2017

Photographs © Abelardo Morell, Courtesy of the Artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery

Morell, who is widely celebrated for his camera obscura pictures—in which an exterior scene is projected onto the wall of a darkened interior space and photographed with a large format camera, and his tent camera images, in which a similar process is used to photograph the projected image of an exterior landscape on the floor of a 14" diameter tent—was already a master of photographic invention before he decided to focus his attention on the oft-stereotyped theme of flowers as a subject.

Flowers for Lisa

Initially influenced by Harry Callahan’s multiple exposure photographs of his wife juxtaposed with lush vegetation, which he has long admired, Morell states, “I wanted to make multiple exposures with a digital camera. I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just take one, or two, or three different bouquets and put them together.”

Flowers for Lisa #1, 2014

As he would learn, achieving a successful result was much more of a challenge, requiring a lot of time to perfect his process. Working on a tripod with a Phase One XF 100 camera, and IQ3 100mp digital back, Morell systematically added and removed successive bunches of flowers from a single vase, exposing approximately 20 frames and using a single point of focus. “The result is a lot of files, with the table, the vase and the background not moving,” he says.

These files were then combined in Photoshop, with minimal intervention by Morell to pull out desired elements that had become hidden by the image-stacking process. “I make some notes on the look of certain flowers, so we could go searching and bring elements back out,” he explains. “But the result is so compelling and wonderful that it feels like accepting this chance randomness is part of the fun. I present the technology with a system and it comes up with something.”

After creating the first photograph for his wife’s birthday, Morell made a second quick still life in the same fashion. “I really liked it a lot, but I was busy doing other stuff and I took a little break,” he recounts. “Then it dawned on me that if there were two interesting pictures on flowers, lots of them would be possible. So, I started in earnest to concentrate on coming up with ideas to make flower pictures. My aim was to try to make every picture different from the next.”

Exploring the Sense of Space

According to Morell, the psychology of space is a critical concern in this series. Sometimes an image calls for a wide-angle lens to increase the sense of space, and at other times a telephoto is required to heighten the sense of compression. For optimal sharpness, he uses Mamiya Leaf Schneider Kreuznach prime lenses in 35mm, 55mm, 80mm, 120mm, and 240mm focal lengths. “I also have the Schneider Kreuznach 2x teleconverter ring that will double my focal length, so I can make the 240mm into a 480,” he notes.

(Left to right) Flowers for Lisa #31, Flowers for Lisa #32, Flowers for Lisa #33, 2016

When photographing some of the larger bouquets, Morell positions the camera up to 20 feet away from his setup to achieve the tight space of Dutch flower paintings from the 17th Century. He often makes use of focus stacking in this series, “to imitate that impossible sharpness from close to far.” He notes, “There is an incredible depth of field that you could never get in a single shot, even at f/64.”

As a creative aid in coming up with new photographs, he jots down ideas in a notebook. “Some of the pictures are inspired by very esoteric ideas that begin to actually shape the image,” he says. “Sometimes we would work all day and not get anything, and sometimes an idea would come down from a dream. The studio was full of flowers, some dying, some alive, but I was very immersed in that whole process.”

Once he had produced 40 successful images, Morell approached the publisher Abrams with the prospect of a book. “They said, ‘We like this idea, but 40 images are not enough, you need to make at least 75,’” he recalls. At that point, Morell coupled inspiration with a serious work ethic to produce a total of 76 images, “One more than they wanted,” he asserts. “What I like about this series is that it’s got all sorts of influences—painting, music, design, fashion, philosophy—it’s about how I began to learn about photography. All these orbiting influences are always happening.”

A Delirium of Orbiting Influences

Many of the pictures combine past processes Morell has used with his present floral theme. In Flowers for Lisa #44, he revisits a fascination with paper to arrange thousands of index cards in adjacent stacks, revealing a stylized flower in the negative space between them. “Working with paper is interesting because it’s such a common material, but it can look like marble,” he says.

Flowers for Lisa #44, 2017

In other images, delicate petals and leaves are smeared with paint, veiling beauty with morbid overtones. “The subject of the photographs may be flowers, but they are also pictures about perspective, love, jealousy, hate, geometry, sex, life, the passage of time and death,” he points out.

A bold textured flower made with the cliché verre technique Flowers for Lisa #35, harks back to Morell’s 2010 book project for the Museum of Modern Art, illustrating a text by Oliver Sacks. In similar fashion, this picture has become a gateway to new work. After being invited to produce some pictures for The Addison Gallery of American Art’s fall 2018 exhibition about the sculptor Paul Manship, Morell decided to explore the cliché verre technique further. He notes, “I’m now in the process of making five enormous prints that are very decorative, in the style of Art Deco, so Flowers for Lisa is showing up in a different way now.”

For large exhibition prints, Morell works with the Boston-area professional printer Acorn Editions; however, he proofs all images in his own studio using an Epson SureColor P10000 44" printer.

Inspiration from the Masters

In addition to revisiting his own past work, Morell’s efforts to make a new statement in each of his images has led him to draw inspiration from art history, by creating pictures in homage to such legendary artists such as René Magritte, Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Vincent Van Gogh, Imogen Cunningham, and others. “Sometimes I’m not aware that I’m trying to do an homage, but then I put a mirror next to something looking into it, and Magritte just comes in screaming,” he points out. “And in some cases, I definitely have an artist in mind who I want to emulate. I’ll look through their work and see something that looks a bit like a flower. Then I try to make something similar, but adding my two cents to it.”

Flowers for Lisa #35 - Cliché-Verre, 2017

The last picture in Flowers for Lisa is inspired by Hitchcock’s classic film, Vertigo. “There’s a scene where Kim Novak buys what they call a nosegay, a small flower bouquet,” Morell explains. “And then there’s a really nice scene where Jimmy Stewart follows her into a museum, and she’s got the nosegay next to her on the bench while she’s looking at a painting of a woman holding the same bouquet. It’s very weird, psychologically,” he adds.

To recreate this scene, Morell output a frame of the bouquet from the film and took it to a local florist, asking them to create something like it. In the resulting photograph, Flowers for Lisa #76 – After Hitchcock’s Vertigo, cinematic drama oozes from the circular spotlight, illuminating a bouquet of delicate pink and blue flowers and wrapped in a doily.

Now that this series is complete, and the book is out, Morell is moving on to new projects. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of these is a direct continuation from the last image in Flowers for Lisa. “After Hitchcock is my next project,” he announces. “I’m finding frames from Hitchcock films and making images inspired by those frames for the series, After Hitchcock,” he says. “It’s very exciting because Hitchcock was a genius. His visual sense was so strong.”

Book Cover, Flowers for Lisa: A Delirium of Photographic Invention

Morell’s book Flowers for Lisa: A Delirium of Photographic Invention, published by Abrams, is widely available for purchase, online and at major bookstores. To learn more about Morell’s photography and to view the entire Flowers for Lisa series, click here.

Does photographing flowers get your creative juices flowing? Share your tips and tricks in the Comments section, below.