Photographer Abelardo Morell’s inventive career is driven by creative discovery. He has conceived of new ways of looking at everyday objects and harnessed the basic principles of optics to create unexpected and mesmerizing photographs. The Universe Next Door is a major retrospective and presents more than one hundred of Morell’s works, including a new series commissioned by the High.
Laura and Brady in the Shadow of Our House, 1994
Gelatin silver print
The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Abelardo MorellFatherhood was not a distraction from art-making for Morell, but rather became an integral part of it. Inspired by his young children, he began looking more deliberately; he later wrote, “I started making photographs as if I were a child myself.” Moving beyond observation, Morell began constructing the scenes for his photographs. Here, marks scrawled into the dirt combine with the cast shadow of his roof to create an imaginary home for his two children. He combines his own form of image-making, photography, with the rudimentary drawing of childhood.
Down the Rabbit Hole, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1998, printed 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New YorkIn the 1990s Morell was invited to illustrate a new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He positioned cutouts of the original John Tenniel illustrations as if at play in a fantastical three-dimensional landscape of books. A hole in a thick volume becomes the famous rabbit hole, and light emanating from within it represents the seductive pull of a good story.
Small Vase at the Edge of a Table, 2002
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Friends of Photography and Marian and Benjamin A. Hill, 2012.212In her seminal book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote, “To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified.” With his camera, Morell transforms the most mundane objects. Here, a vase perched precariously at the edge of a table bears a sense of great tension. The puddle on the floor below it confuses the chronology of the scene; the vase appears about to fall, but the spilled liquid suggests that it has already fallen.
Motion Study of Hammer Impressions on Lead, 2004
Gelatin silver print
The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan SteinhauserMorell referenced the early stop-motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey in constructing this sculpture, which simulates the movements of a hammer. This image is not intended to imitate a scientific document; instead, it plays with the conventions of such works. Each successive impression of the hammer appears slightly less crisp to suggest the blur caused by a longer exposure time.
Still Life with Wine Glass: Photogram on 20″ x 24″ Film, 2006
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Friends of Photography, 2012.217Photograms, or camera-less photographs, are typically made by placing objects directly onto light sensitive-paper and exposing them to light. Morell wanted to create a sense of depth and perspective not often seen in photograms, so he set up still-life compositions and used a flashlight to cast shadows from them onto large sheets of film affixed to an easel. The result was a surreal landscape that toys with the viewer’s sense of scale and perspective.
Camera Obscura: Santa Maria della Salute in Palazzo Bedroom, Venice, Italy, 2006
Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New YorkThe Santa Maria della Salute – an ornate seventeenth-century church that sits in Venice’s Grand Canal, surrounded by water on three sides – serves as an emblem of the city. It has attracted generations of artists, both professional and amateur, hoping to capture a likeness. Morell references this history of image-making and depicts the church in a novel way by placing an engraving of the building inside the inverted projection of the iconic dome.
Camera Obscura: View of the Brooklyn Bridge in Bedroom, 2009
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, purchased with funds provided by Richard and Alison Crowell, Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, and anonymous donors in honor of James N. WoodAfter decades of working exclusively in black and white, in 2005 Morell began producing camera obscura images in color. He made further tweaks to his process: inserting a diopter lens into the pinhole to sharpen the image’s focus and using a prism to change the orientation of his projections from upside down to right side up. In this photograph, the red sheets call attention to the bed as a site of dreamscapes as well as a place of intimacy in contrast to the more public space outside.
Tent Camera Image on Ground: View of Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 2011
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from Joe and Tede Williams and the Friends of Photography, and with funds given in memory of Dr. Robert Bunnen, 2012.210Morell’s early camera obscura photographs required eight-hour-long exposures, thus any moving objects would not appear in the final image. When he switched to digital, the exposure time was dramatically reduced, allowing Morell to photograph something as transient as the eruption of Old Faithful in Yellowstone. The portable tent camera used here throws a projection of the iconic vantage point on the speckled surface of the ground below, creating a painterly effect.
Camera Obscura: View of Midtown Atlanta Looking South in Conference Room, 2013
Commissioned with funds from the H.B. and Doris Massey Charitable Trust and gift of the artistAs part of its celebrated Picturing the South program, the High commissioned Morell to create a series of pictures that would launch a new chapter in his career and complement the Museum’s major retrospective of his work. In this photograph Morell cast the Atlanta skyline across the wall of a conference room. The lush pockets of green in the cityscape contrast the cool, corporate features of the interior.
Over the past twenty-five years, Abelardo Morell has gained international renown for works that employ the language of photography to explore visual surprise and wonder.
Morell has turned his camera on conveyors of cultural meaning—such as family, books, maps, money, and museums – in extensive series that explore the perception of images. He has experimented with techniques including photograms, still-life tableaux, stop-motion studies, camera obscura, and most recently the tent camera – a portable camera obscura that projects the image of a landscape upon the surface of the ground.
Now, after decades of working exclusively in black and white, Morell has embraced color and returned to old themes and series to view them in a new spectrum. This retrospective of more than one hundred works made from 1986 to the present traces Morell’s innovative career as he continues to mine the essential strangeness and complexity of images.
Born in Cuba in 1948, Abelardo Morell immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1962. He received a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College in Maine, where he took his first photography course. Morell went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University. In his graduate work, he was influenced by street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank.
The birth of his son Brady in 1986 marked a turning point in Morell’s career. He began to photograph everyday objects with the wide-eyed wonder with which he witnessed his son confronting the world. With his camera, Morell deconstructs objects laden with cultural symbolism and heaps meaning upon sights we might overlook.
As a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Morell amazed his students by transforming his classroom into a giant camera obscura, casting the passing city buses outside the window onto the room’s ceiling. He has since used this technique to uncannily combine exterior and interior spaces in dreamlike tableaux within his work.
The camera obscura (Latin for “dark chamber”), a device that led to the invention of the camera, has been around since antiquity. Whether an entire room or a small handheld box, a camera obscura is a darkened enclosure equipped with a pinhole, or aperture. Light from an external source enters the enclosure through the aperture, resulting in the projection of an inverted image of the outside world on a surface inside. Morell has created camera obscuras all over the world, setting up his tripod-mounted camera inside darkened rooms to record mesmerizing optical events. For some of his photographs Morell placed a prism in the aperture, flipping the image vertically so that it appears upright to viewers.
Morell and an assistant spent a year developing a “tent camera” – a type of portable camera obscura. A periscope at the top of the bottomless tent acts as the aperture, and the outside scene is transmitted onto the surface of the ground. Morell has used this technique to photograph the immense vistas of the American West, among other subjects.
Abelardo Morell is the latest artist to receive the High’s celebrated Picturing the South commission. His new work will be on view to complement the works in the exhibition that span his career. For the commission, Morell focused on representing trees – an iconic subject in the history of photography – in playfully unusual and imaginative ways. In addition to looking at trees of the Southern landscape, he has used a camera obscura to capture their urban counterpoint in several views of the Atlanta skyline.
Through the distinctive Picturing the South initiative, established in 1996, the High commissions established and emerging photographers to produce work inspired by the American South. Past participants include Sally Mann, Dawoud Bey, Richard Misrach, Emmet Gowin, Alex Webb, Alec Soth, Martin Parr, Kael Alford, and Shane Lavalette, whose commissions have all been added to the High’s permanent collection.