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

The Newton-based artist takes viewers inside the pinhole camera — and on a reality-bending journey — in ‘Projecting Italy’ at the Fitchburg Art Museum.

Abelardo Morell, "View of Florence from Giardino Bardini, Italy (detail)," 2017.Image courtesy of the artist

FITCHBURG — Envision yourself inside a blacked-out room. At the window, someone opens a tiny hole to the light outdoors. The world floods in and projects against the opposite wall. Magic!

Photographer Abelardo Morell has been taking viewers inside giant pinhole cameras, called camera obscuras, since 1991. He masks off entire rooms save a small aperture at a window, and whatever is outside shines in and appears upside down. Morell photographs the projection.

“Abelardo Morell: Projecting Italy” at the Fitchburg Art Museum celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Center for Italian Culture at Fitchburg State University. The show captures the honeyed light and baroque architecture and gardens of Florence and Venice. In Morell’s sumptuous color photographs, outside and inside mingle, as do past and present, upside down and right-side up.


Abelardo Morell, "View of Landscape Outside Florence," 2010, archival pigment print. Image courtesy of the artist

That may sound confusing, but it’s a better representation of the tapestry of consciousness, with its threads of memory and rumination knotting up with outer demands, than a straightforward photograph could be. Even the inversion happens in our own crania when we see: The pupil projects images onto the retina upside down. The optic nerve quickly rights them.

Morell, 73, who lives in Newton and exhibits around the world, is the first known artist to make art from inside a camera obscura. The perennially innovative photographer is fascinated with the process of photography, which is so akin to that of sight — one that turns reality into image, and image into imagination’s fuel.

The camera obscura was first documented in China in the fifth century B.C. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo used it to study perspective. It’s been speculated, by painter David Hockney among others, that Vermeer traced camera obscura images to capture the innovative perspectives in his paintings. Other painters, such as Caravaggio and Ingres, may have also employed the device.


Morell loves painting and has played with the camera’s ability to paint in other bodies of work; he has applied paint to glass negatives, and added paint to photographs. Photographing Italy, he avails himself of the art there, layering phantasm upon phantasm.

In “Camera Obscura: View of Gardens on Folding Screen, Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy,” the image floods a screen painted with the gardens of the majestic Renaissance villa, New York University’s Italian campus. The projection’s cypresses hang like stalactites over a bucolic painted scene, framed by pillars, of a couple and their attendant strolling past balustrades and statuary. It’s an echo chamber of the villa’s garden — intimations of the real thing outside, its projection and its depiction in one heady mix.

Sometimes, Morell uses a prism to flip the projected image. In “Camera Obscura: View of Villa Entrance in Blue Gallery, Villa la Pietra, Florence, Italy,” a long ribbon of sun-splashed road framed by trees is right-side-up, its projection rising steeply up a doorway between two small marble statues. It hits the horizon at the doorway’s top, and exactly meets a lane in a cityscape hanging above — today’s path unspooling into yesterday’s.

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 city pours onto a wall above a bed like a vivid dream in “Camera Obscura: View of Florence from Hotel Excelsior, Italy,” swamping modern amenities including a light switch and a lamp. Near the center, the shadow of a chandelier falls over a painting on the wall, which mirrors the projection’s light. These last details deliciously complicate the photograph, adding specters of shadow and gleam to the mix of new and old, interior and exterior.


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 then-assistant, photographer C. J. Heyliger, designed a light-proof tent, making a portable camera obscura outfitted with a periscope to project an exterior image onto the ground inside. This opened up new backdrops — the textures of grass, earth, and concrete.

A wall mural here offers a portion of the tent photo “View of Florence from Giardino Bardini, Italy.” The resplendent cityscape, with the Florence Cathedral prominent on the left, shines crisply on earth littered with pebbles and leaves. On first glance, these textures simply roughen the image, giving it the suggestion of a centuries-old painting. But a large tangle of twigs near the center disrupts the illusion; it looks like broken glass, and suddenly what seemed like an old canvas more resembles a photograph shot through a shattered lens.

The wealth of contradictory details in these photographs builds worlds we can’t make sense of as quickly as the optic nerve orients the eye to the world. Those contradictions reflect our own internal lives, full of projections, granular detail, and layers that make little sense to anyone but ourselves. “Projecting Italy,” then, isn’t just Morell’s Italy. It’s every viewer’s own, intimate Italian dream.



At Fitchburg Art Museum, 185 Elm St., Fitchburg, through Feb. 6. 978-345-4207, www.fitchburgartmuseum.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.