Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Abelardo Morell: Reclaiming the Familiar

The Universe Next Door is a fitting description of the work of Abelardo Morell, whose photographs are now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum through January 5, 2014. Morell reveals a world not traditionally captured in photographs, one that exists beyond the scope of the lens. One can dream up such landscapes but rarely do we get to see them within the formal confines of art.

The Cuban-born American artist employs the age-old technique of camera obscura to achieve his signature photographs. The Latin phrase for “dark room,” camera obscura refers to an enclosed space with an aperture. When light shines through the aperture, images from the outside are projected within.

Drawing of a 19th century camera obscura, Dionysis Larder, 1855
Anyone can make a camera obscura: all you need are a box and a light source. Once you insert a hole - a well-calculated hole - on one side of the box, light from the external scene will pass through and project itself onto the interior’s surface. The image will be upside down, but the colors and shapes of the scene will remain. Morell’s Light Bulb, one of the first images to greet you in the Getty exhibition, captures the fundamentals of this process.

Light Bulb, 1991
Gelatin silver print
If Morell's camera obscuras appear repetitive at first glance, don't be misled. His pictures never fail to surprise. He captures the individuality of spaces; an almost schizophrenic individuality. The same room can have an endless quotient of personalities when Morell is behind the camera. An autumnal landscape casts itself upon the walls of a quiet and pristine room; the same landscape presents itself in another photograph, yet this time it is winter.

Dream-like, too, are his photographs. A hotel room becomes extraordinary when the silhouette of an upside-down Chrysler building traverses down the wall, its spire extending across the length of the rug. Such images remind us that the elements of our familiar universe can be made unexpectedly, powerfully new.

The Chrysler Building in Hotel Room, 1997
Morell propels the outside world into domestic interiors. Public and private spaces converge. The affect is something Frank Lloyd Wright might like, who endorsed the philosophy of bringing the outside in.

Morell's projections not only render environments surreal but also theatrical. Indeed his wife, Lisa, recounts her experiences of watching the outside world projected onto their bedroom wall: “…You and I would sleep there with the black plastic on the windows, and then in the morning we could watch all the neighbors walking by and the squirrels on the telephone wires, and, it felt like a dream sometimes.”

Camera Obscura: View of the Brooklyn Bridge in Bedroom, 2009
With the curtains closed save for an opening to let the light in, the Morells engaged with the outside world in secret. I doubt Morell’s goal was voyeuristic, but it certainly allowed room for that. There is nothing wrong with innocent curiosity.

Struck by Morell's potential to spark an interesting dialogue, museums have invited him to shoot camera obscuras on their premises. The image below, taken at the Whitney Museum in New York, is a fun play on Morell's photographs of domestic interiors. It also recreates the art-viewing experience: the Edward Hopper painting is no longer seen against a traditional monochromatic wall, but a textured one that both distorts and enhances certain qualities of the painting. Note how the projected building overlaps with the wall in the painting. It makes the latter appear as though it, too, is made of brick.

Camera Obscura Image of Windows in Gallery with Hopper Painting, 2003
Morell continues to push the envelope. Most recently he has begun exploring a technique involving the use of a “tent camera.” His own invention, it enables him to achieve the effects of camera obscura entirely outdoors. In the image below, what initially looks like a sand painting is actually a projection of the Golden Gate Bridge onto a patch of ground. Morell calls it “a collision of two realities on a surface.”

Tent Camera Image on Ground: View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Yates, 2012
Morell's experiments with camera obscura are among his many diverse pursuits. He is also known for his images that capture life from a child’s perspective, his sensuous photographs of books, and his clich√©-verres ("glass pictures," referring to his hand-made negatives). You can see them all on his website.

...Wonder how Morell managed to project his images upright? I did, too. He used a prism.

Prior to opening at the Getty, The Universe Next Door made its debut at The Art Institute of Chicago. In February 2014 it will travel to The High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing this artist's work. I love photography, it's truly my favorite form of art. Add in camera obscura and Morell turns photography into a magical journey.

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