Abelardo Morell makes the national parks his camera

Old Faithful Geyser exposed on the ground inside a tent by camera obscura. Abelardo Morell

It's not easy to find someone whose right brain and left brain are each working overtime. But photographer Abelardo Morell is more than a creative spirit. In a recent talk at the Annenberg Space Skylight Studio, in conjunction with the current show, Morell called himself a "closet scientist" who has invented a new way of seeing and recording images, or rather re-invented a very old way of seeing using new technology. His recent photography has turned rooms into cameras by employing the technique of camera obscura (literally "dark room") and figured out how to take it on the road. The resulting images of the US National Parks, currently part of a sweeping exhibit honoring 125 years of National Geographic photography at the Annenberg Space for Photography, are stunning and totally fresh. In this digital age, where we are bombarded nonstop with images, that is saying something. These photographs will make you stop and look again.

Morell's technique is to create a pinhole camera you can walk into by creating a tent of lightproof plastic. The image reflected through a pinhole is exposed onto the ground of the park (or sometimes in a hotel room or bedroom wall) and becomes a layered image incorporating the reflected image and the surface it is reflected on. His series on the national parks is seen in the film created for the Geographic exhibit, and like each of the Arclight productions that accompany the Annenberg shows, the film alone is worth the trip.

Morell, whose work was recently on exhibit at the Getty Center and at the Rose Gallery in Bergamot Station, has been a photographer and photography teacher for over 30 years. In his talk at the Annenberg Space, he explained how his photography went from doing simple documentary work of his family, into exploring "the simplicity and mystery of photography itself" by turning common household objects, like lamps and glasses, into tools for actually making images. "In the late 80's I turned my classroom into a camera by taping dark plastic over the windows and making a small opening in the plastic to produce an image projected inside the room," he said.

Left, Joshua Tree National Park. Right, Yellowstone National Park. Abelardo Morell.

Morell said people had been inside camera obscura before, but no one had ever made a photograph using the process itself. Once he realized that, he was off and running. He turned his living room into a camera, then a hotel room in Times Square, and a bedroom across from the Brooklyn Bridge. He spent a whole summer trying to figure out the correct exposure. "The early ones were 8 hours long...but then I converted to a digital back," he said. For someone who described himself as "anti-technology" in his early days, Morell says "it was like Dylan going electric. Instead of 5-6 hour exposures, now they are 5-6 minutes."

His decision to take this technology on the road led him to the national arks project. "It's fascinating to be inside a tent and see nature," he said. The project has many meanings for him. "It's about the meaning of where we live, the nature of time, the nature of things, the nature of what we see." And, ultimately, who we are.

The Abelardo Morell national parks project can be seen as part of the exhibit, "The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years." The show closes April 27, 2014.

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