For more than two decades, the Cuban American photographer Abelardo Morell has been working on and off on his Camera Obscura series. Although his methods have developed somewhat over that period, the essential modus operandi has remained constant. Morell transforms a room into a camera obscura by blacking out all apertures for light save a small hole into which he inserts a lens. Then he sets up his camera and photographs the result, capturing, through long exposures of up to eight hours, the inverted image of the outside world projected through the lens onto the surfaces of the darkened room. The resulting photographs are both instantly enchanting and endlessly fascinating. 1
Morell’s first assignment to his photography students at Massachusetts College of Art is always to construct a camera obscura, because, as he explains, although the effect is achieved by the simplest of means, and has been known for centuries, its capacity to induce wonder, even in the most knowing, sophisticated viewer, remains as powerful as ever. “It’s alchemical,” says Morell. And of course, it connects the students back to the beginnings of photography — the controlled introduction of light through a lens into a closed chamber in order to produce an image — while at the same time suggesting that photographic terms, tools, and techniques ultimately represent a kind of falling away from the richness and potency of the camera obscura. Thus, when Morell’s own camera records the room as camera, it might be seen as a form of self-analysis, in which it is recognizing its own origins and maybe also admitting its own limitations.
The capacity of the camera obscura to induce wonder, even in the most knowing, sophisticated viewer, remains as powerful as ever.
Among the earliest in the series, and the opening image in the 2004 publication which gathered much of the work, is a picture taken in the bedroom of Morell’s son Brady. Dropping from the ceiling down the walls, the presence of the suburban world immediately beyond — the neighboring houses, the mature trees — is registered on the unassuming white surfaces of the room. The fact that this flood of visual data is inverted and seemingly uncontained contributes to its disorienting effect (the impact is lessened if the photo is viewed upside-down). Two realms — one private and fixed in dimensions, the other untrammeled and extensive — are abruptly and comprehensively conjoined. To this might be added a third, the imaginary realm of play established by the dinosaurs and castle distributed across the floor of the room.
The photograph suggests that rooms can always contain other dimensions. Certainly, Morell has spoken of the impact on his photographic practice of having a son. Watching the way in which he interacted with the world, and constructed worlds within his head, made Morell, as he puts it, “look at things longer, with more love and tenderness.” Whereas previously his work had pursued “the decisive moment,” as famously proposed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, now he became more interested in “longer looking.” “I started paying attention in a way I hadn’t done before,” he explains, “living with the things in front of me.” 2 Even as the photographs in the series become less tentative in their technique and more spectacular in their execution, and even as the conjunction between interior and exterior becomes more extreme and dramatic, this underlying attentiveness to the given remains a constant.
Morell also speaks of how these pictures represent for him a conscious “turn inwards, towards private experience.” In their overlaying of one realm upon another, these images evoke states of dreaming or of distraction, demonstrating how the mind can be (perhaps always is) in two places at once. The preponderance of bedrooms among the photographs might lead us to believe, as Luc Sante suggests in his introduction to the 2004 collection, that Morell has “taken his camera into the dream state and emerged with proof of what he saw there.” 3 But what I would like to suggest here is that what is really being set forth by these images is a more fundamental affinity between what they offer us — the room with its view folded back in upon it — and the experience of mind.
The images evoke states of dreaming or distraction, as if the mind can be (perhaps always is) in two places at once.
The camera obscura has repeatedly been invoked as a metaphor to describe how the conscious subject perceives and experiences the world. As its use as an aid in painting became more widespread during the 17th and 18th centuries, so that parallel became more commonly asserted. John Locke, for instance, wrote that human understanding was “not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little opening left … to let in external visible resemblances, or some idea of things without.” “Would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion,” continued Locke, “it would very much resemble the understanding of a man.” 4
Rene Descartes famously made extensive use of the camera obscura in his elaboration of the relationship between the res extensa (the world out there) and the res cogitans (the mind, or the world within). He even provides instructions for making your own:
Taking the dead eye of a newly dead person (or failing that, the eye of an ox or some other large animal) … cut away the three surrounding membranes at the back so as to expose a large part of the humor without spilling any. … No light must enter this room except what comes through this eye, all of whose parts you know to be entirely transparent. Having done this, if you look at the white sheet you will see there, not perhaps without pleasure or wonder, a picture representing in natural perspective all the objects outside. 5
Notwithstanding the visceral manner of its making, the camera obscura became for Descartes an abstracted, ideal figure, establishing a clear distance between sensation and its perception. Writing in our own era, Richard Rorty argued that Locke and Descartes shared “the conception of the human mind as an inner space in which both pains and clear and distinct ideas passed in review before an Inner Eye … The novelty was the notion of a single inner space in which bodily and perceptual sensations … were objects of quasi-observation.’ 6
Even as it made that world available, the camera obscura affected a break between exterior and interior.
This inner space was where the self was constituted as an independent subject — its point of reference not the world at large, but the world as it appeared in what Locke termed “the mind’s presence-room,” where, presumably, the subject appears to its sovereign self. 7 For even as it made that world available, the camera obscura affected a break between exterior and interior. For Jonathan Crary, in his extensive critique of this tendency, the camera “impels a kind of askesis, or withdrawal from the world, in order to regulate and purify one’s relation to the manifold contents of the now ‘exterior’ world. Thus, the camera obscura is inseparable from a certain metaphysic of interiority: it is a figure for both the observer who is nominally a free sovereign individual and a privatized subject confined in a quasi-domestic space.” 8 And so, he continued, the camera became “a model simultaneously for the observation of empirical phenomena and for reflective introspection and self-observation.” Crary offers two paintings by Vermeer, The Astronomer and The Geographer, as exemplars of a kind of ideal equilibrium between these different species of interior: the outward-directed and the inward-directed. He notes, however, how the camera-as-model can acquire “a more self-legislative and authoritative function: the camera obscura allows the subject to guarantee and police the correspondence between exterior world and interior representation and to exclude anything disorderly and unruly.” 9
While it is not quite clear how this kind of editorial policing might take place, it is nonetheless possible to understand how authority might be assumed over everything seen from the vantage point of the interior. One might alight upon examples such as the Studiolo at Urbino, in which the world at large is inscribed in marquetry upon the walls, perspectivally aligned to the viewpoint of the privileged occupant, or the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, in which the view to Bramante’s Cortile del Belvedere is echoed and augmented by the vistas opened up in Raphael’s frescoes. In both instances, drawn space and built space combine to make spatial and temporal expanses available to the governing eye: res cogitans meets res extans.
Yet how closely does this kind of idealized viewing relationship, as adumbrated by Descartes and as achieved in such finely tuned spaces, accord with the altogether more giddying and disorienting experience of the camera obscura? Far from inducing sensations of calmness and equilibrium — of things being in balance — these spaces seem rather to disrupt the perceived order, literally to turn things on their head. Returning to Morell’s images, we find the commingling of the world outside and the world in here to be far less susceptible to easy analysis, hardly a suitable emblem for rational thought.
Vastness is overlaid directly upon intimacy with no regard for where it lands.
Following Locke’s desire, quoted earlier, that “the pictures coming into such a dark room [would] but stay there and lie so orderly,” Crary interprets the camera as offering precisely that possibility, and therefore as the logical endpoint of the development of perspective vision — a kind of seeing in which everything keeps its distance. In his iconoclastic history of modernist vision, A Fine Disregard, Kirk Varnedoe referred to the early cameras as “little Brunelleschi boxes.” 10 However, in Morell’s images, perspective is distorted and distance comprehensively breached. Vastness is overlaid directly upon intimacy with no regard for where it lands. Images imprint themselves upon the space. But the word “images” does not feel appropriate — this is an impression of the world outside, in real and continuous time, being relayed within. It has not yet been framed and made available as an image.
In understanding this distinction, it is useful to refer to the psychologist J.J. Gibson and his notion of “ecological optics.” Gibson had a famously low regard for pictures, bemoaning “the chronic habit of civilized men of seeing the world as a picture,” which produced what he termed the “visual field,” a world of shifting formal and aesthetic abstract relations, as distinct from the known and invariant qualities of what he termed the “visual world.” 11 Borrowing these terms, in Morell’s pictures, we might feel that we are seeing the visual world before it is rendered as a visual field; that we are seeing things before they become images and hence readily assimilable at a distance. And whereas it should be noted that for Gibson, it was in fact the non-image world that was the more stable, fixed, and reliable, in Morell’s pictures the visual content is less readily legible. It cannot be fully divorced from that which produces it and that which makes it visible; it remains imbricated in both. Hence, the curiously unresolved character of the images. We are seeing things in the act of becoming, or at least in the act of being reconstituted.
In most of Morell’s photographs, the world that is pouring in to occupy the interiors is urban.
In most of Morell’s photographs, the world that is pouring in to occupy the interiors is urban. A recurring trope finds a city panorama emblazoned on the walls and ceiling of a hotel bedroom. The camera obscura’s long association with making available the grand urban view is well known (Patrick Geddes’s Outlook Tower in Edinburgh is among the most famous examples). This urge to encompass and possess the city has often been taken as a natural extension of the camera’s capacity to order and rationalize, but Morell’s pictures speak of a different kind of relationship — not of ownership or command, but of wonderment and awe, confusion and bewilderment. The sheer profusion of visual data, its lack of frame or focal point, prohibits comprehension: submission and surrender seem the only options. What a strange thing it is to walk into a still space and find it suddenly and completely animated by traces of the world just left behind.
A useful point of reference here might be Umberto Boccioni’s 1912 painting, The Street Enters the House, which depicts a dynamic scene in which the vast, unknowable, urban realm presses right up against the private chamber. This image was made at a period of tumultuous urban growth, the city’s very ungovernability a source variously of anxiety or exhilaration. For the Futurists it was more the latter. The relationship of the woman with her back to us to the city beyond is clearly of a different order than that presented by the artists of an earlier era; by, say, Gustave Caillebotte in his Young Man at His Window. In this painting, from 1875, there is a sense of calm order, of things being in their proper place. There is a clear distinction between the figure and the urban landscape he surveys, unlike in the Boccioni, where figure and city become entangled with each other, inducing a sense of disequilibrium. It was during the early 20th century that the urban room as a site of loneliness and alienation emerged as a recurring theme in literature and painting, as for instance in Childe Hassam’s paintings of solitary women in boarding houses, the burgeoning city ghosted behind net curtains. 12 Edward Hopper would later produce numerous studies of lone figures in silent rooms — archetypes of urban loneliness.
Morell’s images overlay public spectacle upon private interiority, and point to their inextricable co-existence in the city.
The hotel bedroom, Morell’s favored location for his photographs, could be taken to epitomize this set of associations. The grand hotel was a product of the age of rapid urbanization and has thus found itself pressed into service as an emblem of the new urban relationships and identities being produced. Siegfried Kracauer memorably described the hotel lobby as the modern antithesis of the temple, a place of anonymity and superficiality, betokening loss of identity. 13 More recently, the hotel has been presented by Maureen Montgomery and Douglas Tallack, among others, as a female, quasi-domestic space inscribed within the predominantly male world of the city. 14 The focus of such interpretations is almost invariably the hotel’s reception rooms, but the same associations both with anonymity and with private intimacy might equally be ascribed to the hotel bedroom. 15 In fact, the bedroom might be seen as the ultimate locus of this ambiguous character: a space possessing all the trappings of domesticity — the bed, the soft furnishings, the low light — but only ever transiently occupied.
In suggesting this essential equivalence between the room, the camera, and the conscious subject, Morell’s images act to enlarge our sense of how the city is constituted. Most often, the urban realm is taken to encompass only the space between buildings, but these pictures draw attention to the inhabited edge that surrounds and overlooks that space and is, on occasion, visible from it. Incorporating that one-room-deep layer into our understanding of the public realm draws attention to the private selves which ultimately populate it. Morell’s images overlay one realm of experience — the public spectacle — upon another — private interiority — and point to their inextricable co-existence in the city.
The camera acts as a surrogate recording device. Nobody bears witness, and yet witness is borne.
Of course, there are very practical reasons why Morell has so often chosen hotel rooms as his location — they are hireable by the day, they guarantee privacy, they offer removal and elevation from one’s surroundings. In fact, these same qualities all lend a deeper resonance to the resulting images. Implicit in the use of such private rooms is the suggestion that they house a single occupant and a single viewer. With their juxtapositions of beds and larger landscapes, many of Morell’s images seem to suggest that they are offering visual access to the world of imagination, or of dreams, reinforcing the feeling that what is being presented is a single subject, a single consciousness. And yet there are no people present in these pictures: they are merely records by one kind of viewing mechanism of the products of another. The conscious subject is absent. The camera acts as a surrogate recording device. No individual volition or agency is necessary; nobody bears witness, and yet witness is borne. (Morell himself does not remain in the room during what is typically an eight-hour exposure. He tried it once, he recalls, but found it a near-hallucinatory experience.)
What is portrayed is an automatic, recursive loop in which one camera sits inside another, seeing it in the act of seeing. This might be seen as a bleak, mechanistic view of subjectivity, but in fact, it accords much more closely with some more recent interpretations of consciousness, which see it as something endlessly, automatically produced rather than something rationally constructed. 16 The philosopher Thomas Metzinger has recently proposed what he calls the “phenomenal self-model.” Consciousness, he argues, is the appearance of a world. The essence of the phenomenon of conscious experience is that a single and unified reality becomes present: if you are conscious, a world appears to you. For Metzinger, consciousness is a unique phenomenon because it is part of the world and contains it at the same time. 17 We are never outside of it. Like the rooms in Morell’s photographs, it encompasses the worlds that encompass it.
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