Bonni Benrubi Gallery, New York, New York
September 25 - December 6, 2008
In a photographic world dominated by the digital, a few artists continue to explore the perceptual and cognitive consequences of older technologies: Barbara Ess, that of the pinhole camera, and Abelardo Morell, the camera obscura. Such practitioners are not in thrall to the would-be monopolists of the computer industry. They remind us that we ourselves can make at least some of our own equipment with which to explore the creation of images by the contrived fall of light.
Any darkened chamber, whether the size of a shoebox or of a room, pierced by a small aperture—a pin prick or a hole in a blind—hosts a transient image as rays of light enter and illuminate the walls with an intensity that varies in accordance with the character and location of their last point of reflection. Lenses and mirrors can be used to concentrate such images on a flat surface. The room-sized camera obscura (“dark chamber”), which the viewer enters to observe the image, was a site of wonder, curiosity, research, and entertainment in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe.
Artists have long explored the visual peculiarities, such as halation, of camera obscura images. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is among the most celebrated. Morell’s photographs of the interiors of his makeshift camera obscuras extend a venerable tradition of art making. Eight such works, seven in color (a new departure), form the core of this exhibition. Morell, though, is no more a literalist in his use of the camera obscura than was Vermeer. Both record their observations at a remove rather than use this technology to compose, let alone create their images.
The light Morell admits resolves into striking canonical images: the Pantheon, the most astounding ancient building to survive intact in Rome, is eerily reconstituted on a black-and-orange striped day bed and the wall against which it stands, that of room 111 of the Albergo del Sole al Pantheon. The Salute, Baldassare Longhena’s votive church completed in Venice in 1681, hovers upside down on gold and white damask covering a palace bedroom wall on which hangs a rococo gilt-framed looking glass, its mirrored surface strangely dark. The image of the Salute is inverted, as are all pure camera obscura images. In some recent works, Morell has used a prism to render the image right side up, a minor manipulation that enhances the clarity of dual presence, as in the case of the Coliseum cast on the wall of room 20 of the Hotel Gladiatori, Rome.
Morell’s exposures are of between five and ten hours’ duration. By photographing the camera obscura image as it falls upon the substance and furnishings of the hotel rooms and unused offices he adapts for the purpose, Morell ironically superimposes the longevity of the monuments outside on an internal site of transience by means of light passing through. It leaves as little trace as the guests who lay their heads on the pillows in anonymous succession, night after night. His is a quiet art of the first order.