Abe Morell is an artist driven by inquisitiveness and appears to have an endless source of creative energy. A local to the Boston arts scene with worldwide prestige, Morell is also a longtime educator who has influenced a generation of practicing photographers.
Morell’s photographs are often visually perplexing, from interiors illuminated with the exterior view projected upon them, to visual reexaminations of everyday objects. He rarely manipulates photographs beyond what the camera is physically possible of creating. The resulting works are grounded in a practice that is inherently photographic and one that references and is influenced by the history of art-making, literature, film, and of course photography.
Some of Morell’s most widely featured photographs are his camera obscura images. To create them, he uses a technique that speaks to the fundamentals of the photographic process, albeit on a much larger scale. First, he completely darkens a room by applying black plastic to the windows, then he cuts a small aperture in the material to create the camera obscura. As light from outdoors passes through the hole, the outside view is projected, inverted and reversed, on the interior surfaces. Conceptually, one’s physical presence in the room is metaphorically the same as being inside the interior of a camera. Given lengthy exposure times that can span hours, the photographs themselves are a product of chance. When successful, the photographs challenge a viewer’s perspective in the greatest sense by offering an imaginative new view of their expected surroundings.
His first camera obscura pictures were made locally in spaces of personal importance. Over the years, the project expanded widely to include areas significant to the history of art such as Lacock Abbey, residence of William Henry Fox Talbot a pioneer in the invention of photography, and views of Rouen Cathedral, which was a reoccurring subject for Monet.
In his 2002 monograph Book on Books, Morell’s photographs are interspersed with quotations from artists and writers, contextualizing the photographs that they are paired with. Fittingly, Book Stacks in a Very Big Space is paired with the following quote by Stéphane Mallarmé, the French poet who influenced many early 20th-century art movements: “Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” In this depiction of the Boston Public Library, it is not the historic 19th-century McKim building that is featured, but a seemingly anonymous view of the endless volumes housed within. Made from a high vantage point, the stacks are transformed into an illustration that highlights the massive quantity of literature and knowledge found on the printed page. Reminiscent of German photographers in the Düsseldorf school, like Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer, the space becomes a sublime interior that expands endlessly.
Morell recalls the impetus for this series of photographs. “One day in 1993 I was looking at a book of works by El Greco. As I turned a page, its surface caught light from a window at a funny angle, changing a reproduction of a painting into a shimmering distortion. What I saw wasn’t an El Greco anymore, but it was a beautiful new image nonetheless. I photographed this effect and was immediately inspired to find other ways of seeing books in a new light, so to speak.”
Fittingly, Morell turned to Piranesi’s Le Antichita Romane, a collection of etchings of Roman Antiquities for inspiration in an early photograph from the series. The multifaceted architect, archeologist, and artist had written that creatives should not merely copy, but “ought to show [oneself] of an inventive…of a creating genius…ought to open…a road to the finding out of new ornaments and new manners.” Here Morell follows Piranesi’s guidance and disassociates the two-dimensional reproduction from its original context, creates a multidimensional interpretation, all to return to the two-dimensional form in the printed photograph.
In 1998, Morell was an artist in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Many of the works that he created during the residency are visual pairings created within the confines of the camera. For this body of work, he created photographs with multiple views by only exposing a portion of a sheet of film at a time. After the initial exposure, he repositions the camera to complete the composition with additional exposures. Throughout the residency, Morell worked closely with staff from throughout the Museum to produce works that put the collection into a contemporary dialogue. For one, Morell pairs a self-portrait by Rembrandt with a staff member on the maintenance crew. In another, the groundskeeper that is responsible for upkeep of the courtyard’s gardens is combined with a garden tapestry that hangs in the Little Salon. Mother and Son, Gardner Museum, pictured above, is one of these such photographs. Here Morell visually links two works of art in the collection that are physically and historically disparate to create a new singular view of religious icons.
Morell has a seemingly endless tap of curiosity that is a driving force in his practice. It is what keeps followers of his work engaged and watching for his next move. Never content to remain on a single project for too long, a seed from one body of work may expand and grow into another series altogether. Writing on a recent project, Morell states “I am in the middle of a creative spurt…” It is hard to imagine that there ever was anything else.