Worlds Turned Upside Down | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Worlds Turned Upside Down 

Abelardo Morell shoots Chicago through room-size pinhole cameras.

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Three bankers moved out of their offices high above LaSalle Bank's main branch in the Loop for a few days last week so Abelardo Morell could turn their rooms into cameras.

With the help of Justin Schmitz, a recent Columbia College graduate, Morell sealed the windows and doors with black plastic, leaving a round hole about two inches in diameter in a window of each room, so each office became a camera obscura--literally, a dark chamber. Barely visible on the walls opposite his holes--superimposed over framed 19th-century photographs from the bank's collection, family photos on bankers' desks, and potted plants on the floor--appeared upside-down projections of the view across the street. Morell focused a large format camera on each of these naturally occurring images and began making eight-hour exposures in each room.

No one's sure how or when the camera obscura was invented, but it's been known since antiquity that when light passes through a small hole into a darkened room (or box), an inverted image of what's outside appears on the opposite wall. The technique has been used by artists since the Renaissance and by scientists for far longer. All cameras invert the images they take in, but reflex cameras (the ones we're used to) correct the orientation with mirrors.

Morell, who was born in Cuba in 1948, has been turning rooms into cameras since the early 90s. His earliest experiments with photographing camera obscura images were done in his own house outside Boston, where he's lived since 1983; a memorable shot shows a placid suburban street scene splashed upside down across toy dinosaurs in his young son's playroom. Since then Morell has fabricated room-size cameras in various locations with special significance to the history of photographic art: Manhattan (center of the art world), Florence (the birthplace of linear perspective), and Lacock Abbey, in western England (where modern photography was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s).

Some of the most recent images in Morell's series--which the Art Institute will exhibit this summer, and which Bulfinch Press, AOL Time Warner's illustrated-book imprint, collected last year in Camera Obscura--were made in 2002 in Havana, where the dislocation between worlds inside and outside his rooms is extreme. Though the city's in ruins, its streets filled with dilapidated cars from the 50s, its prerevolution buildings crumbling, the camera obscura softens the details and restores the city's former elegance (and Morell's own childhood memories)--then lays that illusion across the walls of decrepit rooms in apartments and public buildings.

Morell told Elizabeth Siegel, a photography curator at the Art Institute, he was done with the camera obscura series when she approached him about exhibiting it last year. "The book had come out," he says, "and, you know, it's sort of nice to feel like a book is the end of it." But in Lacock Abbey Morell had begun experimenting with inserting lenses into his pinholes, which makes the reflected images much brighter and sharper, and he was excited about using that technique to photograph buildings in Chicago. He told Siegel he'd make a few more pictures if she'd help him scout locations.

One or two of the Chicago pictures will end up in the show, which opens June 4 (and runs through October 16; Morell will give a lecture on Thursday, September 15). Early last week Morell photographed the Water Tower from a room at the Park Hyatt Hotel. "I sort of moved a few things around," he says. "There was a bed near the wall; I moved that bed and replaced it with a glass table and some wineglasses and a water pitcher. What comes in is not the whole Water Tower, because it's very tall, but most of it, upside down in the middle of the picture, and some buildings on the right and on the left. In the background you can see part of the lake."

At LaSalle Bank Morell said he was looking for views of a "cacophony of buildings," a density of architecture that few other cities can provide. He experimented with several offices on the 14th, 15th, and 17th floors; one facing southeast across the intersection of Adams and Clark looked out onto the three black boxes of Mies van der Rohe's Federal Center. Morell compared the sight to one of Piet Mondrian's geometrical grid paintings.

When each exposure lasts the length of a banker's workday, there's no shortage of downtime. Morell says he has plenty to keep him occupied: "[I] read, take a walk, worry, phone home, see how my daughter's doing." He's also been working on a new series of what he calls his science pictures: "I've been constructing with scientific glassware setups that look scientific, but they're total inventions--making still lifes out of science ware." In a few of them, laser lights are bounced off and between mirrors. "The lasers are just a way to make a thing that looks scientific but is just me playing," he says.

He also plans to continue a series in which he's been photographing money--part of an ongoing interest in print and printing (for many years he was occupied with photographing books). This may involve more favors from bankers. "I'm asking people who are in a position to show me lots of money," Morell says. LaSalle Bank, which has a substantial photography collection, has been promised a print of one of his new photographs, an image of their walls to hang on those walls, the outside world draped across them like an upside-down curtain.

A View With a Room

When: 6/4-10/16

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan and Adams

Price: $12 suggested donation; $7 students, seniors, kids six and up. Tuesdays free.

Info: 312-443-3600

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marci LeBrun and Justin Schmitz, courtesy Catherine Edemlan Gallery and Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

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