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

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  • 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.

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

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