Italy obscura: Photographer Abelardo Morell opens the mind’s eye

Abelardo Morell, “View of Landscape Outside Florence”, 2010, archived pigment print. Image courtesy of the artist

This may sound confusing, but it is a better representation of the tapestry of consciousness, with its threads of memory and brooding tangled with external demands, than a simple photograph could be. Even the inversion happens in our own skull when we see: The student projects images upside down onto the retina. The optic nerve quickly straightens them up again.

73-year-old Morell, who lives in Newton and exhibits around the world, is the first known artist to make art out of a camera obscura. The always innovative photographer is fascinated by the photographic process, which is so similar to that of seeing, which makes reality in the picture and the picture the fuel of the imagination.

the camera obscura was first used in the fifth century BC. Mentioned in a document in China Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo used it to study perspective. It was speculated by the painter David Hockney Among other things, that Vermeer traced camera obscura images in order to capture the innovative perspectives in his paintings. Other painters, such as Caravaggio and Ingres, may have used the device as well.

Morell loves painting and has played with the camera’s ability to paint in other works; he painted glass negatives with color and added color to photographs. When photographing Italy, he makes use of local art and layers phantasm on phantasm.

In “Camera Obscura: View of Gardens on Folding Screen, Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy” the image floods a canvas painted with the Gardens of Majesty Renaissance mansion, New York University’s Italian campus. The cypresses of the projection hang like stalactites over an idyllic painting scene framed by columns of a couple and their companion, who strolls past balustrades and statues. It is an echo chamber of the villa’s garden – hints of reality outside, its projection and representation in an intoxicating mixture.

Sometimes Morell uses a prism to mirror the projected image. In “Camera Obscura: View of Villa Entrance in Blue Gallery, Villa la Pietra, Florence, Italy”, a long, tree-framed, sunlit street band is directed right up, its projection steeply a doorway between two small marble statues. It hits the horizon at the top of the doorway and hits an alley in an urban landscape hanging over it – today’s path that winds its way into yesterday’s.

Abelardo Morell, "Camera Obscura: View of the entrance of the villa in the Blue Gallery, Villa la Pietra, Florence, Italy," 2017, archival pigment print.
Abelardo Morell, “Camera Obscura: View of Villa Entrance in Blue Gallery, Villa la Pietra, Florence, Italy”, 2017, archival pigment print. Image courtesy of the artist

The contrasts in these photos are as magnetic as the confluences. The old town pours like a living dream in “Camera Obscura: View of Florence from the Hotel Excelsior, Italy” on a wall above a bed and inundates modern amenities such as a light switch and a lamp. In the center, the shadow of a chandelier falls over a painting on the wall that reflects the light from the projection. These final details complicate the photo in delicious ways, adding ghosts of shadow and shine to the mix of new and old, indoor and outdoor.

Abelardo Morell, "Camera Obscura: View of Florence from the Hotel Excelsior, Italy," 2017, archival pigment print.
Abelardo Morell, “Camera Obscura: View of Florence from Hotel Excelsior, Italy”, 2017, archival pigment print. Image courtesy of the artist

In 2010 Morell and his assistant at the time, photographer CJ Heyliger, designed one lightproof tent, creating a portable camera obscura with a periscope to project an outside image onto the floor inside. This opened up new backgrounds – the textures of grass, earth, and concrete.

A photo wallpaper here shows part of the tent photo “View of Florence from Giardino Bardini, Italy”. The magnificent cityscape with the Florence Cathedral on the left shines crispy on the earth strewn with pebbles and leaves. At first glance, these textures simply roughen the picture and give it the appearance of a centuries-old painting. But a large tangle of branches near the center disturbs the illusion; it looks like broken glass, and suddenly what looked like an old canvas is more like a photograph taken through a broken lens.

The abundance of contradicting details in these photographs creates worlds that we cannot understand as quickly as the optic nerve directs the eye to the world. These contradictions reflect our own inner life, full of projections, granular details and layers that make little sense to anyone but ourselves. So “projecting Italy” is not just Morell’s Italy. It is every viewer’s intimate Italian dream.


At the Fitchburg Art Museum, 185 Elm St., Fitchburg, until February 6th 978-345-4207,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.

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