BRUNSWICK, Maine — Last winter seems like a long time ago, and good, record-setting riddance. Who’d want to revisit it? “A Mind of Winter: Photographs by Abelardo Morell” makes an excellent case for doing so. It runs at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through Sept. 27.
Morell is best known for his camera obscura photographs. Camera obscura is the optical phenomenon whereby light from a pinhole camera projects upside-down images. Morell has memorably turned entire rooms into a form of camera obscura, projecting exterior images on their walls — or, in the case of the Empire State Building, on a bed — and then photographing the results with a film camera. The sense of dislocation is startling: upside down, inside out, unreal reality.
None of the 13 images in “A Mind of Winter” employs camera obscura. Technically, three aren’t even photographs. They’re cliché-verre, literally, glass picture, a method that combines photography with drawing or, as here, painting. “As a photographer,” Morell says of applying paint to a glass negative, “it was nice to get to use my hands for once.” All 13 images are big, as well as unmatted and unframed, a combination that gives them a you-are-there sense of immediacy. These are windows on winter, windows that Morell has deliberately left open.
Biographically, if not visually, there is an upside-down aspect to these pictures. Morell was born in Cuba, in 1948, and lived there until moving to New York with his family in 1962. He went to college at Bowdoin and has lived in Boston for many years (he was long a mainstay on the faculty at Massachusetts College of Art and Design). Still, how much does any native of the tropics truly adjust to winter? How much, for that matter, does anyone? That personal history might account for the way these images manage to seem at once clinical and lyrical.
Morell takes his title from Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” The poem begins, “One must have a mind of winter/ To regard the frost and the boughs/ Of the pine-trees crusted with snow” and ends with “the listener, who listens in the snow,/ And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
What these images evoke is that nothing which is. They’re more gray than black and white, wonderfully specific (the bark on two tree trunks is almost cartographically documented) yet at times verging on the abstract. It’s a paradox of appearance that the camera is uniquely capable of conveying. Aaron Siskind’s pictures may be the best example of this, or Minor White’s, and “A Mind of Winter” has some affinity with both. A photograph like “Bending Tree Trunk” is very Siskind; or “Snow on Wood,” where the snow looks like nothing so much as surf, is very White. Conversely, “Tree Branch Pressed in Snow” has a prelapsarian delicacy worthy of W.H. Fox Talbot (one of whose photographs, happily enough, hangs in the museum just around the corner).
Morell took these pictures in Maine and Massachusetts last winter, yet they have a timeless, universal quality. In “Ulysses,” Stephan Dedalus notes that “horseness is the whatness of allhorse.” These pictures evoke winterness as the whatness of allwinter. There are no people visible, no signs of human handiwork, no designations of place. Shadows on snow; pine needles on snow; an array of birches, their slender trunks like threads in a tapestry woven of weather: This is winter as other , more condition than landscape, less meteorology than meditation. Enhancing the meditative atmosphere is the piped-in piano music, improvised by Morell. It recalls solo Keith Jarrett. In music, as in art and literature, the man has excellent taste.
A MIND OF WINTER:
Photographs by Abelardo Morell
At: Bowdoin College
Museum of Art,
245 Maine St., Brunswick, Maine,
through Sept. 27. 207-725-3275, www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.