Filtering by Tag: Abelardo Morell

Abelardo Morell 'Photographing the Majesty of the Common'

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Abelardo Morell went from a small Cuban beach town to New York City in 1962. The streets and its people were chaotic, unfamiliar and overwhelming to a 14-year-old exile who barely spoke English.

“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.”

To view the article on the New York Time Blog, please click here.

Photograph Magazine Curator Profile: Judith Keller

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Los Angeles is not only the center of the film business, but increasingly a destination for photography lovers, and much of that has to do with the mammoth holdings of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Judith Keller, the Getty’s senior curator of photographs, joined the museum as associate curator in 1986, just two years after Weston Naef founded the photographs department there, and she took over as head of the department after Naef retired, in 2010.

A Midwestern transplant to the West Coast, Keller was born outside of Chicago and raised in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Her father, a professor of speech and communications, and her mother, who stayed home to raise four children, were avid museumgoers, she says, who regularly took her to the Art Institute of Chicago. She went on to earn both a BA in art history and a master’s in museum practice and art history at the University of Michigan.

Keller knew from an early age that she wanted to do museum work, but she couldn’t have foreseen the size and prominence of photography departments such as the Getty’s, which now has 7,400 square feet of space for photography and some 38,000 prints (or 78,000 objects, if you count individual plates within albums for instance). The schedule of exhibitions has grown as well, from five small shows a year to six or seven large exhibitions. “It’s a much more ambitious schedule now than we ever had before,” says Keller. The Getty often has several photography shows up concurrently: For instance, The Universe Next Door: Abelardo Morell, which travels from the Art Institute of Chicago, opens October 1, as does At the Window: The Photographer’s View. A small show on photography and architecture opens October 15, and Werner Herzog’s video installation, Hearsay of the Soul, is on view through January 19.

Keller describes the Getty’s photography collection as encyclopedic in terms of the West. “It started out as really a 19th- and 20th century collection that originally stopped at World War II,” she adds. “The collection used to be weak in post-1950s work, but one of the things I’ve been doing in the last few years is to try to enhance the late 20th century aspects of the collection.” The Getty has recently acquired conceptual work by Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Sarah Charlesworth, Allan Sekula, and William Wegman, among others.

Keller has put her own stamp on the museum in terms of collecting photography from Asia as well: she organized Photography from New China, in 2010, and Japan’s Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto, which closed at the end of the summer. About five years ago, Keller began the push to collect Asian photography, particularly from Japan. “We had a few pictures that Sam Wagstaff had collected, including a number of albums by 19th-century Japanese photographers,” she says. “But it was something I was especially interested in, so I started making trips to Japan.”

Given that Los Angeles has a huge population of people from Asia and East Asia, adds Keller, “It makes complete sense that we collect photography from that part of the world.” But more importantly, she says, “The history of photography in Japan is as strong as any other and as old as any other. It should be published and exhibited.”

-Jean Dystra

To read the article in Photograph magazine online, please click here.

For more information on upcoming J. Paul Getty Museum photography exhibitions, including Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door, please click here.

Abelardo Morell's Outside In will be on view at ROSEGALLERY starting November 23, concurrently with the The Universe Next Door at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door at the Art Institute of Chicago

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Over the course of the past 25 years, Cuban-born American artist Abelardo Morell has become internationally renowned for works that employ the language of photography to explore visual surprise and wonder. This exhibition of over 100 works made from 1986 to the present is the first retrospective of Morell’s photographs in 15 years. Showing a range of works and series—including many newer color photographs never exhibited before—the exhibition reveals how this persistently creative artist has returned to a photographic vocabulary as a source of great inspiration.

Morell came with his family to the United States as a teenager in 1962. He received a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College in Maine, where he first took a photography course; he later completed an MFA in photography at Yale University, looking to street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank as models. After the birth of his son in 1986, he began making large-format pictures around his home, examining common household objects with childlike curiosity. As a professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, he experimented with optics in his teaching and initiated a series in which he turned an entire room into a camera obscura, photographing the projection of the outside world juxtaposed onto the surfaces of the room’s interior.

These twin poles—examining objects and images with fresh vision and exploring simple optics in myriad forms—have been consistent orientation points for the many series that have since followed. Morell has turned his camera on conveyors of cultural meaning such as books, maps, money, and museums in extensive series that explore the perception of images. He has experimented with techniques as varied as photograms, still-life tableaux, stop-motion studies, and most recently the tent camera—a kind of portable camera obscura that throws the image of a landscape upon the ground’s surface. Now, after decades of working exclusively in black and white, he has begun to embrace color, both returning to old themes and series to view them in a new spectrum and pioneering new ways to understand optical effects, nature, and picture making. Showcasing his ever-inventive practice, this retrospective traces Morell’s innovative career as he continues to mine the essential strangeness and complexity of images.

Image: Abelardo Morell. Camera Obscura: View of the Brooklyn Bridge in Bedroom, 2009. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, purchased with funds provided by Richard and Alison Crowell, Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, and anonymous donors in honor of James N. Wood, 2011.62. © Abelardo Morell, courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.

To watch the video Abelardo Morell on Photography, Life, and Dancing click here.

Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. When the exhibition closes September 2, it will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. ROSEGALLERY will be mounting an exhibition concurrently with The Universe Next Door opening November 23, 2013.