By Kenneth Tanaka
What does the expression "a photographer's photographer" mean to you? To me it's a genre-independent designation far beyond simply a "good" or "prolific" photographer. To me it's someone who leverages a mastery of the photographic medium toward making more sophisticated observations than the usual superficial self-evidence. It's a visually curious and voracious person who sees first with a keen mind then, perhaps, with a lens. And sometimes it's someone who doesn't even need a camera to make a picture.
Abelardo (Abe) Morell is, to me, a photographer's photographer. I believe that the Art Institute of Chicago's new show, "Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door" firmly buttresses my opinion.
Abe's work defies conventional categorization. It's certainly not street, fashion, or any form of reportage even though Frank, Levitt and Arbus were some of the photographers he most admired. Nor is it purely conceptual, although this, on average, comes closest to the mark. I just call Abe's work "deep seeing." It's simultaneously meditative, inventive, and investigative.
If you're only barely aware of Abe Morell it's likely you know of his jaw-dropping camera obscura work in which he has inarguably established the gold standard. He began doing camera obscura experiments as an instructional exercise during his 27-year photographic teaching career at at the Massachussetts College of Art and Design (a.k.a. MassArt). It gradually became a passionate pursuit that, as it became more sophisticated, has drawn him to many locations in the world, with many visual objectives. Today, with the aid of a periscoped custom dome tent, Abe can take the basic technique nearly anywhere, a freedom that's leading him in new artistic directions.
But Abe's work is far broader and deeper than camera obscura. The birth of his first child in 1986 and the consequent limitations imposed by home-bound infant care became the genesis of much of his most fascinating work. Unable to wander the world in search of images, Abe began to explore the world of his home. Switching from a small 35mm camera to a large-format view camera he began contemplating the simplest of household scenes and objects. Wet footprints on a bathroom floor. Crayons. Baby bottles. The view of his home from an infant's point of view. Gradually this work became more sophisticated and complex as he began conveying characteristics such as materiality and the cultural meanings of objects such as books, money, maps, and the indivisible relationship between photography and time.
Skimming Abe's work generally does not work. In nearly every frame there's more going on than is immediately apparent. The complexity of constructions and their meanings often require contemplation and sometimes additional notes. For example the image titled "Shadows during Solar Eclipse, 1994" apparently shows sunlight filtered through a tree canopy and striking the ground. Sounds dull, eh? But then you learn that each of those spots is a camera obscura image of the sun in partial eclipse, created by the momentary gaps between tree leaves. Then you realize that camera obscura images of the sun are always projected all around you in a forest. What's not to love about such revelatory work?
"The Universe Next Door" is a 25-year retrospective show of Abe's work conceived and curated principally by Art Institute of Chicago Associate Curator of Photography, Elizabeth Siegel, over a four-year period. It's an enormous show, featuring over 100 prints occupying four of the AIC's five photography galleries across two buildings.
Speaking of prints, they're simply gorgeous. Abe was for many years a devoted silver gelatin B&W guy. But several years ago, probably for practical reasons, he begun shooting with a digital back and also adopted inkjet printing for both color and B&W. If you visit the show, I challenge you to distinguish between the pigment and wet prints without reading labels. You can't. This is positively the most seamless intermixed presentation of digital/film, wet/pigment photography and printing I have ever seen and a monumental (if unintended) middle finger to those who continue to claim that digital printing is inherently inferior to chemical.
One last thought on the requisite characteristics that make a "photographer's photographer" in my book: they tend to be inspirational. Their creative energy becomes infectious and incites others to pick up a camera. Whether or not Abe Morell's work tickles your fancy I can almost guarantee that it will prompt you to investigate something new, or something old in a new way, with your camera. I'm sure that the educator in Abe would be elated to have such an effect on you.
Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door is at the Art Institute of Chicago from June 1 to September 2, 2013. From Chicago it will travel to Los Angeles's Getty Museum October 1, 2013 – January 5, 2014, and then on to Atlanta's High Museum of Art February 22 – May 18, 2014. I urge you to try to see the show in person. The prints alone are worth the visit, although the images are certain to tattoo your mind.
Our friend Ken Tanaka, who writes periodically for TOP and comments often, lives right next door to the Art Institute of Chicago and is enthusiastically involved with the museum world in many ways. Visit his (very nice, frequently updated) website here.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Patrick Snook: "In the video linked here I saw in just three minutes the most compelling photography I've seen in three or more years. And the unpretentious commentary rings true and clear. Perfect, or as near as it gets. Thanks for bringing this photographer to TOP!"
Charles Wick: "I first met Abe in 1967 through my college roomate. Knowing him was from the first a revelation: his constant curiosity, playfulness,good humor and insightfulness have been a touchstone for me in my life since then. While he distances himself from his early street stuff, I remember the photos he did in college even now for their brilliant surprises and revelations. I have a couple of his discards from this time and still marvel when I look at them. To Abe, I can only say 'Ungark Geb!!'"
Richard Tugwell: "A new photographer to me, and an eye-opener—thanks Ken for the review. I'm not sure about the term 'photographer's photographer'—sounds a bit esoteric to me, and I would think anyone who enjoys looking will enjoy this guy's ability to see. Inspirational, certainly."