Abelardo Morell Interview: Capturing the Topsy-Turvy Fantasies of the Camera Obscura

Morell Photography demands attention from the viewer. 

 Morell Photography - Featured

In 1991, Abelardo Morell captured something that might have never been photographed before. Even though many people had seen what he saw, Morell was the first to make a career capturing the images that come to life when using a camera obscura. Taking around eight hours to properly expose on 4 x 5 film, each photograph is a jumbled puzzle of interiors and exteriors. One way to read them is to do so in shorthand. You can, for example, use all the shapes, colors, and signs that you see above to conjure up Times Square. It would be easy. Nobody would call you crazy, but to do so would obscure a more important reading.

Making what’s inside the picture fit an image inside your head falls back on a way seeing that these photographs try to cancel. Morell photography asks for a different way of seeing: they remind you that it’s okay to imagine something else. If you want to see beyond the appearance of things, who cares? The logic of his photographs is the same of a dream. You can, as you did as a kid, let one shapeshifting fantasy unfold to the next, see shadows and light play out on the ceilings, floors, and walls like stories, all being created and destroyed out of nothing.

I spoke to Morell over email about how he got started and about what he thinks about his process.

Morell photography - Morell camera obscura

You first started using a camera obscura in 1991. What was your first experience with the technique? Do you remember your first impressions? I imagine it’s like landing on the moon, a new view unlike any other.

I began teaching Photography in 1983 at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. I remember turning classrooms into camera obscuras in the mid 80s as a way to teach some of the fundamentals of photography to my young students. The very first time I made the demonstration by blackening the room with black plastic and poking a small hole in the black material, the sense of awe we all shared was palpable when a live image of the street came inside our classroom. .

Morell photography - Morell on sabbatical leave

In 1991, when I was on a sabbatical leave with time on my hands, I thought that it would be interesting to make a photograph of the actual effect of the camera obscura in a room. My first attempt was in the fall of 1991 in our living room in Quincy, Massachusetts. Getting the right exposure times at the beginning was very much trial and error. Eventually, I figured out that a decent exposure to render an acceptable looking 4×5 negative was around eight hours. I felt as if I had invented a new kind of photography. Without knowing it I made a sort of picture that had never been made before. I was floating — still am.

How did you get your start in photography?

I began studying photography in the fall of 1969, my junior year at Bowdoin College. My teacher was John McKee and he was wonderful. He taught photography by having us read poems, listening to Bach and think of things beyond the mechanical aspects of photography. I really bloomed in his class. I knew by the first week that I had found my calling. My English wasn’t still so hot — I arrived from Cuba as an exile in 1962 — but my visual language was rather more sophisticated.

Morell photography - domesticate the fantastic

The poet Charles Simic called your photographic approach a way to “domesticate the fantastic.” What does this wording mean to you? Do you agree with him?

I think that Charlie had in mind the way irrational things can be changed to something that can be a bit more understandable or glanced at. Domestication may be going too far. After all, you don’t want your ideas to be nice and docile. It should be harder to get your milk.

What do you consider fantastic in life? What reliably draws your attention?

The fantastic for me is discovering how special the everyday looks under the right light or point of view. Nothing in the world should be taken for granted.

Morell photography - vivid memories of my childhood

How important are memories of childhood to you? Do you remember your first visual memory?

I don’t have vivid memories of my childhood. I was born in Havana, which had a lot of pollution. My family moved to a beach town called Guanabo for a healthier setting, and a contrast between city and water do show up in my memories. Outside of that, what drives me is the event of 1962 when we packed up to leave our island, as it turned out, for good.

Morell photography - emails describing

How do you find these rooms to photograph from? Do you send out emails describing what you’re looking for? If so, how exactly do you describe what you’re looking for?

I’m lucky that a number of people get in touch with me about their views, and very often these rooms and views work out. I do do a lot of scouting or ask people to check out a site for me. Google Earth has become very useful to see what houses or buildings face a given thing I want in my picture.

Morell photography - taught me a hopeful lesson

Your work taught me a hopeful lesson: almost everywhere there’s a meeting point between the fantastic and the ordinary. Your photographs are evidence. Has shooting these views taught you anything about coincidence, poetry, or resemblances? What does it mean that such meeting points exist?

I actually majored in Comparative Religions at Bowdoin, and one of the most profound lessons I learned was from a professor who said something like, Religion is the union of opposites. It’s in this dialectic where some enlightenment resides, and I try to keep that in mind when I look for images to photograph.

A great example of Morell photography

Morell photography - common denominators

What are the common denominators to a good meeting point? Have you worked out any criteria to them? 

Good meeting points in art and in life often come unannounced, but you know them when they come. A very important lesson for my artistic self came when our first child, Brady, was born in 1986. At that time I thought that my goal was still in making street pictures. Now being a father I realized that home was where I belonged. Once I accepted that my wife, Lisa, and my son were the most important things to me, I began to make pictures of them and their things, and this act made my intellect meet my heart in the sweetest of ways. I got better as an artist while I was trying to be a better husband and father.

Morell photography - Abelardo Morell photography last

All images © Abelardo Morell. See more of Morell photography work here.