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Old Masters

  • Cuban-born Abelardo Morell is notorious for his camera obscura works. They are in and of themselves wonderful little slices of life. The camera obscura method natively forces an image superposition upon the room the artist requires. Often inverted, these scenes are warped and contoured against the often unnatural geometric dwellings we occupy. The camera obscura was arguably, one of the first tools of photography thanks in large part to Daguerre. The images produces are often loud, chaotic and evoke the humdrum of city life.

    Morell is a beloved artist who has mastered this ancient technique over the past few decades. Images of images are a wonderful recursive experiments that artists have dabbled with for centuries.

    “Times Square in Hotel Room,” 1997.

    He’s devised a mobile camera obscura toolkit. It’s remarkable, and yet familiar in a sense. The tented camera obscura is constructed from a special material designed to keep light from penetrating:

    This new “tent,” developed in response, looked much less cumbersome. With no frame apart from the tripod itself, it was more of a teepee. The black cloth draped over it, Morell said, “is the best thing I’ve ever found.” Several companies had sent him materials promising “total blackout,” but, he says, “we’d put a flashlight to it, and it just wasn’t good enough.” The cloth he eventually found is made by a scientific company that tests lasers in dark spaces. It creates “pitch blackness inside” the tent, Morell said, “so whatever’s intense out there is intense inside — focus, color, brightness.”

    In a way, this a celebrated nod to 17th-century photomasking techniques. Some of the very first cameras had large black tents and huge glass plates. Traditionally, camera obscura images are tight urban interiors superimposed with inorganic cityscapes. But Morell’s latest mobile tent camera obscura produces a variety of images that evokes hints of impressionism filled with texture and picturesque brightness unseen in photographs before.

    Morell’s latest body of work feel like a gargantuan leap from his Times Square Hotel Room, and yet feels so grounded and inspired from works like the masters. The organic background texture fogs your sight of the real foreground subject, and beckons you to squint. The foreground depicted, being often further than a few meters away, is clouded with dirt, rocks and nondescript organic grassy material collectively gives us a painting of a photo (in a way).

    (Clockwise form top-left) “Wheat Field,” the Camargue, France, 2022. “A Single Tree in Late Afternoon,” near Arles, France, 2022. “Tree and Road,” La Crau, France, 2022. “Grass Field With Path,” near Arles, France, 2022.

    Abelardo Morell has a gift. I hope he continues to push the envelope with camera obscura even further.