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Staring at the Sun

I was walking through the Modern Wing recently on a bright and sunny afternoon, and I noticed something peculiar. Along the oak floor was a perfectly straight line of round circles of light.

MW Floor

My first instinct was to look up to see if any spotlights were on. They weren't. The only light was coming through the rectangular panes of glass that make up the Renzo Piano-designed skylight.

MW Skylight

And I have to admit, I have been noticing unusual tricks of light everywhere: at the train station, in my friend’s living room, in dappled sunlight from trees. I credit this new awareness to our current photography show, Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door. Morell’s process, which utilizes the concept of a camera obscura, examines the physics of light to create images.

Camera Obscura Brady's Room

A camera obscura is simply a dark box (or room) with a hole in it that creates a lens. The hole causes light to be refracted and projected upside down and backwards on to the opposite wall. To get a better sense of what this might look like, check out the image below. This is Morell’s image of a self-created camera obscura.

Painters in the 17th century used this simple phenomenon of physics to project and then create paintings with intricate details, and the technology eventually led to the invention of the camera and photography in the 19th century.


But you don’t have to build a camera to witness this phenomenon of light. Morell shows that even leaves from a tree can create this lens effect to “project” an image of the sun on the ground on a sunny day. The little dots are “pictures” of the sun.

Feet and Sunspots

And here is the same phenomenon, observed during a solar eclipse.

Shadows During Solar Eclipse

While I’m not exactly sure what’s happening in the Modern Wing (I won’t pretend to be a physics expert), it’s exciting to see how an exhibition can create new awareness in my everyday life. Check it out for yourself! The effect I noticed in the Modern Wing is most pronounced around 2:00p.m. on a sunny day. And while it won’t be going away any time soon, the exhibition will be. This weekend is your last chance to see Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door before it closes September 2.

—Nina Litoff, Public Affairs

Image Credits:

Abelardo Morell. Lightbulb, 1991. Gelatin silver print; 45.7 x 57.2 cm (18 x 22.5 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Comer Foundation Fund, 1994.40

Abelardo Morell. Camera Obscura: Brookline View in Brady’s Room, 1992. Gelatin silver print; 45.7 x 57.2 cm (18 x  22.5 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Comer Foundation Fund,, 1994.39

Abelardo Morell. Feet and Sunspots, 2000. Inkjet print; 45.7 x 57.2 cm (18 x 22.5 in.). High Museum of Art, purchase with funds from the Friends of Photography, 2012.216

Abelardo Morell. Shadows During Solar Eclipse, 1994. Inkjet print; 45.7 x 57.2 cm (18 x 22.5 in.). Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.