Given the millions of photographs taken since the invention of the medium more than 150 years ago—with millions more flooding the Internet every day—any possibility of creating genuinely fresh, distinctive, let alone memorable imagery seems impossible. Yet that is what Abelardo Morell has done, steering clear of high-tech razzle-dazzle and delving into the very essence—and continuing mystery—of photography itself.
The Art Institute of Chicago is celebrating the Cuban-born, Boston-based photographer’s career with “The Universe Next Door,” a touring retrospective organized by Elizabeth Siegel, associate curator of photography at AIC. It features more than 100 images taken from 1986 through the present, with the black-and-white pieces (by far the largest contingent) shown in the photography galleries in the museum’s 1893 building and all but three of the color selections displayed in a room in the modern wing.
The beginning point for the exhibition is by no means random. With the birth of his son in 1986, the artist abandoned the street-photography style he had employed up to then, switched to larger-format cameras and began exploring the intimate world right inside his home. Here the focus is on the simple, often overlooked bits of everyday life—a scuffed rubber ball in close-up or glistening wet footprints on a bathroom floor.
Such quiet, probing and entrancing images mark the start of a mature style that Morell has carried through in other series, including his inventive, sometimes whimsical considerations of the physicality of books. These photographs can come off as abstractions, still lifes or even landscapes. In Book with Wavy Pages (2001), for example, a giant volume is shown from the side. It has been laid on its spine so that its slightly loosened pages sag into undulating ridges with the same tactility as an Edward Weston pepper.
At the core of everything Morell does is a fascination with light and optics, as he burrows into the history of photography and experiments with such techniques as photogram and stop-action. But these are not merely nostalgic flights of fancy, as Morell draws on the past in order to map a path to the present.
Nowhere is this more true than with the camera obscura images for which Morell is best known. In 1991, he began engineering pinhole projections that fill entire rooms. Even now, the resulting works, such as Camera Obscura Image of the Empire State Building in Bedroom (1994) or Times Square in Hotel Room (1997), are startling and magical, as the artist blends the iconic and the banal. On view in the modern wing are later color follow-ups to the black-and-white camera obscura essays. Through the use of a lens and other means, the color images are made sharper and more spectacular. But they come off as perhaps a bit slick and polished, their conscious showiness at odds with the introspective intimacy of so much of the photographer’s other work.
Such qualms, though, do little to detract from Morell’s overall accomplishments. By investigating the very building blocks of photography and training his camera on the universe at hand, he has honed a quiet photographic vision that is both tied to the past and very much of its own time.