Abelardo Morell: The Cuban Missile
AB: You were fourteen when you left Cuba. I’m curious to know as to how does your Cuban background influence your work?
AM: Where were you born?
AM: How does your Brooklyn background influence your work?
AB: Well, I have a tendency to like cities. (both laugh)
AM: I think the biggest effect it had on my life was the idea of leaving a place I was born in, and arriving in NYC at 13 or 14. That shift, the relocation- not necessarily being Cuban, but just the relocation, the exile experience that so much of America is like, that was a real reset for me. The Cuban thing, you know… not sure that I could specifically say what about Cuba or Cuban-ness has affected me, but I think growing up by the beach and the sea was very important. I grew up right by a small beach town, and I think that sense of openness and infinity did give me some sense of ambition.
AB: I never met a Cuban that doesn’t work hard. I have a Cuban friend and I call him the Cuban Missile, and you’re very prolific. It may be a generalization, but from what I’m hearing from you I think it’s true.
AM: I think probably exiles tend to generally work harder, because there is a certain thing, maybe trying to compensate for- I didn’t speak English when I arrived, so, in some ways trying to compensate for deficiency early on. And also a way to prove to Americans that, you know, I’m as good as you guys. I think we are constantly trying to prove ourselves.
AB: I have to say to you, I think your work is sublime. I’m curious, how did you get to camera obscura and using that process for your work?
AM: I was teaching at a college in Boston called the Massachusetts College of Art, and in 1991 I had a sabbatical for eight months. I had been working on optical pictures; pictures of light bulbs and things like that. Just crude objects being examined by my work, my glasses and things like that. Then I thought that, in the mid-80s, one of my teaching methods was to turn my classrooms at Massachusetts into camera obscuras. I was really affected by these savvy kids all kinda going, “Oh my God!” You know, they were really touched, so I knew there was something really powerful about that phenomenon. So I thought in ’91, why not try to make a picture of that effect—the phenomenon itself, which had not really been made before. People have used pinhole cameras, but a photograph inside a room converted into a camera obscura and photographed, no one had done that before for some reason. It was always mentioned in art history texts and things like that, so in ‘91 I attempted to try and make one picture like that, and when it came out I was just kind of blown away by how wonderful and weird and crazy it was. But it did take me a while to get the technical stuff going on. Those exposures back then were made with film, and just a pinhole—well, not a pinhole but a 3/8ths of an inch hole—and those exposures tended to be about 8 hours long, so it was a strange beginning. It was like the beginning of photography, in some ways, for me. Now of course things have changed radically. But that was the beginning. In some sense I’ve tried to achieve surrealism through very straight methods. Not by putting floating elephants in the room and shit like that.
AB: What’s the process like now? You say it’s changed radically, so how has it changed?
AM: So the beginning pictures from ’91 were just basically me darkening the whole room with dark plastic and then I would make a small hole, like 3/8 of an inch looking out. So that a very dim image of the outside showed on the opposite wall. It wasn’t super bright. Those film pictures just took a lot of exposure to get them right. Some of them, like I said, were eight hours long. Over time I’ve developed ways to get the image brighter by getting a lens made that will focus on the distance of that wall—not only brighter, but also sharper—and then found ways to invert the image, so instead of it being always upside-down, I can turn them right side up. I’ve shot in color, and recently—well the last five or six years I’ve been using a digital camera. The five to eight hour exposures are now three to five minutes long. So it’s changed radically.
AB: I have to tell you, the whole thing just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’m a photographer! I don’t understand how you use a digital camera for your method, I don’t get it!
AM: Well my digital camera is just like a film camera, except it’s got a digital back. Film has something called reciprocity, which means that when the light is low-level, it doesn’t react to light in a regular way. It just takes a lot longer for it to receive these photons of energy. So if your meter says two minutes, it’s more like two hours. Digital technology doesn’t have any of that reciprocity, just—what it is, is what it is. It tends to get it a lot faster. The nice thing about that is that now in my pictures I can get clouds, I can even get people to show up. So there’s a certain momentary feeling of time. And I think that’s really helped a lot.
AB: Yeah, and you can do much more!
AM: I know! Before, I would start an exposure at eight in the morning, I would go uptown, see my dealer, see a movie, go to the met, have lunch, and then not only come back to New York, but then take the train to Boston that evening, get home, develop the sheet of film and see if I even had anything. The process was very primitive.
AB: Do you think you’re going to stay with this method?
AM: I’ve been developing it more so I think they’re very different pictures that I’m making now. So yeah, I’ve been making different kinds of pictures enough to want to stay with it. I’ve also been using the tent camera, I don’t know if you’ve seen that?
AB: Oh yes, I was gonna ask you questions about that.
AM: The tent camera is sort of an outgrowth of the camera obscura technique. I had a commission to do work in West Texas a couple of years ago, and they were wondering if I could do camera obscura pictures in the dessert. I pointed out that there are no rooms in the dessert, so no, I can’t do it. So I thought about making a portable room in the form of a tent. And I continued to make work in that way too.
AB: Would you say that texture is important to your work?
AM: Yeah, for instance, in the ground pictures, texture is very important, because if I get a landscape of a thing falling onto the ground, the different patinas and textures of the ground change the nature of image. It’s like a painting or something—texture is part of the meaning of an image.
AB: You describe much of your camera obscura work as “painterly.” Aside from your project after Monet, which other painters have influenced you?
AM: Well, I’m a closet painter in a way. I don’t know how to paint, but I love looking at painting. And of course, photography grew out of painting, so you name it. The current project that I’d like to talk to you about is Monet, but when I was a teenager in New York City, I went to MOMA a lot, and I loved the surrealists, Magritte and de Chirico and people like that. But then Picasso and all those modernists became very important to me, and to this day my studio is mostly full of art books, which I constantly look at and I’m constantly trying to find some avenue to combine some of my painterliness into my work.
AB: Your work is the intersection of different worlds, whether it is indoors and outdoors in the case of your camera obscura series, or two-dimensional and three-dimensional with your Alice in Wonderland series. What about exploring the intersections of seemingly separate worlds appeals to you?
AM: That’s a good question. Maybe it goes back to that issue of being a young immigrant in New York, in the sense that I was definitely not in that world, I definitely felt separate, you know? I don’t mean in a discrimination kind of way, but just that that world was not mine. And that sense of maybe breaching or getting to know this other side has been with me a lot; that sense of overcoming the distance. I think in some ways the New York pictures, the camera obscura pictures, are very much about a young man who was overwhelmed by a city. Now in some ways, I’m making more private New York City pictures—understanding what I didn’t understand before.
AB: Well, although your works are all combined elements of reality, are you at all influenced by fantasy?
AM: I don’t think so. No, I’m more in tune with the real being quite complicated. The way that the magical realism and Latin American literature suggest that the real is quite crazy. The fantasy part can lead to a kind of wishy-washy softness that I’m not interested in. I like Magritte very much because his paintings are of very normal things, a door, a chair, an apple. So the reality of that is really interesting. When you make something that common into something strange, I think it feels more earned as an artist than just making up unicorns.
AB: Which thoughts or emotions do you hope to provoke in your viewers when they look at your work? Do you consider that?
AM: Well of course. I always have an audience in mind. I’m not a mad person who doesn’t know what they’re doing (laugh). I’m not a primitive artist in that sense. I do have trouble with the fact that I’m showing them something that they’ve seen before, but through a different mirror, a different conduit. And I like surprising people with what they know, seen in a different light. To me that’s the most fun.
AB: How does the arduous process of setting up for a shot add to the experience of the image?
AM: I think it’s important. I come from a working class background, so in order to get anything done you had to work really hard. That’s part of my philosophy. My father and mother worked extremely hard when we moved to New York. I think when you take time to make something, the world pays back. There’s a certain feeling of earning it that I love. Even though it may not be in the picture. We just came back from France and we worked really hard, for one picture we were in the tent for like four hours waiting for the right light. And it matters. It’s like, “no that’s good”, ”nah”, “no, another half an hour”. Getting it right is really important in good art, I think it matters if someone has gone the extra length to get something well-said.
AB: And I would think that people would know that using camera obscura or those techniques, you’ve earned it! (laughs)
AM: Someone I met in Texas once said something like, “Why do you work so hard? Why don’t you just project whatever the hell you want on a slide projector in a room and just do the Taj Mahal and New York or something?” And I was like, “That would be fucking boring!” While everything like that is possible, it gets really uninteresting. Part of being tied up with reality and the way that it does things is that there’s an engagement. That, I think, makes me even think differently. You can’t just sit in your pajamas and just make whatever you want in Photoshop.
AB: Many photographers say that the benefit of photography is its quickness, and with that it allows for more happy accidents. Do you ever have accidents?
AM: Basically, with my pictures, I see exactly what’s happening. But yes, accidents happen all the time. When I make a two-minute exposure, I don’t know that a man is going to stand for two minutes on the sidewalk and show up. I don’t know that the light suddenly will change and give something a glittering look or something. Now it feels like I’m definitely welcoming chaos and chance and randomness a lot more than I used to. Maybe it’s my old age or something.
AB: Yeah you’re very old (laughs). You describe photography as a language, and your preferred language. How do images succeed for you where words fail?
AM: Well, images and words are such different animals. But I think, paint it right or photograph it right, sometimes I would even say it’s better than the real thing. Because it solves a certain problem of being that is separate from real life. When you see a painting that shows an emotion or moment, there’s a certain intelligence that art brings to life. That when it’s right, it shows the moment at its best.
AB: So you use, not all the time, but you use water, salt, natural elements in your work. How does the natural and unnatural play off of each other in your photograms?
AM: Oh, the photograms. I mean, I like the idea of basic things like salt and water, like the alchemic sense of making something magical out of crude elements, so lately I’ve been making pictures of flowers. I don’t know if you’ve seen those.
AB: Yes, I have.
AM: And I’ve also been making cliché verres. Do you know what those are?
AM: In the 1850s, a number of French artists – French painters, namely Corot and Millet – had this interesting idea where they would take a piece of glass, say 8 by 10, cover it with soot from a candle or something, and then with a drawing tool they would make drawings on this blackened glass plate. But, this is the interesting part: what they did was they exposed that plate with a piece of photographic paper, like a contact print. So what came out of that experiment was a drawing on photographic paper. They called it glass images, cliché verres. And I love these pictures so much that I embarked on making some for a project I made for the Museum of Modern Art [MoMa] with Oliver Sacks trying to get drawings of ferns and cycads – things that Oliver was really interested in – and I made a bunch of cliché verres related to that. And lately for this flower project that I’m calling Flowers for Lisa and the Monet project, I’m trying to work on cliché verres involving flowers—pressing flowers on color ink, things like that. Then I scan those plates and I make a print out of it.
AB: I only saw one image of that, the flowers, just recently actually.
AM: The crazy flowers?
AB: If I remember correctly, they looked like they were in a vase on a table but they were like a big…
AM: …explosion. That comes from a project called Flowers for Lisa. I’ve been trying to photograph flowers in all kinds of ways. I’ve got two pictures like that where there are multiple exposures; there are about twenty exposures of bouquets in a vase, so essentially just double exposures times twenty. And then when you do that in Photoshop it’s kind of like a chaotic blend of accidents and plant stuff and all that. Anyway, now I have about twenty pictures called “Flowers for Lisa”. Not just using that technique, but all kinds of techniques.
AB: What are you photographing with? Camera obscura in the tent?
AM: No, my digital camera, but in my studio. I put two or three flowers in a vase, and photograph that. Then I move the vase, take those flowers out, put another set in, and do that several times. At the end I put them together in some crazy way.
AB: What about the Monet project? What is that about?
AM: For the Monet project I spent time in Giverny, where Monet’s gardens are. Last year I was in residence for a bit there, so I brought my tent camera to the gardens and I made five pictures that I love, love, love. So I thought, “Okay. There’s a project here.” I’m going to call it “After Monet” and it’s to go to some places in Normandy where he painted. I’m going to use the camera obscura, the tent camera, and other things having to do with his paintings or the way he worked. So I just came back a week ago after going to Girverny again for the garden pictures and to Rouen where he made the cathedral paintings. I made pictures in Étretat, a coastal town, and they’re amazing. It’s an incredible project. I’m very excited.
AB: You are a large advocate for older, more hands-on methods of image creation. What kind of an effect do you see that having on photography in the future? There’s a lot of people in school who are going back to analog photography, but I would say that most people use digital.
AM: Yeah, I agree. Many artists, including myself, have gone back to older ways of devising pictures. It’s a way to reset the original love for it—I think that’s part of it. Students now love film because I think they want to have a little bit more heftiness in their work. Although I do think that digital technology is just another step in the process of image making and it’s what’s working, which I love about it. I’m trying to make new pictures, like the way those flower pictures were: giving Photoshop twenty exposures and trying to let it decide how it’s going to arrange it. It’s part of this interesting battle between your intentions and what digital stuff is.
AB: Maybe I should go back to using film. Maybe I’ll get more interested again. I grew up with film cameras and I have to say, I use digital but I thought the magic was taken away for me.
AM: Well, I think it can be. And that’s why I’m inside some tent in France during a hailstorm waiting for it to pass so I can make a picture. I’m trying to get myself the irritation of the old so I can make new pictures.