Cuban-born Abelardo Morell’s English was not that sharp when he took his first photography class in 1969 at Bowdoin College in Maine, but he quickly found a different voice, an expressive one, with a camera in his hand. In a matter of weeks, he knew he wanted to make photography his life.
His singular vision is fully on view in “Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door,” a just-opened High Museum of Art exhibition of more than 100 images taken from 1986 to the present.
Known as a master of camera obscura, a process through which a scene outside is projected through a pinhole into an interior environment and captured on film or digitally, Morell has embraced experimental techniques throughout his career.
“The Universe Next Door,” which fills the upper two levels of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing, is the first retrospective of the Brookline, Mass., photographer’s wonder-embracing, perception-tweaking pictures in 15 years.
Morell, 65, admitted he had some ambivalence about viewing the show at earlier tour stops, the Art Institute of Chicago and Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum.
“It’s always a little bit conflicting to see a retrospective,” he said. “It almost suggests it’s the end of something, which nobody wants to think about.”
But he expressed enthusiasm about Atlanta’s presentation, which includes a gallery of 2013 works commissioned by the High Museum as part of its “Picturing the South” series in which noted photographers focus on some aspect of the region.
“It points to a future of my work,” he said of the 15 photos, taken in Georgia and Tennessee, in which he explored built and natural environments.
Morell sees a thread linking the show’s earliest intimate images, where he captured life through the eyes his children, and his recent edge-pushing work.
“I’m always interested in making something new out of the world,” he said. “I’m trying to get back at the world through new lenses, new optics, and, in doing that, renew the sense of hope.”
Six Abelardo Morell photographs and the ideas behind them
“Laura and Brady in the Shadow of Our House” (1994)
Fatherhood ushered in a change in Abelardo Morell’s approach to photography — family and art-making becoming entwined for an artist who initially found inspiration in the work of street photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. This photograph followed a period starting in the mid-1980s when he focused on objects and aspects of childhood in and around his Boston home: a pile of crayons, a steep playground slide, wet footprints on the bathroom floor.
Morell said he noticed the house’s shadow “coming in and out, and looking interesting at certain parts of the year,” and he made a mental note to circle back to the subject the following summer when its presence was strongest. He scratched the rough outlines of windows, door and a fence in the dirt and posed his daughter and son, who appear to be inhabiting a home of their imagination.
“They were sort of a pain in the (behind) about it,” he recalled with a laugh about Laura, now 22, and Brady, now 27, “but they did it.”
“Paper Self” (2012)
Morell explored the “materiality” of books in the 1990s and early 2000s in photographs he executed at the Boston Athenaeum and Boston Public Library. “Paper Self” came well after that body of work but the photographer feels they are connected.
“I’ve been fascinated by how paper can provide a kind of symbolic quality to things,” he explained. “I thought, ‘I’ve never done a self-portrait so why don’t I do one that’s not typical by using paper?’ And it struck me that I’d never seen a self-portrait done out of a ream of paper from Staples!
“I had an assistant draw my outline on cardboard and sat the cardboard up vertically, and basically it took a couple of hours for my assistant to push the paper into the outline.”
“Nadelman/Hopper, Yale University Art Gallery” (2008)
As the Yale University Art Gallery artist in residence, Morell was present one day while a gallery was being rehung. He noticed interesting juxtapositions in the works casually placed during the process.
“I thought it would be different to try to create new hybrids, a piece out of two pieces,” the photographer said. “And I love both (Edward) Hopper and (Elie) Nadleman a lot …”
He persuaded curators to move the Nadleman bust close to the Hopper painting, and, after he added lighting, voila.
“What I like about it, is it looks (surreal) like a (Rene) Magritte or a (Giorgio) de Chirico (work) instead of a Nadleman or a Hopper.”
“Tent Camera Image on Ground: View of Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming” (2011)
Morell became interested in photographing Western landscapes, so the master of camera obscura engineered a tent camera with a periscope that captures outside images and projects them on the ground inside the tent where he then shoots them. It just seemed inevitable that the photographer would seek to capture Old Faithful erupting.
“It’s such a well-known image that I wanted to make it new again,” Morell said.
The photographer and his assistant set up the tent about 40 yards from the famed geyser, and got their shot on the first try.
“We were quite lucky,” he said. “This is a particular favorite of mine.”
“Camera Obscura: View of Midtown Atlanta Looking South in Conference Room” (2013)
For his “Picturing the South” series, which the High Museum commissioned, Morell said he was inspired by both the built and natural environments of Atlanta.
This image allowed him to “get two birds with one shot.” Not only was he able to bring the city skyline indoors, as he’s done in New York, San Francisco and other cities, but the juxtaposition gave him the opportunity to make a sly comment on how business shapes Atlanta.
“In those (kinds of conference) rooms is where the future of Atlanta rests,” he said. “I like the idea of corporate moguls sitting around and shaping what the outside (city) looks like. In a way, there is a little bit of an inside joke (to the photo).”
“Cutout in Print with Trees Behind” (2013)
Trees are prominently featured in Morell’s “Picturing the South” series. His approach to the time-tested subject was typically novel, however. For this image he returned to an early practice of combining collage with photography.
“I live in Boston, so Atlanta is pretty exotic to me,” he said. “ I really like the look of the vegetation down there, so I was a little bit like a tourist.”
This tourist brought with him some large reproductions of paintings, with a less-than-fully-worked-out idea that he could place them in the landscape he was photographing.
Morell is pleased with the way real flora peeks through the “frame” of the reproduction’s forest.
“I thought that was a nice little conversation,” he said
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