“Suddenly, I’m in the biggest city in the world and it’s crazy,” he recalled. “I remember feeling this is more than I can ever comprehend.”
Photography helped him start sorting it out, as he made street pictures in the tradition of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. But it wasn’t until 1991 that he discovered how to tame the urban landscape.
He crammed it into a room.
Converting a room into a huge camera obscura — a centuries-old optical technique that predates the pinhole camera — he took eight-hour exposures of interiors where the outside world was projected onto the walls. The results — as in the Times Square cityscape rich with kinetic detail that he did for The New York Times Magazine — were stunning and surreal. They combined the expanse of the street with the monastic quiet of a small, darkened space.
“In these New York camera obscura pictures there is a psychological component,” he said. “It’s encompassing something so big in something more knowable. To domesticate New York, so to speak.”
Those are apt sentiments about his own work, which spans 30 years and features everything from camera obscura and “tent camera” pictures to scenes from home and visual meditations on everyday objects, like books or money. The result is “The Universe Next Door,” a traveling retrospective that opens Tuesday at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where Mr. Morell’s sizable oeuvre becomes knowable.
“One of the most significant things about Morell is that he is grounded in the past but is also looking forward,” said Paul Martineau, the Getty’s associate curator of photographs. “One of the things that struck me about his work, which I saw years ago before I even knew I wanted to be a curator, was the authenticity of his work. He remained true to himself and did not chase the market.”
The market has since caught up.
New York was fateful for him and his family. His father, who had been in the Cuban Navy, settled in New York, where he worked as the superintendent of five buildings on the West Side. His son and namesake attended public schools, thinking he would be an engineer.
“New York forced me to understand the United States and this new culture aggressively,” Mr. Morell said. “It was scary, but wonderful, too. There was incredible activity and sights. Then I went to Maine and that sealed the deal. Maine was a different culture for me.”
It was at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Me., where he discovered photography, idolizing those who celebrated “the chaos of the social landscape, the poetry of the street,” like Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt.
“I discovered my own language,” he said. “My English was not so good, but my photography seemed sophisticated. My eyes were sophisticated. I had found something important in my life.”
Though he took some time off from college and worked a variety of odd jobs, he returned, earned his degree and eventually enrolled in Yale’s M.F.A. program. He continued to work in the vein of “the street people” — Friedlander and Winogrand. But that changed drastically when he and his wife, Lisa McElaney, had the first of their two children. Being able to spend the day roaming the streets with a camera was not an option. He felt some resentments, but he had to stay indoors.
Then he decided he had to respond to these feelings.
“Maybe instead of taking ironic pictures in the street while hidden, maybe I can slow down and look at things more directly and with love,” he said. “It made me discover the nature of normality and how weird it is, like photographing a baby’s milk bottle. It felt beautiful to try to make a portrait of something so common. The majesty of common things became apparent to me.”
There is a playfulness in some of the pictures, which only makes sense. When Mr. Morell noticed how at a certain time of year the sun cast a shadow on the ground that mimicked his home’s outline, he drew lines in the yard and placed his two children in the scene.
While raising a family, he also taught. In class, he demonstrated the basics of optics by covering the windows, cutting a hole and turning his classroom into a pinhole camera. That exercise got him to thinking about taking pictures inside a camera obscura, which led to the panoramas that caught people’s attention in the 1990s.
If fatherhood slowed him down, this new technique took it to a new level. Using a 4-by-5 film camera set up inside the room, it took him eight hours to make a single exposure.
“I like that it took eight hours,” he said. “I come from a working-class background, and that seems like a good amount of time to be working. I’d start in the morning, leave and go see a movie, a show at the Met or have lunch. It’s a weird experience knowing I’m making a picture, but it’s not like Garry Winogrand in the street. It was something cooking.”
Over the years, Mr. Morell has refined his technique, switching to digital and, more recently, devising with his assistant, C. J. Heyliger, the tent camera — a mobile camera obscura that lets him do pictures projected onto the ground via a periscope that peeks out of the tent’s top.
“We’re able to bring images of the surrounding landscape to the ground itself,” he said. “You see horses running or mountains. It felt like another really natural way to marry two outdoor realities. These incredible images are naturally made, and the ground changes all the time. If there is sand or dirt or ice, it changes the nature of the patina on the photographs.”
He jokes that he feels as if he has a foot in the 19th century, like the great photographers of the American West. He is less amused by the expectations some contemporary viewers have that he fit into what they think a Cuban-born artist should be doing. At a talk in Texas, he said, one woman said his work did not feel like that of a Cuban photographer.
“Certain people are put in a ghetto of what we are supposed to be interested in,” he said. “I love having been born in Cuba. But a Cuban can also make pictures of light bulbs. I don’t want to be put in a ghetto that you can only do pictures of old cars.”
Mr. Morell is now working on several new projects and commissions. Next year he plans to go to France with his tent and visit where Monet painted. Soon, he will go to Spain, where he has a commission to render El Greco’s Toledo on the sidewalk. Another commission in Georgia will have him photographing trees in the South.
In Los Angeles, he plans on talking to middle schoolers, especially to encourage the Latino students to explore the world and their options, and not get forced into someone else’s idea of what they cannot — or should — do.
“When this woman told me in Texas that my work did not look like a Cuban’s, I don’t speak for every Cuban, but I came to this country to be free,” he said. “Without meaning to, people try to put you in a ghetto and that is not always helpful.”
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