Talking with Abelardo Morell—The Universe Next Door

3 Sep
Contax G2 35 mm  Auto Rangefinder

Contax G2 35 mm Auto Rangefinder

Cuban born photographer Abelardo Morell has received num­erous of awards and grants,including the 2011 Inter­na­tional Cen­ter of Pho­tog­ra­phy Infin­ity award in Art and his work has been col­lected and shown in numerous gal­leries worldwide.Currently a ret­ro­spec­tive of his work, orga­nized jointly by the Art Insti­tute of Chicago,The Getty and The High Museum in Atlanta, is on view at Chicago’s Art Institute. He has published a pho­to­graphic illus­tra­tion of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land (1998), A Cam­era in a Room (1995), Face to Face (1998), A Book of Books (2002) and Cam­era Obscura (2004), Abelardo Morell(2005), Cliché Verres (2010) and The Universe Next Door (2013) the monograph for his current traveling exhibit.

Filmmaker Allie Humenuk has made a useful and revealing documentary about Morell Shadow of the House: Pho­tog­ra­pher Abelardo Morell

The conversation that follows is our second (the first took place in 2003) and ranges far and wide.Look forward to Part III in 2024

(AM comments on my Contax G2 Rangefinder lying on the table in front of us, mentioning it’s been 5 years since he used film)

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.

The Universe Next Door by Abelardo Morell

The Universe Next Door by Abelardo Morell

AM: Yeah. Was it 10 years ago?

RB: 2003. I scanned that conversation and I must it was pretty good. Then I thought why talk with him again– the first chat was pretty complete—can we do better?

AM: I actually think it was one of the best conversations I’ve had—

RB: Thank you.

AM: —because it wasn’t just technical. It was human, and political and about life, you know.

RB: It struck me as being thoughtful.

AM: It was, it was. I was actually surprised I thought we were just chatting.

RB: You were born in Havana. Grew up in NY. Were in New Orleans briefly. You went to school in Maine and Connecticut. You have work all over the world. Why do you live I Boston?

AM: I taught for a year in Bowdoin College in 1982. And then I got the job at MASS Art. I got a job teaching at the Mass College of Art in 1983. So we moved to Quincy then we had kids and Brookline has a good reputation for kids so we moved there.

RB: Your kids are older now

AM: My son is 27.

RB: Are you tempted to —is there another place in the world that attracts you?

AM: Occasionally when I go to New York. Of course I am in Central Park and its beautiful out—

RB: And you go to galleries and museums and nice cocktail receptions.

AM: It looks very tempting.

RB: Very smooth and easy.

AM: But no, I think it would be a pain in the ass. It’s gotten so much richer and poorer.

RB: A mayoral candidate actually claimed he would address the issue of the widening economic gap. Oh sure.

AM: Oh, you think (both laugh)? The gap is really noticeable and it feels like you have to have a lot of money to feel normal there. And I hate that idea.

RB: That was the [egalitarian] impulse to move to Brooklyn but I think Brooklyn may not be any better.

AM: Brooklyn is turning pretty exclusive. That’s where my son lives, by the way.

RB: That HBO series, Girls, takes place in Brooklyn—it feels like one big hip coffee shop. I am not sure if it’s gender or geography but it seems very located and specific. There’s also a recent novel by Michael Dahlie* which is set in Brooklyn and makes the writing culture of which Brooklyn is a big center seem like high school.

AM: It’s very competitive and people are hipper-than-thou. I think it is hard to be patient and genuine there.

RB: You spent time in Chicago because of your exhibit—what’s your sense of it?

AM: I am ignorant of the really bad zones where all the killing [and shootings take place]. So I’m afraid I stuck only to the beautiful parts. So I have not seen what the South Side looks like —

RB: A ghetto is a ghetto.

AM: Yeah. People are really concerned —there is a lot of killing. I don’t know what Emmanuel [mayor of Chicago] is doing about it. It does seem to be concentrated in a few areas. And there are fewer police

RB: What was your sense of the people?

AM: I liked them better than New Yorkers. Chicago people seem normal and kind. Someone said that New York is a great world city but Chicago is a great American city. The wideness of it, the architecture.

RB: Broad horizons

AM: Its gorgeous—you feel like you are in a city. The architecture is amazing. I took a boat tour —[I saw] buildings I had never seen before from the back—

RB: Down the Chicago River?

AM: Yeah. Have you ever done that? The view from the back, from the river is different.

RB: The city formed and built around the river.

AM: Apparently the city got so polluted and so commercial that architects built buildings on the river not having that many windows because it was disgusting

RB: The Chicago River was used for sewage. Yuck. I asked you about other places that you might live. What was the shift from Havana to New York like? And New Orleans?

AM: New Orleans was only a few months, buy it was 1962. The ground zero of the civil rights struggle. So I saw the real thing.

RB: It was not the hip, cosmopolitan, cultural cauldron it is portrayed as, today?

AM: I haven’t been back there but back then it was, it was upsetting. We lived in the project, a lot of white poor lived there—it was very weird.

RB: Have you seen Treme? *

AM: I have seen some of it—not a lot. It’s interesting.

RB: David Simon does do interesting stuff.

AM: The Wire was a genius thing.

RB: I would love to see someone take on the American Indian problem in a fictional narrative series. They are still getting screwed. Casinos or no they are still disproportionately troubled—fetal alcohol, unemployment, child abuse, and school dropout

AM: Oh yeah, very troubled. I have driven out west and took pictures and you go by a reservation and its sad.

RB: An American Civil War general who later fought in the lndian Wars, called reservations, “worthless pieces of land surrounded by scoundrels.” And he was no friend of the Indians. Did your beginning to take color images coincide with adopting digital technology?

AM: No. Well, close. In 2005 I made a picture of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It was long set up. There was a lot of negotiating with the curators.

Camera Obscura/ Philadelphia Art Museum  by Abelardo Morell

Camera Obscura/ Philadelphia Art Museum by Abelardo Morell

RB: Really?

AM: I used a gallery as a camera obscura* looking out. Also, I didn’t like the Jasper Johns hanging there. I like Jasper Johns. I really liked a de Chirico that was hanging in another gallery. So it was one of those things, ”I’d like to have the de Chirico here”, easily said. It took a while for that to happen. It took so long to figure out and I had 2 cameras, a B & W and a color, just for the hell of it. When I developed the color negative it was like discovering candy or something. It was a lot more complicated. And also more pleasure, in a way. Black and white is austere and also tips its hat to the past—which I love to do. But it was nice to get with the program.

RB: You shoot color, do you still look at black and white photography, still appreciate it?

AM: Oh very much. I still make some black and white images. Photograms* and still lives. In fact, I am leaving for Atlanta for week. I received a commission to do called “Picturing The South”. A small subject. (laughs) from the High Museum [of Atlanta] Basically, I get to choose a subject.

RB: Isn’t that the way it is?

AM: [Hesitantly] Yeah. In this case I already have a failure. I thought, “Okay, here’s an idea. I love Eudora Welty a lot. I have read a lot of here work. She was a very good photographer. And she grew up in Jackson Mississippi. So I took an assistant to Jackson, to see its 4 rivers and stuff. It was very dull. It was not visually interesting for me

RB: But her photographs excite you?

AM: Very much. But it’s not the kind of photography I am good at. I didn’t want to do people and that’s her at her best. Anyway, I went for a few days and came back licking my wounds.

RB: (laughs)

AM: Then I said to the museum, why don’t I try to do trees in the South? Specifically Georgia. Specifically Atlanta and Savannah. So that’s what I am going to do. And some of them will be black and white

RB: We take the beauty of trees for granted.

AM: No, they are amazing

RB: I wouldn’t think you remember very exhibit but I suspect you could recall them. There was an exhibit of Cuban American photography listed on your CV. Are you a Cuban photographer?

Abelardo Morell (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Abelardo Morell (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

AM: (laughs) Cubist! I don’t usually fall in that ghetto. It’s tempting sometimes because one is proud of one’s background. But when it becomes a prison, which in some cases it does—collectors and curators say, “Aha, the Cuban work! “ They don’t go that far but they may want photos with maracas. There is a certain ghetto you get put into and I always declined that. Someone in Texas once asked me after a talk—and she meant it well— “why doesn’t your work look like the work of a Cuban artist.” I knew what she meant. I came to this country to be free and also Cuban artist can do what ever the hell they want, including a light bulb. So we still need to fight some of those categories

RB: Speaking of cultural influence, I know you like Afro Cuban music.

AM: Very much. I have thousands and thousands of Cuban records. Music has really shaped my thinking. But its not like I am rejecting [Cubaness]. I don’t know how to answer the question.

RB: Do you follow Cuba politics?

AM: Not very much.

RB: You are not devoted to going back?

AM: I went back—

RB: I mean to live.

AM: My father died since we last talked. And I have his ashes, so I want to go back to his hometown where he was a fisherman and bring my kids and rent a rowboat—no, I know so little about it. Things are changing dramatically there and people continue to be stupid on this side and that side.

RB: There is no end to that. (both laugh) that will continue indefinitely. The 2 times I visited Cuba I found it to be amazing, magical. Of course, part of it is frozen on time.

AM: No disrespect to Romania, its not Romania (both laugh)

RB: The first thing I noticed on my first night in Havana was that it was not a dreary socialist state. There’s life here.

AM: There’s a certain energy that continues to fight—

RB: Perhaps its silly to say this but the people were physically beautiful. Where does that come from genetically?

AM: Yeah. Absolutely, I agree. Spain and Africa

RB: The section in the new book of photos of childhood as a subject. So many of those pictures didn’t seem set up—more like you discovered them and then embellished them. Like the picture of your wife and your son Brady—

AM: —that’s very much set up. I saw it—

RB: —that’s what I mean. You saw the possibility before you set the shot up. Or the wineglass reflecting the window. That is a different kind of photography —it’s not contrived and it’s not street.

AM: I think it comes from modernist photography—I was really driven by emotional feelings. This is my house. This is the wineglass I use.

RB: Its not like Irving Penn or Avedon where they would take a subject or object and light it against a white background.

AM: Right. Although he is one of my heroes. Irving Penn is a huge hero of mine. Avedon was more like in the middle on the white background. Penn sets up the whole frame. But he is definitely one of my heroes.

RB: Avedon was interesting for the variety of subjects that he shot.

AM: Variety of people.

RB: Yeah. Wasn’t he one of the first to photograph inside a mental institution?

AM: Yeah

In the American West by Richard Avedon

In the American West by Richard Avedon

RB: And one of his later works was that In the American West project.

AM: Yeah, amazing work but also problematic because Avedon’s West was fully of shifty looking people (both laugh)—its not really the West-it’s Avedon’s West but isn’t always like that with Art?. You have a point of view, what are you going to say—

RB: I was watching a new series Orange is the New Black. *

AM: Yeah I was wondering about that.

RB: Certainly it wasn’t going to emulate Oz. And Oz was or had to be contrived.

AM: But dramatic.

RB: Yeah. I thought that Orange has some nice smart stuff—as hard as the premise was to accept—

AM: You mean, the white girl—

RB: Lesbian white debutante intends to marry a striving Jewish writer but has to do 15 months in a Federal penal institution first. The character studies, the backstories of the inmates were well done. There was a scene were a screwdriver gets lost and this is a major problem (can be used as a weapon). It ends up in the hands of a very mannish lesbian and you are set up to think she is going to use it for revenge but ends up using it for as a dildo.

AM: (Laughs)

RB: You think there will be bloodshed and violence. So where you expected violence you were surprised

AM: I like the idea that the character is not the typical character. And it happens.

RB: Do you have any ambition to make a film?

AM: Little snippet ideas, you know. Thirty second things. No, I am in such awe of filmmakers.

RB: Too many images?

AM: Yeah, too much. Also, too many people to talk to.

RB: (laughs)

AM: The guy measuring the focus — “Is that good?” I mean if I did it would be me. I have ideas but they are embryonic.

RB: Amazing how most new digital cameras—point-and-shoot and DSLR have HD video capabilities.

AM: And they look good. They look fantastic. Actually someone from— I am going to be in the October issue of the National Geographic, which is very different for me. And its not tigers—anyway at the Annenberg Foundation in LA they show everybody’s work in that issue. They sent a crew to do an installation picture—there were 9 people. A RED camera *and—embarrassingly overkill.

RB: How much do you have to do with the book when it’s being made? How much did you have to do with this book?

AM: I think a lot. Liz Siegel, the main curator —we’ve met several times. Sometimes we would have pictures that we had a problem with—there is nothing I here that I have a problem with, nothing she had a problem with but some thing got lost along the way.

RB: How do you decide to put two pictures face to face or have a blank facing page?

AM: The designer.

RB: You don’t care about that.

AM: No—I, do but I’m not all that good at it.

RB: Are there photographs that you have taken that you don’t think would work in a book?

AM: Of mine?

RB Yeah, you think it looks good on a wall but I don’t know if it transfers to a page?

AM: I am a pretty harsh critic of my work so what works on the wall works in a book

RB: Did you notice that this book is produced from responsible paper sources?

AM: No, really?

RB: Copyright pages seem to contain more obscure nuggets of information than ever.

AM: Yeah of course, I sourced that (both laugh). I want those Brazilian woods to be saved.

RB: And the poor little people who live there.

AM: They are getting rich.

RB: Are they. Are there casinos? (both laugh)

AM: In Manaus (laughs).

RB: That’s at the head of the Amazon?

AM: Yeah, I ‘ve never been there but I really want to go. There’s an opera house. Fitzcarraldo* may have been set there. I really like that the madness of the film which is really Herzog’s madness/It’s another Heart Of Darkness where the white guys can’t deal with the jungle

RB: Wow, there is a whole other America to explore and for Americans to discover (laughs)

AM: Antarctica?

RB: How many days a year do you travel?

AM: More and more, it feels like

RB: You’re like a rock band. Do you have things in your contract?

AM: Oh, the M& Ms? (laughs)

RB: The New Zealand spring water.

AM: Well, of course. No, I am traveling more but a lot of it is for work.

RB: Where would you go for recreation?

AM: My wife asks me that (laughs)

RB: Yeah?

AM: I don’t like to sit around. I mean I like reading.

RB: Its clear that you love what you do so—

AM: I am turning 65 soon. It feels like a little there’s a little pressure. There is some insecurity. Have I done enough?

RB: Wow.

AM: No, no it’s true- I feel like asking God sometimes if I have done good

RB: I don’t know if you know this but at least two very accomplished writers have said they are done writing Phillip Roth and Alice Munro.

AM: I know, I couldn’t believe that. That felt weird —its like how do you stop?

RB: But there is a case to be made that some writers should have stopped —

AM: (laughs)

RB: Of course, how does one know?

Abelardo Morell (Photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Abelardo Morell (Photo by Robert Birnbaum)

AM: I retired from teaching 3 years ago. I taught for 27 years. It feels like I did that.

RB: Do you miss it?

AM: I miss the energy of the young people. It’s what kept me going. But I like getting and being able to say, ”Maybe I should go to this place or—though I am teaching a graduate
class in the fall, one day a week. Just to keep in the game. And also to know—I don’t know—to know what Foucault is talking about (laughs)

RB: Is there a metaphysics of photography?

AM: (laughs) I‘m sure

RB: I wonder what happens to you when your calling leads to many hours of solitude?

AM: Some people do better than others. Every time I think I can go to Maine and sit around. I am not a social being. I’m good at it but I’d rather be by myself. Buckminster Fuller, he said he kept quiet for a year. Uh, sort of on purpose.

RB: There is something to be said about being more conscious of things we take for granted like talking. Like trying experience blindness by blindfolding oneself.

AM: Making pictures is pretty silent. There is not much going in. It’s not like a movie. Especially early on with the childhood objects, long exposures, looking at things— I got a sense of that meditational quiet that I still like a lot.

RB: Try to find some silence—its like trying to find complete darkness.

AM: Its true—it’s getting —although I am sure there are places.

RB: The only place I can recall was in Vieques*, at the phosphorescent bay.

AM: There is that dichotomy of being an artist or writer—some people are able to be recluses all their lives. But I think you need to have foot with the publishers’ office and ideas for subjects and the quiet.

RB: That would be the great benefit of a competent agent.

AM: Or a competent art dealer.

RB: They must become like a relative. They have to really know you.

AM: It’s always funny to see some one talk about your work for [the purpose of] selling it. It’s not uncomfortable but its odd. There is a certain con going on. (laughs)

RB: “How much? He paid what?”

(Brief discussion of Orfeo, new novel by Richard Power)

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.

(Brief description of Amity Gage’s repeating a phrase for a page and a half in Schroder)

AM: I saw a Robert Wilson creation a long time ago—Letter to Queen Victoria, an early piece of his. Before Einstein on the Beach and all that. He had—he wasn’t schizophrenic —what’s the more serious form of Asperberger’s?

RB: Severe autism?

AM: Autism, yeah. An autistic boy who was according to Wilson, a genius. But he has him on stage read, say “tape recorder, tape recorder…” He did it for a long time. And he was recording himself with the tape recorder. Occasionally he would play it back. Which transformed the experience a lot. And it’s a little bit like the novel you mentioned—you are not just reading for meaning but for sound.

RB: What do these artistic experiments and collaborations have to do with the real world?

AM: (laughs heartily)

RB: I read a lot of literary fiction, which seems to be marginal to most people

AM: So [you wonder] what’s the point? Good question. Often times I go to shows and say, “What the fuck?” Four or five people get it—because its quoting an older picture and you are supposed to because Foucault* mentioned it. That kind of work doesn’t interest me at all. I actually think, because I come form a working class background and I feel a certain duty to make it clear in my work. It’s really important—even though I do things like my latest work is a tent with a periscope and with a periscope you see images of the surrounding area on the ground. So it’s a heady weird conceptual thing. But when I explain to people I wanted to get inside a tent looking at the ground, and the ground shows me what’s outside – that seems like the kind of magic that everyone would get and be excited by. I wanted that kind of solidity to come through the pictures because we all share the ground kind of equally. I was reading Charles Ives, a composer I like a lot—he says something like “Occasionally it would help some composers to have to write a marching band song for a high school.” Nice, get back to a certain everyday people reality.

RB: In reading you will read that such and such a novel is an homage to Henry James. Or some classic is referenced. So what if you are not familiar with the author or the citation?

AM: Unless it works. In architecture, it’s happening all the time. In Chicago you walk around and these modern buildings are quoting Philip Johnson, [Louis] Sullivan. In fact, it becomes talked about and it’s a lot more readable. But in music what happens all the time is—there’s a line—“that’s from Stravinsky isn’t it?”

RB: In jazz there is a lot of quotation of phrases from musical standards.

AM: It’s more fun that way. You still need to be informed though. But in literature it seems more thin that kind of treatment.

RB: A practitioner does something technically skillful or adventurous that other practitioners recognize. There was a time I felt that short fiction was written for other writers—

AM: You did—even Raymond Carver?

RB: A bias formed before 1980.

AM: (laughs)

(Talk about Philip Roth, The Human Stain, American Pastoral)

RB: I favor those writers whose people inhabit an ordinary world doing extraordinary things.

AM: You could say that Updike wrote about WASPS doing ordinary things. It could be equally interesting.

RB: I read a novel by Maggie Armstead called Seating Arrangements that featured a snapshot of WASP culture—off shore island vacation homes, Harvard, Harvard clubs, country club memberships, appropriate brand and status symbols, genealogy. Very patterned lives.

AM: Isn’t that what literature does best? It puts you in the shoes of somebody else and if it’s good you feel like you are them

RB: It comes down to what kind of people and stories one is interested in.

AM: I agree. I have a friend Nicholson Baker* He wrote U & I, totally a tribute to Updike. And Nick is a WASP himself—there is a certain simpatico although he is stranger and more wonderful than Updike to me..

RB: In a good way. He has a wonderfully peculiar point of view. He wrote the introduction to your A Book of Books.

 A Book of Books by Abelardo Morell

A Book of Books by Abelardo Morell

AM: Yeah- I could not find a better writer for this book than Nick- I envy his brain.

RB: Are all your books in print?

AM: Camera Obscura may not be. Everything else should be.

RB: You can’t tell by the large royalty checks you receive?

AM: My limo should be showing up soon

RB: What is the print run on a book like The Universe Next Door?

AM: Its actually big for an art book—this one is 5000. That’s kind of unusual. At one point early on, when it was getting some press, at 412 in Amazon

RB: That’s great—though you never know what moves a ranking. It could be 4 copies sold and you skyrocket up the list

AM: (Laughs)

RB: MOMA has a Walker Evans show and reproduced the monograph that accompanied the first show in 1937.

AM: American Photographs.



RB: And there is a Harry Callahan *retrospective with an exhibit in the Munich State Museum. When was the last Callahan exhibition in the US?

AM: I think the High Museum (in Atlanta) had one soon after he died (1999).

RB: I saw a review that said that Callahan was boring and his photos were pretty conventional.

AM: The issue with Callahan is that he was there first but his pictures are very repeatable and now people on Instagram look Callahanish. So they [Callahan photos] are, “Um, seen that before.”

RB: So he is not viewed from historical perspective

AM: No, I mean Siskind and Callahan were making these graphic pictures that were human and groundbreaking

RB: What contemporary photographer do you admire?

AM: I have always liked Vik Muniz. He’s Brazilian. And he’s a little bit like me, trying to make something that is not quite what it is.

RB: Is he a youngster?

AM: He’s probably five years younger then me. I like painting a lot. I like Gerhard Richter a lot.

RB: Are people still painting.

AM: Yeah, he is. Are you kidding—go to New York City. There is a lot of painting going on.

RB: Anywhere else?

AM: Painting is still going on. In fact, I am quite interested in painting—not as a thing that I can do—I don’t have the talent in that area. But I love painting and how my recent pictures because of the ground being a patina of new surfaces —there is a painterliness. One of the things I want to do is next summer bring my tent top where Monet painted in Giverny and Normandy and try to get permits so that on the ground where he painted see the same subjects on the ground

RB: Sounds wonderful

AM: So, the revisiting the ground were his—and also [Eugene] Atget’s gardens in Paris. And then maybe Van Gogh’s trees in the south. It’s a long-term thing I am trying to get the right people involved. The project is going to be called “After Monet”. It’s a cute title. But just visiting a place where art was made and revisiting it, I made a picture that’s in the book of Winslow Homer’s studio the grass outside his studio, looking at the sea.

Tent-Camera Image on Ground: View of the Sea from Winslow Homer's Studio backyard, Prouts Neck Maine (2012) pigment ink print mounted to dibond by Abelardo Morell

Tent-Camera Image on Ground: View of the Sea from Winslow Homer’s Studio backyard, Prouts Neck Maine (2012)
pigment ink print mounted to dibond by Abelardo Morell

RB: Tell me about the photos of statues against paintings.

 Frishmuth/Corot, by Abelardo Morell (Yale University Art Gallery, 2009)

Frishmuth/Corot, by Abelardo Morell (Yale University Art Gallery, 2009)

AM: I was and artist-in residence at Yale, at the museum. I was given the power to say what I wanted to do—they were moving galleries, a lot of art and some of these statues — “oh, that would look good against the Pollock. Curators thought it was too much, at first. But I created a kind of new conversation with them. It was fun.

Nadelman/Hopper by Abelardo Morell (-Yale University Art Gallery, 2008)

Nadelman/Hopper by Abelardo Morell (-Yale University Art Gallery, 2008)

RB: I am not aware that anyone doing something like your work at the Gardener Museum

Face to Face  Photographs by Abelardo Morell. Essays by Charles Simic and Jen¬nifer Gross

Face to Face
Photographs by Abelardo Morell. Essays by Charles Simic and Jen¬nifer Gross

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

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

AM: The Yale project was a kind of repetition of the Gardner

RB: Yes, by you. Why aren’t other artists doing that other museums and art venues?

AM: You are right. Its seems like a no brainer. Well, I own that right (both laugh).

RB: That’s like Pat Riley copyrighting “Three peat”

AM: You can’t use it with out giving him some money? I like that (laughs). A museum in Madrid asked me to come and do some work there ala the Gardener. Its helps when the museum is saying we’re open to things.

RB: How long is your list of unfulfilled projects?

AM: The France one [After Monet], I am really interested in doing that.

RB: What are the logistics of that project?

AM: Money, which I am trying to raise. Permissions.

RB: What does the money enable?

AM: Travel, assistants. Bringing the tents.

RB: How labor intensive?

AM: Me and 2 other people—3 of us. Transportation, hotels, flights,

RB: Have you been to these sites?

AM: I have been to France but not specifically to the Monet sites

RB: What happens if you get there and are not inspired?

AM: I actually need to do a little scouting for a week. You’re right, that would be like “This sucks.” Like Mississippi.

RB: Is your expectation that you will feel a connection to the place because of the art that was made there?

AM: Well, yeah. I like Monet — the specific light and I am always interested in revisiting the place and hopefully adding to that work. That National Geographic national park piece I have been doing I did a picture of Old Faithful — I made a tent picture of that. My feeling is that a lot of these subjects—great pictures have already been made of them. They have been done to death, but you open a new window. So that’s my interest. In some ways I want to climb on top of [the shoulders of] these great artists.

RB: There are countless books of pictures of writers’ homes or writing space—they never seem to have any emotional valence.

AM: That’s true. It’s disappointing. I think it’s hard to photograph the physical things that they surround themselves with that make up the fiction of their minds-

RB: I have an early book by Robert Mapplethorpe (50 New York Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in New York (by Richard Marshall & Robert Mapplethorpe)

AM: Really?

 50 New York Artists   by Richard Marshall &  Robert Mapplethorpe

50 New York Artists by Richard Marshall & Robert Mapplethorpe

AM: [Jean-Michel] Basquiat and people like that?

RB: Yeah, I think so. The multiple roles that artists are expected to fulfill—to create and themselves become another thing as in being a brand, celebrity. It makes one wonder if any innocence remains in art.

AM: If there is any innocence it can be found in the making of new work. Unless you say, “That sold really well, let me do another one of that.” That’s not so good. I am trying to keep a leg in some unknown area that gives me pleasure.

RB: Are you ever asked to do commercial work—corporate reports and such?

AM: No (laughs) The Progressive Insurance in Cleveland has hired really good artists to illustrate their annual reports and they are really wonderful!

RB: But remember when among others Absolut vodka and Benetton used artists and art photographers— I had a n art director friend who wanted to use Eugene Richards* for a catalogue of nurse’s uniforms

AM:(laughs) Cocaine True , great.

Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue by Eugene Richards

Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue by Eugene Richards

The NY Times Magazine hired this photographer Shelby Lee Adams*, from Kentucky and a lot of his work is of very traumatized people on the edge of life—incest, people missing teeth—

RB: Life in the remote hollows of Kentucky.

AM: It had something to do with Prada or Armani but dressing these folks in their outfits.

RB: I remember Benetton has a campaign around death row prisoners* (which they may or may not have stolen form Lou Jones)

Benetton Ad Campaign

Benetton Ad Campaign

AM: Doing what, wearing the clothes?

RB: It was after their diversity campaign. That aside I thought Lou’s work (Final Exposure)* was outstanding

Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row By Lou Jones

Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row By Lou Jones

RB: Are there places in the world you have not yet been to that you would like to go travel to?

AM: I want to go to Japan. I want to go to India also. I want to bring this Tent idea to some of these places. If I can do the Tent in those Japanese gardens it would be great

RB: When I think of China, I think of pollution and the Great Wall. The last photo I can recall of China was this 8-lane highway with one car on it.

AM: When I went the pollution was horrific. It was very uncomfortable

( conversation about travel to Mexico City, Rio, air travel, dying)

RB: I stopped flying in 1997…

AM: I used to be afraid of flying

RB: You probably have a Zen attitude about it.

AM: Yeah, if the plane goes down, if I die —I don’t know if you think about it these days—

RB: I think about death.

AM: Its weird. Its not just is it going to hurt but, “Shit I am not going to be around for…”

RB: I don’t want to leave a mess.

AM: That’s important. I am actually on working on that—getting stuff clear, everything organized.
RB: It’s like that old Jewish saw about wearing clean underwear in case you get hit by a car and have to go to hospital .You don’t want to be embarrassed by dirty underclothing. I don’t want to die in my bed and be found and my abode is in its usual state of chaos. Talking about death is a good place to stop. One more thing is— there an Abelardo Morell style? Should I be able to look at a picture and know it was done by you?

AM: No, I mean if its camera obscura that’s a thing I came up with. No, I hope that pictures look witty, intelligent. But I don’t think there is a style. I hope not. And that’s why I ma challenging my self to go to the South and make tree pictures, which I have never done before. So it’s a challenge to see “Abe looks at trees.”

RB: You don’t really do portraits.

AM: No, it s too hard. I don’t like psychology. I am just not interested in the unstable nature of people. I like the physical world because it obeys physical laws and people —I don’t trust them as subjects

RB: I don’t think of portraits as people. I see people as kinetic and seeing a subject frozen in time is to me, like looking at a corpse

Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange

Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange

RB: But does anyone come to picture not already knowing here circumstance and thus investing the picture with a certain emotion?

AM: She is signaling a way to read it. It’s interesting, you see color footage of Hitler playing with his dog and you think, “Wait, not too bad.” There is really a weird read on them. As opposed to the black and whites of the speeches.

RB: Ok this really is the last question. Do find old age has more surprises and unknowns than 30 years of adulthood?

AM: You and I are in the business of finding interesting things—if I were a banker, things would be tidy. I am quite surprised by things, a lot. I am surprised by my emotions I didn’t think I had in me. I find myself embracing my daughter and son in a way that, “Wow, that ‘s kind fun and new.” Yeah, it’s sweet.

RB: I was marveling at current brain science claiming that us engaging in ongoing mental activities wards of loss of mental acuity

AM: I’m sorry, who are you? (both laugh)

RB: Well, thanks very much

AM: My pleasure. It was fun.

RB: Let’s talk again in 10 years.

Related links

1. Interview with Abelardo Morell
2. The Universe Next Door
3. Michael Dahlie, Our Man In Boston interview
4. HBO series, Treme
5. Camera obscura
6. Photograms
7. Orange is the New Black
8. RED Camera
9. Fitzcarraldo
11. Letter to Queen Victoria
12.Michel Foucault
13.Identity Theory interview with Nicholson Baker
14.Harry Callahan
15. Eugene Richards
16.Shelby Lee Adams
17.Benetton Death Row Campaign
18. Lou Jones
19. Mary Coin

Currently reading Enon by Paul Harding (Random House)

One Response to “Talking with Abelardo Morell—The Universe Next Door”


  1. VQR » Blog » Thousands of Words: Galleries in Books - September 6, 2013

    […] I spoke with Abelardo Morell ten years ago, and it’s clear that the past decade has been a productive one for him. The Art Institute of Chicago is hosting a retrospective exhibit of Morell’s work, The Universe Next Door, along with an anthology of Abe’s greatest hits from his child photos to the Gardner project to his camera obscura and tent photos. You’ll find my recent chat with Morell here. […]

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