Abelardo Morell explores ‘The Universe Next Door’

Photographer goes through the looking-glass

It sometimes seems there’s nothing more ordinary than a photograph. We see thousands of images every day: their subjects are of varying levels of interest to us - we might be momentarily impressed - but when we’re bored of one we click on to another. It’s rare we stop to think about the weird miracle of the camera itself, the little mechanical eye that opens for a fraction of a second to capture light bouncing off objects, recording their momentary imprint, making them permanent, allowing them to be seen in a totally different time and place. To look at the work of Abelardo Morell is to be viscerally reminded of what an extraordinary and strange thing a photograph truly is.

“No one that I knew of had ever made a picture of what an interior of a camera obscura looked like,” says the artist Morell, who was recently in Atlanta to promote the opening of his exhibition ‘’The Universe Next Door at the High Museum. “People talk about it all the time. But a photograph of it had never existed. When I finished my first, I felt like I did something no one else had done. It felt like I had invented photography, like I was one of the inventors. That felt amazing.”
Morell’s most famous series of photographs involves the use of a camera obscura, or dark room, a centuries-old optical trick that predates the pinhole camera: an image, upside down and backwards, is projected on a wall in a darkened chamber through a tiny hole that allows in light from outside. In 1991, he began photographing interiors with camera obscura images on the walls in black and white. In later photographs starting in 2005, he began to use color, and in 2007, Morell began using prisms to set the typically upside-down camera obsura image right side up. In all of them, though we are looking inside a room, we’re also looking outside. But the resulting images are not at all disorienting; in fact, they seem eerily matter-of-fact. They make sense the way a dream makes sense before you try to explain it. There is never a sense of showiness or trickery, just a quiet insistence on the commonplace nature of this dizzyingly peculiar thing we’re looking at.

Morell grew up in Guanabo, a beach town near Havana, Cuba, until the age of 14 when his family moved to New York. Morell says he had trouble learning English, but as a student at Maine’s Bowdoin College in 1969 he took a class and discovered a language he was instantly adept at: photography. “That told me right away that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. “It gave me a feeling that I could talk.”

He originally spoke the language of street photography in New York City, but it was his interest in the technical aspects of the camera (his initial ambition was to be an engineer) that slowly developed as the most exciting aspect of his work. Even when he’s not working with the camera obscura, his work tends towards an interest in shadows, mirrors, pictures within pictures, cut-outs, and reflections: their multiple surfaces and perspectives often allow us to see things from both up and down, inside and out, on the surface and into the depths. Unsurprisingly Lewis Carroll’s Alice figures prominently in a series of photographs at the exhibition: in Morell’s world, like Carroll’s, ordinary, every day objects - tea cups, playing cards, books - can take on an extraordinary life.

When Morell uses physical film for his camera obscura works, the images can take up to five to eight hours of exposure to create. “I have lunch, I have a nice day out,” he says. “But I’m always worried about the weather, the rain. There’s the neurotic sense about whether the sun will stay out ... Oftentimes we’ll work eight hours and get nothing.” Digital film is much faster, typically taking five minutes or so, allowing him to capture images at different times of day. A series on the Brooklyn Bridge in different light recalls Monet’s series on the Rouen Cathedral: the thing itself is somehow immaterial, it’s the light that gives it form.

Morell often photographs familiar landmarks and buildings with his camera obscura technique - the New York skyline, the Piazza San Marco in Venice - and a tent allows him to make the technique portable. Especially lovely, almost painterly, is the series hung in one room at the High in which the camera obscura images are thrown onto textured ground rather than a white wall.

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Morell is also exhibiting a room of new work commissioned by the High itself as part of its “Picturing the South” series, for which the museum commissions photographers to make work in the region. For the commission Morell made several of his signature camera obscura images, most of them in high-rises within walking distance of the High Museum, from rooms at the 4 Seasons, the Loews Hotel and the King & Spalding building. But during his time here Morell also developed a fascination with the trees that surround the city.

“I really liked the challenge of doing something different,” he says. “I thought trees - I’ve never done trees. Why don’t I try to do it my way? My way involves looking at things through different optics, framing things, mirrors, anything to create a new view of what’s known. In every image I try to have a new meaning for how a tree could be seen or interpreted.” His images of Atlanta and Georgia trees involve mirrors, cutting into or layering pre-existing images, playing inventively and whimsically with the theatricality and subjectivity of the frame.

Morell is an artist who is singularly and deeply conscious of the camera’s process, but also possesses the rare aesthetic that can remind us of the beauty and mystery in everyday things. The title of his exhibition, he explains, comes from the final line of the poem ‘pity this busy monster, manunkind’ by e.e. cummings. After giving a grim diagnosis of the hopelessness of mankind in this world, the speaker in the poem offers: “There’s a hell of a good universe next door. Let’s go.”

“It’s that idea of maybe packing up, that next to your mundane life that there’s another universe to go to,” says Morell. “I think of it in that way, that these pictures come from opening that door and finding something interesting.”’’