Photographer Abelardo Morell is intimately familiar with late 19th-century Boston cultural institutions. Three years before he was invited to be an Artist-in-Residence at the Gardner Museum in 1998, the Cuban-born, Boston-based artist had been in residence at the Boston Athenæum, where his photographs of rare printed books, including Piranesi's L'Antichità Romane (1756-57) caught the eye of Gardner curator Jill Medvedow.
Morell is known for his camera obscura photographs taken in a variety of rooms around the country (and abroad). To create these, Morell blacks out the windows and doors with dark plastic, in which he has made a small aperture (approximately 3/8" in diameter). Because of the way light is bent when it is forced through this hole, the view outside the window is projected into the room upside down. Morell then sets up his own camera on a tripod, opens the shutter, and leaves for eight hours. The resulting images bring the outside indoors, creating surreal interior landscapes in which, for example, mountains and bedsheets intermingle.
Because making camera obscura images was not an option in the Historic Palace, Morell instead began seeking out other entry points to the collection. He found that he could create surprising juxtapositions by using in-camera tricks, exposing only one half of the negative, and then the other. The resulting paired images revealed unexpected congruences. Two Paintings Sharing an Archway, Gardner Museum, 1998, is an almost seamless matching of two works that hang on opposite walls of the Museum’s Raphael Room—Sandro Botticelli’s Tragedy of Lucretia and The Annunciation, attributed to Piermatteo d’Amelia.
As an Artist-in-Residence, Morell made a point of getting to know the Museum’s security, maintenance, and horticultural staff, and was struck by their dedication to protecting the collection and maintaining the building and grounds. In one photograph, Two Gardens, Gardner Museum, 1998, he paired a garden tapestry from the Little Salon with a gardener watering plants in the Museum’s Courtyard, suggesting that both worker and work of art deserved attention and respect. Morell also made a number of images that paired portraits of Museum guards with historic portraits, finding resemblances between past and present. Tim and Rembrandt, Gardner Museum, 1998, is one such image, in which Museum maintenance staff member Tim Allen is posed in a manner that echoes Rembrandt in his Self-Portrait, Age 23 (1629), each sitter wearing a hat and appearing appealingly confident.
His exhibition, which ran from September 18, 1997 to January 3, 1998, was titled Face to Face: Photographs at the Gardner Museum. A catalogue containing essays about Morell's work by Jennifer Gross and award-winning poet Charles Simic was published in conjunction with the exhibition.
To me, these photographs are largely about imaginary conversations among the art and people of this museum. In some pictures, in order to suggest this interaction, I combined paintings, sculptures, and members of the staff through the use of multiple exposure in my camera. Simply put, I exposed only the left half of my film with something from a gallery and later, when I found some interesting counterpart, I exposed that on the right half of the same film. This "marrying" technique allowed me to create new narratives out of the collection and in a sense this gave me the freedom to see, in a fresh way, the characters so wonderfully alive at the Gardner.
— Abelardo Morell, in the wall text for Face to Face: Photographs at the Gardner Museum
Morell completed his residency by sharing his experience of the Museum with students from the Tobin Elementary School and the Lawrence School through the Gardner Museum's School Partnership Program, and came back to the Gardner later that year as a keynote speaker at the Gardner's fourth annual Teacher's Institute, focusing on diversity at the Museum.
Morell's photograph, Tim and Rembrandt, was included in Points of View: 20 Years of Artists-in-Residence at the Gardner, an exhibition celebrating the Museum’s residency program through select works by past participants. This exhibition, which ran from January 19–August 20, 2012, was created for the debut of the Museum's New Wing and renovated spaces.
Abelardo Morell was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948. He immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1962. Morell received his undergraduate degree in 1977 from Bowdoin College and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 1981. In 1997, he received an honorary degree from Bowdoin College.
Morell has received a number of awards and grants, which include a Cintas grant in 1992, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1994, a Rappaport Prize in 2006, and an Alturas Foundation grant in 2009 to photograph the landscape of West Texas. He was the recipient of the International Center of Photography 2011 Infinity Award in Art.
Morell’s work has been collected and shown in many galleries, institutions and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York, the Chicago Art Institute, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Houston Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and over 70 other museums in the United States and abroad. A retrospective of his work, Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door, organized jointly by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the High Museum in Atlanta, was on view throughout 2013-14.
His publications include a photographic illustration of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1998) by Dutton Children’s Books, A Camera in a Room (1995) by Smithsonian Press, A Book of Books (2002) and Camera Obscura (2004) by Bulfinch Press, and Abelardo Morell (2005), published by Phaidon Press. His most recent book is Flowers for Lisa—A Delirium of Photographic Invention, published by Abrams in 2018.