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Long, frigid winter spurs photographer Abelardo Morell to artistic innovation

(Abelardo Morell)

Back in 1967, Abelardo Morell, a Cuban teenager in his freshman year at Bowdoin College, encountered his first Maine winter.

“It was 20 below, and I remember walking,” Morell says, “and a truck driver stopped and said, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

So when Morell, now a photographer renowned for his virtuosity and experimentation, went up to Bowdoin in January and found little snow on the ground, he was unimpressed.

“Abe said to me ‘Winters are not what they used to be,’ ” recounts Frank H. Goodyear, co-director with his wife, Anne Collins Goodyear, of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. “I joked, ‘Come back in a week or two,’ and lo and behold, the next week that first huge storm came in.”

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The Goodyears had enlisted Morell to capture the essence of winter, and the mammoth winter of 2015 did not let them down. Several feet of snow and bitter cold were the photographer’s regular companions.

“It was quite horrible,” he says. Buds now sprout on the trees outside his Newton studio, where he’s showing a visitor his wintry prints, and he can put a positive spin on it. “But it was nice not to be a wimp, and to see what winter was really like.”

“A Mind of Winter: Photographs by Abelardo Morell” opens at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art on May 5, and will be on view all summer. The show’s title comes from the opening line of Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Snow Man.”

“The idea is that to understand winter, you have to embody winter,” Morell says.

The exhibition comprises just 12 photographs, many large-scale. These are no twinkling pictures of winter wonderlands. In deliciously inventive ways — through minimalism, abstraction, extreme close-ups, panoramas, negative prints, and a 19th-century technique known as cliché verre — Morell depicts winter as rugged, encompassing, and ethereal.

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His images revisit art history from around the world. “Snow on Wood” recalls the foaming curl of Hokusai’s wave. “Winter Ground With Pine Needles” has the look of a Cy Twombly painting, with skittering gestures over a white field. “Winter Landscape,” with its gathering of slender, dark tree trunks, calls to mind a 1565 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow.”

Abelardo Morell’s “Vertical Landscape,” on view at Bowdoin College.
Abelardo Morell’s “Vertical Landscape,” on view at Bowdoin College.

If Morell’s motifs flirt with history, so do many of his practices. He is widely known for his camera obscura pictures, for which he blacks out a room, creates a single aperture at a window, and the scene outside projects onto the far wall. In recent years he has taken that approach outdoors, sending a periscope out of the top of a tent to project the landscape onto the earth at his feet.

That’s not an option in snow; Morell tried it in Wyoming a couple of years back, only to find that you can’t project onto snow. The crystals refract and scatter the image.

For “A Mind of Winter,” one of the most challenging photographs to make was “Panorama of Winter Woods — Black & White Negatives.” One day in late January, when the temperature stood at 10 below, Morell and his assistant, Matt Cronin, shot several images of the woods.

“We were out there for two or three hours,” Morell says. “We’d have to bring the camera into the car and warm it up.”

The result is a panorama seamlessly made of 13 vertical negatives. The snow is dark; trees glow; shadows shimmer and race.

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When it comes to pushing photography, the artist was most excited by the cliché verre pieces. Back when glass negatives were common, artists would darken them with smoke and draw images over the soot, then expose the results on photographic paper — a hybrid of photography and drawing. Morell upates the process, rolling ink onto a glass plate as if he were a printmaker, and scanning the result.

“I’m not a painter, I don’t draw, but I have this instinct about scraping things, moving rollers,” Morell says.

“Horizontal Landscape — Black Ink on Glass Cliché Verre” depicts a forbidding scene, dark and cold, but shot with light. “Panorama of Winter Woods — Color Negatives and Color Ink on Glass Cliché Verre” sandwiches a painterly scan between two photographs, handmade vertical streaks among dense woods. “It feels like a weird door to somewhere else,” says Morell.

It’s not the first time the photographer has worked with cliché verre, but it’s the first time he has worked with it at this scale; the images are 8 feet across. His move to the new studio in Newton earlier this year freed him up to work big, and print instantly.

He’s eager to do more.

Anne Goodyear says she was blown away by Morell’s images. “They’re extremely beautiful photographs that reflect the winter landscape,” she says, “and they push forward photographic practice.”

Morell will travel in June to Monet’s old haunts at Giverny. He intends to take his tent and periscope, and also glass plates to make cliché verre images. Frank Goodyear foresees a whole body of work about the seasons, of which “The Mind of Winter” is just the first.

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“I went into this not knowing the winter would be such a brutal one,” says Morell. “But challenges like that make me create an answer I didn’t have a question for. Challenges like that make me do more work.”


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