Monday, 14 October 2013

Looking at the art of Abelardo Morell - and making connections

The name Abelardo Morell did not, I have to admit, seem familiar to me when I opened the article about him in October's British Journal of Photography - more shame me!  The first of several 'connections' was made as I looked at the first image featured in that article:

The Empire State Building in Bedroom, 1994
(Courtesy of Abelardo Morell and Edwynn Houk Gallery)

My very first thought was of 'collage/montage/inversion' and a link to John Stezaker, about whom I had written only a few days earlier - here.  It isn't collage, of course, as I could quickly appreciate, but the connections were underway!  And, collage or not, the juxtaposition of two seemingly dissociated 'images' to arrive at a new meaning is certainly in line with Stezaker.

Reading on about Morell's Camera Obscura works and exploring his range further online, I was (and remain) puzzled as to why I don't find references to him in the considerable array of photography and art books in my collection; but the use of swathes of black plastic to convert a room into the camera obscura did ring a bell somewhere - and led me to the 'Genius of Photography' series that the BBC did in 2006/7.  Sure enough, there he is, in the first few minutes of the first programme, right behind Kert├ęz's 'Meudon' photograph, draping a palatial Venetian interior in black plastic, cutting that crucial small hole, and creating this:

Santa Maria della Salute in Palazzo Livingroom, Venice, Italy 2006
(Courtesy of Abelardo Morell and Edwynn Houk Gallery)

I am reassured!
'The Universe Next Door', a recently published monograph, largely picks up the story of Morell's photography from 1986 onwards.  He was 38 by then, a father for the first time; was teaching photography, with a Masters from Yale; and must have had some seriously formative life experiences since being born in Cuba, seeing his father arrested by the post-revolutionary government, moving to New York (with little or no English) at the age of 13, and studying under Tod Papageorge at Yale - to mention just a few.  But 1986 seems to have seen a significant change of direction.  In a sense, he came indoors, from street photography, to create different, more thoughtful, more contemplative, more experimental images.  He accredits the change to becoming a father - both from an attitudinal viewpoint (seeing the world through new eyes) and from a practical one (spending time caring for his new son).  Since then, as is illustrated in the book and on his website, his range has included images of books, artworks, museums, 'still life', photograms, paper cut-outs, as well as the camera obscura and its more recent descendant, his 'tent camera'.
What comes across very strongly to me, as a student of, and late-comer to, photography, is an ever-present enthusiasm and fascination for the process of photographic image-making.  All these images seem to interrogate the medium, probing and seeking out the possibilities.  So, in that respect, there is an intellectual quality to them.  But at the same time, they are interesting images in their own right - as though there is something for the casual beholder as well as the curator and the academic.  These two, quite different, examples demonstrate the point.  Light Bulb, 1991 was created to illustrate the optical principles of photography to his students (and to delight them in those principles, too, as with the camera obscura).  I like the use of a crude cardboard box on an old table top - the 'homely' physicality feels close to some of my own efforts in the last few months (here).  Yet the image appeared in a poster and brochure cover for MOMA in 1992.  That seemingly simple, homemade set up has something fundamental to say about photography's ability to transform and re-present.  Likewise - albeit in a very different way - Nadelman/Hopper, 2008.  On the face of it, another apparently simple juxtaposition (of two artworks) - but the 'magic' of the photographic transformation, the careful framing and lighting, produce an image that is both attractive in its own right but also open to multiple readings.
At a personal level, I am encouraged by a quote from Morell in the BJP article.  Referring to his 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' illustrations, he says, "I thought I would make pictures that are very low tech, with pages taken out of the book and stuck together with tape."  I wish I'd read that a few weeks ago when I was thinking about my most recent assignment - here!  This is a good example:

It Was Much Pleasanter At Home, 1998
(Courtesy of Abelardo Morell and Edwynn Houk Gallery)

Looking at the 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' series, I can feel the physical delight in cutting, copying, resizing, cutting some more, juxtaposing, assembling, lighting, etc ... and then, eventually, seeing that finished outcome - turning out, perhaps, even better than he expected.  I had thought about attempting to create three-dimensional 'assemblies' for my own assignment and this encourages me to go back to that idea at some stage.  However, one can respond to the process of creating these images in a broader and more fundamental way.  These may be illustrations for a children's story, but they confirm to me the immense scope that exists for experimentation in different manners of 'photographic' response to the world around us.
Abelardo Morell's own experimentation has taken him on to the 'tent camera', a moveable camera obscura equipped with periscope, prisms etc, that has enables him to go out into the landscape and create images of the world projected onto the ground within the tent.

Tent Camera Image on Ground: View of the Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, California 2012
(Courtesy of Abelardo Morell and Edwynn Houk Gallery)

So, once again, two very different images/elements are combined to seek a new meaning.  Interesting as they are, I feel less of a personal response to these images - truthfully.  They have something painterly about them, which Morell himself identifies; and there is a possible reference to pixels in some, such as above.  (He does now use digital methods.)  But most significant of all, for me, is the ongoing desire to explore the possibilities and the different ways in which photography can look at the world - 'The Universe Next Door'.  In her introductory essay in the book of that name,  Elizabeth Siegel, Associate Curator in the Department of Photography at The Art Institute of Chicago, says that "... Morell has watched developments in contemporary photography with interest and has at times, he says, felt like a defender of photography to those who proclaim its demise."  She goes on to say that, "He maintains his belief, even in the present age of digital convenience, that the photograph must be worked for and earned; he continues to delight in conceiving pictures and laboring towards their execution." Coming as I do, from an entirely digital introduction to photography, I sometimes wonder whether I have missed out by not pursuing the detailed exploration of its original methods.  Chances are that many - perhaps including Abelardo Morell (and certainly some OCA tutors!) - would say that I have.  But I have neither the time nor feel the inclination to do so at present and, crucially, it is in those notions of 'working for' and 'earning' the image that the key lessons lie here, whether it is executed by digital methods or any other.
It is good, as a student (even a decidedly mature one), to study artists that are new to one and to feel some sense of connection with what they are doing and their approach to their art.  There are reassuring, inspiring and, also, challenging connections in looking at Abelardo Morells work, and I will continue to look in more detail as I press on with my own journey of exploration through the medium of photography.
'Postscript Connections'
I'm tucking this away as an anecdotal 'postscript' to avoid any idea that it is anything other than a light-hearted reference to my own work in the context of Morell.  But - I couldn't help recalling some photographs that I made almost seven years ago, a few weeks after acquiring my first digital SLR camera.  Having played with it for a while, I made myself put the camera on a tripod, turn the dial to 'Manual', point it at a few 'objects' on an old table, and begin to think more carefully about what I was doing.  Honestly, these are two of the first 'thoughtful' photographs that I made! 


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