March 2014


Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door
High Museum, Atlanta, Georgia
on view through May 18



Abelardo Morell (American, born Cuba, 1948), Tent-Camera Image On Ground: Rooftop View of The Brooklyn Bridge, 2010, inkjet print, 30 × 40 in. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York. © Abelardo Morell

Mr. Morrell, first let me thank you for speaking with us today. We appreciate your time.

1. As a teen-ager you moved with your family to the United States from Cuba. Your work is rich with cultural symbolism – books, paper, money, maps – it is all very telling about us, isn’t it? How has your portrayal of culture evolved over the decades, and have your methods changed to better reflect it? 

I don’t think that I think about culture as much as the material that carries information about it. I’m very interested in the ways that knowledge is embedded in the things around us. Maybe it’s an attempt on my part to take apart and make something interesting of these systems.

2. Your recent work has used a creation called the tent camera – a large Camera Obscura projecting images of landscapes or man-made structures and objects onto an image of the earth. Can you better describe this, and tell us about some of those images we will view in the exhibition?

Since 1991 I have converted rooms into Camera Oscuras in order to photograph the strange and delightful meeting of the outside world with the room’s interior.

In an effort to find new ways to use this technique, I have worked with my assistant, C.J. Heyliger, on designing a light-proof tent which can project views of the surrounding landscape, via periscope-type optics, onto the surface of the ground inside the tent. Inside this space I photograph the sandwich of these two outdoor realities meeting on the ground. Depending on the quality of the surface, these views can take on a variety of painterly effects.

The added use of digital technology on my camera lets me record visual moments in a much shorter time frame – for instance I can now get clouds and people to show up in some of the photographs. This way of observing the landscape with specially equipped tents was practiced by some artists in the 19th century in order to trace on paper what they saw in the landscape. Interestingly, this approach to picturing the land was done even before the invention of photography.

My tent camera liberates me to use the Camera Obscura technique in places where it would have previously been impossible to work, because I now have a portable room, so to speak.

3. You join a list of notable names in photography with images produced for Picturing the South, the High’s commissioned collection that portrays the American South. Your commissioned work focuses on trees, and for Southerners that takes on a particular importance. Please tell us about these images, how you created them, and what we can expect to see.

In these pictures I tried to approach the landscape with a variety of picturing devices such as mirrors, glass, frames and printed images of trees. My way of working tends to veer toward an optical method of understanding things. Recently the idea of Landscape has become very interesting to me and the South provided me with a more exotic challenge.

4. Over the span of your career your work evolved from black-and-white to color. In your opinion, what is most notable about this change?

When I “discovered” color in 2005 it felt as if a new world of pleasure opened in front of me. I like the sense of the “now” that color brings with it – it’s a specific light and time and something less eternal that I now like picturing.

5. Your body of work, the size and quality involved is remarkable. Please tell us a bit about putting this exhibition together, how it began, the focus, and the works featured. 

The Art Institute of Chicago initiated the idea of this retrospective. At the same time the Getty wanted to do something with my work, so a happy marriage occurred between these two institutions. Brett Abbott who was then at the Getty got the job at the High, and the marriage became a menage a trois.


Abelardo Morell (American, born Cuba, 1948), Tent-Camera Image On Ground: View Looking Southeast Toward The Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2010, inkjet print, 24 × 30 in. 8 in. Courtesy Bonni Benrubi Gallery, New York. © Abelardo Morell


Abelardo Morell (American, born Cuba, 1948), Camera Obscura: View of Atlanta Looking South down Peachtree Street in Hotel Room, 2013, inkjet print. © Abelardo Morell


Abelardo Morell (American, born Cuba, 1948), Laura and Brady in the Shadow of Our House, 1994, gelatin silver print, 18 × 22 ½ in. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Abelardo Morell. © Abelardo Morell


Morell immigrated with his family to the United States as a teenager in 1962. He received a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College in Maine, where he took his first photography course. He later received an MFA in photography from Yale University, looking to street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank for inspiration. 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 over 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 throughout his career. 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.

Photography at the High

The High Museum of Art is home to the most robust photography program in the American Southeast. The museum began acquiring photographs in the early 1970s, making it one of the earliest American art museums to commit to collecting the medium. Today, photography is the largest and fastest growing collection at the High. With more than 5,400 prints, holdings focus on American work of the 20th and 21st centuries, with special strength in modernist traditions, documentary genre and contemporary photography. Holdings include the most significant museum collection of vintage Civil Rights-era prints in the nation, as well as important holdings by Harry Callahan, Clarence John Laughlin, William Christenberry, Ralph Gibson, Richard Misrach, Walker Evans and Peter Sekaer. The collection also gives special attention to pictures made in and of the South, serving as the largest and most significant repository representing the region’s important contributions to the history of photography. Since 1996, the High’s distinctive “Picturing the South” initiative has commissioned established and emerging photographers to produce work inspired by the area’s geographical and cultural landscape. Past participants include Sally Mann, Dawoud Bey, Emmet Gowin, Alex Webb and Alec Soth, whose commissions have all been added to the High’s permanent collection.