The basic contract of photography is that a viewer will agree to see only the three-dimensional image on a sheet of photo paper, not the two-dimensional piece of paper itself. Abelardo Morell's camera obscura photos, though, are about both the images and the surfaces.
The series began when Morell decided to teach his students at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design a lesson in basic optics by turning the classroom into a camera. He sealed all the windows with black plastic, except for a tiny hole that functioned as the camera's aperture. The image that came in was projected, upside-down and backward, onto the classroom wall.
The result, says Liz Siegel, the curator of "The Universe Next Door," a new retrospective of the past 25 years of Morell's career, was "a weird and wonderful juxtaposition of the outside world and interior spaces. It renders normal spaces strange and unusual, magical."
Morell began setting up his camera obscuras in furnished rooms with fantastic views, first in his hometown of New York City and then farther afield. He'd use a large-format camera with a five-to-ten-hour exposure time to capture what he saw: a bed with an elaborately carved headboard floating in space in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, an autumnal scene of Central Park spread across a hotel room wall like a medieval tapestry hung upside-down. More recently, to create a painterly effect, he constructed a portable camera obscura out of a tent and a periscope that can project images onto the ground.
"Here is a photographer who has found a way to make pictures using the language of photography," says Siegel. "The camera obscura pictures are the essence of photography: light in a dark room."
In his other work, where he uses a more conventional 35-millimeter camera to take extreme close-ups of everyday objects, Morell still manages to render the familiar strange. His photographs of antique books look like architectural shots—the spines are arches, the pages are steps. He plays with the juxtaposition of interior images, so that Don Quixote appears to be marching off toward a tower of books, and a painting of an astronomer looks up into a photograph of the stars. In his money series, Morell uses close-ups to emphasize the "thingness" of bills and coins, as opposed to abstract numbers on a balance sheet.
"He intervenes to make it physical," says Siegel. "It's an attentiveness to the world that no one notices."