Meet the Artist: Abelardo Morell on Camera Obscura Image of Manhattan View Looking West in Empty Room”

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  • Photographer Abe Morell discusses his relationship to New York City, his use of camera obscura, and his work being part of SAAM’s collection.

    ABE MORELL: Hi, I’m Abe Morell. I’m delighted to be here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum speaking about an old work of mine, an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while.

    This photograph I made in 1996. I knew a guy whose brother owned a nice apartment on the East Side with a great view, so I contacted him. This was an amazing place. It had just been sold, so it was empty and perfect, like a studio. I wanted to in some ways own New York. The New York that was in some ways frightening to me and I was unable to make sense of it.

    New York City is hugely important for me. I arrived in Miami with my parents and sister in 1962. Then my father got a job as a super in New York City on West 69th Street. So New York was frightening at first. I mean, I had seen all those movies when I was a kid of the New York scene and gangsters, but it was also a salvation in a city of ambition. Things were happening there, so it was very important. It was my next home as it turned out, and I still look at it as the place that really saved me.

    Camera obscura is any space, it could be a room or a box, with a small opening looking out into the world. What happens in these dark interiors is that the image of the outside actually gets projected upside-down on the opposite wall. It just comes in—there is no technical invention with it—it just came with the creation of the world.

    I wanted to make pictures where I would make a room into a camera obscura where the image would be projected on the opposite side and then make a picture of it. To me, that’s what distinguishes this work from anything before it. The way I made this picture was first of all to cover all the windows with black plastic to darken it. Then on one of the windows, I made a hole about 3/8 of an inch, the size of a dime, and this came in and it was kind of astonishing.

    I put the ladder in there. We used the ladder to hang plastic, but I put the ladder in there just to make it a little bit more interesting. In fact, maybe unconsciously I was referring to Fox Talbot, who was the British inventor of photography. He made the first photographs other than Daguerre. In one of his pictures, there is a ladder in it, so it’s a small joke to ten people, but it’s a reference to some of the earliest photographs where that ladder exists.

    I feel rather proud that this picture is in here, especially being in the mix of so many people who are heroes of mine. It’s nice to also be represented as a Latino artist who is making work that is not just in a ghetto of Latino artists. I’d like to emphasis that. As much as I am a Cuban, I’m also a person with abstract ideas. Those are not mutually exclusive. It’s really important to represent everybody, even people who are supposed to be a certain ethnicity, showing a freedom to make work. That’s also part of being Cubano and Latin American and human.
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