• Robert Birnbaum

Abelardo Morell PT. II

Updated: Nov 6, 2018

Abelardo Morell (circa 2003) photo: Robert Birnbaum

One of the remaining  benefits of residing in a  major coastal New England metropolis is, wax and wane as it might, the presence an active  cultural *scene". Which is how I became acquainted with photographer Abelardo Morrell, who happend to be teaching at the Mass College on Art and was a participant in a wonderful program created by  the Isabela Stewart Gardener Museum—where the museum invited a variety of artists and writers to spend time within  its walls and and then asked them to offer a public lecture of their impressions and feelings about what they found. 

In his 'residency', Abelardo created about a dozen or so photographs which resulted in an exhibition, Abelardo Morell, face to face: photographs at the Gardner Museum', September 18, 1998-January 3, 1999, and a wonderful  publication entitled Face to Face which included those photos and essays by Charles Simic and curator Jennifer Gross.

Published in conjunction with the exhibition 'Abelardo Morell, face to face: photographs at the Gardner Museum', September 18, 1998-January 3, 1999, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Europa Dimly Lit, by Abelardo Morell (Gardener Museum )1998

From Charles Simic's essay in Face To Face, "The aston­ish­ing aspect of Morell’s pho­tographs is their abil­ity to give this old world a new look. What is this he’s got here, we con­tin­u­ally ask? Morell has found the way to domes­ti­cate the fan­tas­tic. In this pho­to­graph, it seems per­fectly nat­ural to find the reflec­tion of sea waves on the ceil­ing of an attic. How delight­ful it must be to stretch in a bed with the upside-down image of the Empire State Build­ing in mid­town Man­hat­tan hov­er­ing over one’s head! Morell’s is a magic real­ist show. Noth­ing is quite what it appears to be. Mirage and real­ity per­form side by side, pro­vid­ing new aes­thetic expe­ri­ence for the viewer "

a book of books by Abelardo Morell

When Abelardo published his a book of books with a typically enlightening essay by Nicholson Baker, I took the opportunity to conversate with Morell:*

RB: What I should I take from your remarks in the afterward of the book about the space between the book and the picture of the book?

AM:I said something like, "The magic of these objects lies between the photograph of it and the book itself." I wanted to make sure that people understood that it was photographic language being used. And it’s through that language that the books become very interesting to me as not just old things and reminiscence—which is the last thing I want people to feel, is some kind of antiquarian, "oh, it isn’t fun to look at the old stuff." I want it to be alive in some new way.

RB:I must confess to you that when I first saw the title to your book I was a little edgy about it. I was prepared to dislike it because—in the wacky world of book collecting and bibliophilia, the most valuable books are the books that have never been read. They have the most monetary value for collectors. To me, that makes them lifeless sterile objects. They are not what a book is, they are something else. I thought that The Book of Books was going to objectify books in a way that is foreign to what they are.

AM:That’s the last thing that I wanted to do. There are some books in this book that are fairly rare and only a few people have access to them, but most of them are fairly ordinary books. People have read them or not. In fact, there is a photograph (in there) of a book where I have actually drilled a big hole in it. It’s (maybe) a little bit of an attempt to say, “You know what, I don’t want to become too sacred about this.” A lit bit like the Buddhist saying, “When you see the Buddha kill him.” Meaning don’t objectify the guy, it’s a way of life not the thing. So that’s my big being a bad boy…

From photography historian Andy Grunberg's take on a book of books

“At least in a fig­u­ra­tive sense, this book…is a bibliophile’s dream. The 52 well-reproduced pho­tographs are paeans to the mate­ri­al­ity of book­ness, as imag­ined from every pos­si­ble tan­gent — books on shelves, books stacked in piles, book spines, book edges, book pages, open books, big books and small books. The notion of pho­tograph­ing books may sound ado­les­cent, but Abelardo Morell has made a career of tak­ing child­like ideas and ren­der­ing them in sophis­ti­cated, reflex­ive fash­ion. He doesn’t dis­ap­point here. Whether the image is sim­ple, like one that shows the spine of a book titled ‘Thought, 5, 1930–31,’ or com­plex, like ’ A Tale of Two Cities,’ in which Dick­ens’ famous begin­ning is blurred by type bleed­ing through from the reverse side of the page, Morell man­ages to make pic­tures seem sym­bol­i­cally rich as words. His pho­tographs of illus­trated books are espe­cially dense and sug­ges­tive; the cam­era stares into the fold of adja­cent pages, reflect­ing and refract­ing the printed pic­tures so that they become some­thing else: new pic­tures.”

From the publisher," In more recent years, he has turned to color, explor­ing the cam­era obscura with a painterly delight and inno­vat­ing a tent cam­era that projects out­door scenes onto a tex­tured ground. Across his career, Morell has approached pho­tog­ra­phy with remark­able wit and cre­ativ­ity, exam­in­ing every­day objects with child­like curios­ity. The first in-depth treat­ment in fif­teen years, this hand­some and impor­tant book exam­ines Morell’s career to the present day, includ­ing his ear­lier works in black-and-white and never before pub­lished color pho­tographs from the past decade. An essay by Eliz­a­beth Siegel, along with a recent inter­view with the artist and an illus­trated chronol­ogy of his life and works, offers a riv­et­ing por­trait of this con­tem­po­rary pho­tog­ra­pher and his ongo­ing artis­tic endeavors."

From my 2013 conversation with Abe** :

RB: It’s been 5 years since you used film-what happened?

AM: What happened is that …what did happen?

RB: It snuck up on you, digitalisis?

AM: I waited until the digital output was good enough to look like film and it took me a while and 4 years ago or so I got a high end digital back—60 megapixels. It’s amazing.

RB: How big can you go? [largest enlargement]

AM: I can go 48 x 60 inch prints. And it looks good. The nice thing about that is that in film because there is something called reciprocity, it doesn’t act well in low light. Exposure can be as much as 5, 6, 7 hours long and I have less time now (laughs), I think.

RB: (laughs) You think? By the way, I am talking to you, not because you have a new book. Or because you have an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. I thought I would talk to you because you live around here and I know your work and we talked ten years ago.

Abe and I digress :

RB: Orfeo, new novel by Richard Power is an ambitious attempt to make a fictional narrative about some one who composes music. A challenging way to think about making music.

AM: Cezanne said something about he doesn’t paint things he paints the difference between things. The things in between—not the bottle but the space between and it becomes a little abstract.

RB: So Powers’ composer is trying to encode DNA with music—I didn’t quite follow the science but it seemed plausible. I do wonder about the crossover and collaboration in certain arts.

AM: This is interesting that you mention this. I am a huge music fan. From everything—pygmy music to Jay Z. But always wanted to make photographs about music. How to make interesting pictures that have to do with music in some weird and deep way.

RB: Pictures that are pictures that resonate musically—not literally of musicians or instruments.

AM: And that could be played. I don’t know if it could happen or not but it’s a project I would love to do with an interesting composer. Like Steve Reich —he’s my favorite. Two line overlapping so there is a new harmony going on.

RB: That feels like the way Richard Powers talked about musical composition in Orfeo. New juxtapositions of sounds forming new musical ideas.

One attribute of Abe Morell's photography is that it is not devalued by being in books, or another way of putting this is that seeing his work on museum or gallery walls, the books he creates are quite fine in themselves, well printed and laid out (the term of art is, i think, 'well published' ) which is evident with his new opus, Flowers for Lisa: A Delirium of Photographic Invention ,

From the publisher Abrams

The concept for Flowers for Lisa* emerged when Morell gave his wife, Lisa, a photograph of flowers on her birthday. “Flowers are part of a long tradition of still life in art,” writes Morell. “Precisely because flowers are such a conventional subject, I felt a strong desire to describe them in new, inventive ways.” With nods to the work of Jan Brueghel, Édouard Manet, Georgia O’Keeffe, René Magritte, and others, Morell does just that; the images are as innovative as they are arresting.

Abelardo Morell's book of photographs, showing “Flowers for Lisa No. 1” -- his first effort. He fed two dozen photos of individual flowers inside a glass vase, fed all the images to his Photoshop program, and asked it to figure it out. This was the result. CreditCody O'Loughlin for The New York Times

Lawrence Wechsler who contributes an elucidating essay to Flowers for Lisa writes about some of the book's photos in the New York Times, in a piece entitled A Three-Fold Romance:

Best known for his sly modernist redeployments of the venerable camera obscura tradition, in this instance he brought a plain glass crystal vase into his studio and against a flat white backdrop slotted a few simple flower stems into its mouth, photographed and then removed them, put in another few flowers stems, photographed and then removed them … did this a dozen or so times, emerging with many separate photos of different flower bunches variously arcing out of the same unmoving vase. Then he fed all the resultant images into his computer’s Photoshop program, effectively throwing up his hands and saying, You figure it out. His laptop churned for a few minutes, and out popped a truly astonishing image, an erupting splay of colorful exuberance, and a perfect figure, he says, of his still fervent feelings for his beloved.

Abelardo Morell 2013 (photo Robert Birnbaum)


*You can see more images from Flowers for Lisa at the Eduard Houk gallery website

from a Conversation With Abelardo Morell and Peter Essick...

ABELARDO: I also think that some people confuse digital with manipulating the work so much that it’s a lie. In fact, you and I used the digital technology in a very straight way. It’s not about putting, you know, unicorns flying in the sky, which is what people think. People think, “Oh, it’s all made up. There was no lion mountain there,” you know, “The sky didn’t look like that.” And it’s the opposite of how I think that the two of us work. We just picked another process of recording reality.

*Conversation with Abelardo 2003

**Conversation with Abelardo 2013

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