Some of Abelardo Morell’s most successful photographs are incomprehensible. I mean that in the best possible sense. They live up to Huh? Wow!, Ed Ruscha’s description of a successful contemporary art experience.
His photographs created within a camera obscura slow the viewing experience, forcing a viewer to try and come to terms with his picture within a picture compositions. The survey of his work, aptly titled The Universe Next Door, is on view at the Getty Museum through January 5, 2014.
The Cuban-born, Yale-educated photographer, now 62, initially turned his bedroom into a camera obscura in 1991 by taping black plastic over the windows and leaving a small hole less than an inch in diameter. The view of the house and trees across the street was projected, upside down, on the wall of his bedroom and across the pillows and covers of his bed. He then used a view camera to take a picture of the scene though the exposure lasted eight hours. This black and white photograph, Camera Obscura: Houses Across the Street in Our Bedroom, Quincy, Massachusetts, (1991) looks like something that might float into the unconscious during a dream. And no other photographer had attempted such a feat despite the fact that the camera obscura has been around since the time of Plato.
The camera obscura is simply a room, or a box, with a small hole so that an exterior scene will appear on the opposite surface. There happens to be a walk-in version, on the palisades of Santa Monica. Morell made a number of photographs in black and white as well as color using this technique and each is astonishing. Some project the Manhattan skyline into a bedroom, some are hotly colored, some are made with a tent in Yosemite with a periscope lens that transfers the mountains or waterfall onto the ground so that the image is seen atop the stones and twigs and dirt. At one point, Morell applied a prism over the hole so that the image would be projected upright instead of upside down.
Morell’s overriding concern is optics and this is evident in a rich array of other photographs in the show including a series on books that appear to have the heft and materiality of sculpture or the effect of sunlight pouring into a domestic interior. He is adept at rendering the ordinary extraordinary. The exhibition was organized by Getty curator Paul Martineau in association with the Art Institute of Chicago and High Museum of Art, Atlanta. For more information, go to Getty.edu.