Abelardo Morell, whose retrospective The Universe Next Door opened June 1, has become known for making pictures that get to the heart of photography. He has turned entire rooms into cameras, employing a phenomenon that has been known since antiquity: that light entering a darkened room (“camera obscura”) through a small aperture will project an image, upside-down and reversed, on the opposite surface. More recently, he has been making pictures with the tent camera, a kind of portable camera obscura he designed himself. A lens in the top of the tent projects the outside scene onto the ground—whether rocks, sand, grass, or city sidewalk—and he then photographs the combination of the two.
Morell’s influences, however, are not strictly from the field of photography. In fact, he finds himself looking more to painting for models. When he was a student at Bowdoin College in Maine, he discovered Winslow Homer, the 19th-century painter who so famously depicted the New England landscape, especially the sea. One of the foremost scholars of Homer, Philip Beam, taught at Bowdoin, and Morell—who had dropped out of college but remained in town working at the university art museum—ended up photographing numerous paintings and book reproductions for the professor.
With his tent camera, Morell says he now feels more like a painter. In the Modern Wing’s Bucksbaum Gallery, where the tent camera pictures are on view, you can see how gravel on a Manhattan rooftop starts looking like pointillist dots, or how cracked earth along the Rio Grande begins to mimic thick flourishes of paint. He took his tent camera to Winslow Homer’s home and studio in Prouts Neck, Maine, an isolated stretch overlooking the ocean, where the painter lived and painted seascapes for much of his last 25 years. Morell positioned the tent over a patch of sandy grass and directed the periscope lens onto the sea. The resulting picture shows wisps of clouds over the ocean’s horizon, rendered more abstract through the tangled mesh of plants. In an homage to an artist he admired, Morell merged the present and the past and combined painting and photography.
Take a look at this watercolor from the Art Institute’s collection (above) and Morell’s tent camera photograph (below):
—Elizabeth Siegel, Associate Curator of Photography
Winslow Homer. Breaking Storm, Coast of Maine, 1894. Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Abelardo Morell, Tent Camera Image on Ground: View of Sea from Winslow Homer’s Studio Backyard, Prouts Neck, Maine, 2012. High Museum of Art, gift of the artist in honor of Daniel W. McElaney, Jr., 2012.218.