The cover of Abelardo Morell's The Universe Next Door sets the scene perfectly. It's a signature Abelardo Morell picture; a view of Central Park looking north. There are the trees, a pond and the surrounding buildings projected upside down against the interior wall of an apartment. An electric cable trails across the floor of the room, closed curtains and a closed door interfere with the Central Park view. It's simple but magical, one of the trademark camera obscura pictures that Morell is best known for.
The Universe Next Door details the evolution of these pictures, but it does much more than that. It also shows just what an innovative and engaged photographer Morell is, a photographer who connects the simplicity of the oldest of photographic techniques with the fundamental complexities of how we conceptually experience the world. In The Universe Next Door we see pictures that, as Elizabeth Siegel writes in the introduction, "…call attention to the material, physical and tangible. He renders everyday, overlooked objects unfamiliar by bestowing on them a heightened sense of both their tangible existence and what else they could be."
In the camera obscuras, he does this by attaching the world of interiors to the world of exteriors. Look at a picture such as Times Square in Hotel Room and suddenly the bed the guest is supposed to sleep on is transformed into a public space rattling with the typographical noise of a hundred billboards and neon signs. Coca Cola, Avis and Andrew Lloyd Webber rub up against Rent signs and ads for Suntory Whisky. And when all is done, there is a row of taxis waiting to whisk you away down an eerily empty street (a street emptied by the 8 hour exposure it took to make the picture) back to a hotel room that is suddenly not as quiet as it appeared in the brochure or on the website.
It's William Klein mixed with Nicéphore Niépce, high energy and the history of photography. But Morell didn't just stumble on his camera obscuras by accident. They were the result of his early photographs of his children and how they saw the world. Laura and Brady in the shadow of our house shows Morell's children lying on sandy ground, windows etched into the soil, the roof of the virtual house provided by a 'real' shadow from a 'real' house. This is early experimentation with the different visual layers of a picture, something that would be more fully realised in Morell's subsequent work.
Morell also used to be a teacher so we see the classroom experiments that led Morell to his camera obscuras; Light Bulb, 1991 shows a light bulb shining in front of a simple cardboard box. On the front of the box is a large format lens. The light goes through the lens and hey presto, visible on the back of the box is the upside-down image of the bulb. And Morell takes a picture of it.
This led directly to the camera obscura pictures, but even with these hugely successful images, Morell was constantly innovating. From black and white he moved to color, from an inverted image, he moved to a non-inverted image by using a prism to refract the exterior light through 180 degrees, from analogue he moved to digital and from a room as a camera obscura he switched to using a mobile tent to make his pictures.
For these tent pictures, the outside image was projected onto the ground and then photographed using digital technology (a 2 minute exposure is much easier to make than an 8 hour exposure). The result is images where the view is visually connected to the ground from which it was photographed. View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Yates shows the Golden Gate Bridge but we also see the parched soil from upon which Morell was standing. Tufts of grass, dusty soil and the odd buttercup or two give the bridge a much more transitory feel than we usually see.
It's not all camera obscuras though. Morell photographs museums, engages in book arts and experiments with photograms. His Alice in Wonderland Series shows the characters of the book leaping in and out of the pages of a modified book. Again, dimensions are played with and there’s a photographic homage to Lewis Carroll, the author of the book and renowned photographer of children.
The Universe Next Door is a journey through Morell's career, a career in which he has constantly adapted his practice to new possibilities, while staying true to the original idea of making (as Siegel says in the introduction) the photograph "a wonderful wonder of wonders."
Colin Pantall is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com