Last night, I attended an artist talk by Abelardo Morell, a photographer I only became aware of two weeks ago when I covered the The American Society of Media Photographers' (ASMP-DC) FotoWeek DC event for the FotoWeek blog. As soon as I was finished with that post, I reserved my own spot at the talk and ordered a book of his earlier work.
Artist and photographer Abelardo Morell's work using the camera obscura has been named “one of the most original and enthralling bodies of work in contemporary photography” by author Tim O’Neill in the May 2011 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
The camera obscura uses the camera’s most essential process, the focusing of light, to create colorful, moving images that may then be captured directly on light-sensitive material or photographed. When light, which travels in a straight line, passes through a tiny hole, the rays cross and come together as an inverted image on a flat surface opposite the hole. The image may be sharpened by narrowing the hole, which also causes it to darken; widening the hole, or opening the aperture, increases the brightness. A pinhole camera is a type of camera obscura, which explains the reason why all of the exposures are upside down on the film (this really has never occurred to me before).
Morell’s work incorporates the outside world within the environment of the darkened room, using the texture of the interior surface to create dimension to the transient image. In many cases, the architectural features of the room parallel that of the outdoor structures in surprising and clever ways, as in his View of the Manhattan Bridge-April 30th / Morning, 201 and Winter Scene in Bedroom, Brookline, MA, 2000. If you look closely at Cathedral in Empty Room With Mirror, Antwerp, Belgium, 2006, you can discover insight into his artistic process.
I was enthralled by this clever use of a naturally-occurring process and was excited to hear the artist discuss his work in person, as I had so many questions. Morell, as clever a speaker as his serendipitious photographs, did not dissapoint.
Born in Cuba, his family relocated to New York City in 1962, when he was in his early teens. Morell began using a Brownie to photograph his family, much in the style of Diane Arbus he "didn't know what the hell he was doing" even though his photographs suggest otherwise. His early work using the Brownie captured a fresh outlook towards a new city with a sense of experimentation and the surrealism of life - "life was strange and I wanted to show it", described by Morell. Through his college years, Morell focused on light-filled photos of the outdoors and nontraditional portraits of people (early street photography), which echoed his life in Cuba filled with the "sea, openness, and light."
After the birth of his first son, his photography turned more indoors where he was spending most of his time, exploring long exposure, water, and reflections. He even sat his view camera on the floor to see the apartment from the perspective of his son. During this time, the idea of crude optics led to the discovery of how cameras view the world and Morell began working with the camera obscura effect, obtaining layers of the outside on the layers of the inside yielding trippy images that pushed the boundaries of the traditional perfect, straight-forward types of photography that the mainstream was moving towards. "I found my acid here", said Morell.
To produce his camera obscura work, Morell finds a room with a view and blocks the light from the windows, usually using plywood with a hole, sets up his view camera, and leaves for 5 to 8 hours while the sunlight does its thing. While the reflection from the outdoors is fairly bright within the room, the film requires a long exposure to capture detail due to reciprocity. Needless to say, his photographs have caught the attention of people all over the world whose offices, apartments, or rooftops overlook extraordiary views - and, invite him to produce work from these locations.
Currently, Morell's focus is on the ground. In redirecting a landscape or other image downward, the Grand Tetons, Italian piazzas, and city skylines assume the soft qualities of impressionist watercolors with the texture of the ground adding grain - cobblestones meet architecture, gravel rooftops meet the NYC skyline. Using his tent-camera, which consists of a periscope with a diopter, which focuses and flips the image, , and a 90-degree prism, which directs it downward, Morell is able to see a moving image of the outside on the inside of the tent. He then photographs the reflection using his view camera, which is equipped with a digital back, which allows for exposures in under five minutes.
Using his tent-camera, Morell is seeking to recreate many of the iconic photographs made by William Henry Jackson and paintings of Thomas Moran that led to the creation of our country's national park system. As he described, Morell is "rying to renew something that "has been done to death" by photographing iconic pictures and rediscover their essence so it "feels like a whole new experience."
In the Q&A session at the close of his presentation, someone asked why he goes through all the trouble to do something that can be done in Photoshop and if he has ever thought to simply merge two photographs in that way, to which Morell replied, "I have left instructions for people to shoot me in the head if I ever did that."