“It’s important to me to have what I photograph undergo a certain transformation — to become a thing different from what we are used to, to be another version of itself.” -Abelardo Morell

Abelardo Morell makes photographs that, at first look don’t make any sense. There is a scene in a room that can’t have that scene in it. A red bed with an ornate headboard is in front of a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge. Wait. Examine the scene more carefully. The bridge photograph isn’t behind the headboard. It is in front of it. How in the world?

Times Square is inverted in a hotel room. How? What is this?

Both of these photos are in the opener of this post.

Camera obscura

Abelardo Morell
Abelardo Morell portrait by Robin Myers

The first cameras were pinholes in a dark room. The outside scene is projected upside down on the wall opposite the pinhole. Morell uses this technique in real rooms with interesting views outside. He will blackout the windows and any other source of light then adds a lens to replace the pinhole. The scene illuminates the room.

Morell begins photographing pinhole scenes

Morell’s story is best told in his own words.

I made my first picture using camera obscura techniques in my darkened living room in 1991. In setting up a room to make this kind of photograph, I cover all windows with black plastic in order to achieve total darkness. Then, I cut a small hole in the material I use to cover the windows. This opening allows an inverted image of the view outside to flood onto the back walls of the room. Typically then I focused my large-format camera on the incoming image on the wall then make a camera exposure on film. In the beginning, exposures took from five to ten hours.

Morell began his camera-Obscura journey in his living room in 1991.

Pinhole to lens to prism

Several years ago, in order to push the visual potential of this process, I began to use color film and positioned a lens over the hole in the window plastic in order to add to the overall sharpness and brightness of the incoming image. Now, I often use a prism to make the projection come in right side up. I have also been able to shorten my exposures considerably thanks to digital technology, which in turn makes it possible to capture more momentary light. I love the increased sense of reality that the outdoor has in these new works. The marriage of the outside and the inside is now made up of more equal partners.

2015 Camera obscura view of Paris looking towards Montmartre
2015 Camera obscura view of Paris looking toward Montmartre.

The tent camera — images on the ground

I have always loved The 19th Century photographs of the American West by Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson but, when I had a commission to photograph these landscapes anew, the work of these men daunted me — so much so that, for a long time, I couldn’t imagine how I would approach making landscape images myself. But like many immigrants, I felt moved to explore the vastness of my adopted country. To picture America’s national parks, I invented a device — part tent, part periscope — to show how the immediacy of the ground we walk on enhances our understanding of the panorama, the larger world it helps to form. I wanted to find a way to make these well-known views of familiar and iconic places into my own private discoveries.

How the tent camera works

A prism is mounted at the top of a lightproof tent. The tent is placed on the ground with the scene in front of it. A camera is on a tripod inside. The scene is projected on the ground inside the tent. It is captured with the camera.

A geyser projected on the floor of the camera tent.
A geyser projected on the floor of the camera tent.

Morell on photographs made with the camera tent

Jamie M. Allen of the George Eastman Museum describes what I do with my tent-camera better than I can in his book Picturing America’s National Parks (2016): “the resulting photographs are a mix of image and texture. The image is that of a common scenic view; the texture, however, is derived from the land itself, the very spot where one stands to experience the scenery. The ground cover — dirt, tocks, grass and sand — typically lies at the onlooker’s feet, ignored in favor of the vista.   Morell, conversely, ties the ground to the scenic view, transforming the geology of the landscape into his canvas.”

Other collections

Morell is prolific. He has bodies of work that include Money, Paper, Childhood, Books and Alice in Wonderland. When the opportunity to see his work in an exhibition arises, please, you owe it to your self to see it first hand.

Most of this On Photography is excerpted from Abelardo Morell’s website.

Read other vignettes of influential photographers in On Photography.