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Seeing New York Through Leonardo’s Eye

Abelardo Morell takes the camera obscura to the rooftops of Manhattan.

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Most of Abelardo Morell’s photographs are digital, but a lot of his gear is, conceptually, a millennium old. Morell is among the few contemporary masters of the camera obscura, the ancient method of projecting an image on a wall (deployed by Renaissance masters, like Leonardo da Vinci, and possibly used as a painting aid). All it is, really, is a room with a tiny hole in the wall or roof that acts as a lens. Previous Morell portraits include a Times Square hotel room enrobed in an image of Times Square itself. For his new hybrids—on view in twin shows opening this month, at Bryce Wolkowitz and Bonni Benrubi—Morell photographs vivid cityscapes projected onto unexpected surfaces, like the gravel rooftop seen at right. “It involves a huge amount of work to create something my daughter could make in Photoshop in two seconds,” he says.

Working in Big Bend National Park two years ago, Morell became fascinated with the desert floor and wanted “that surface to be a recipient of an image of the desert itself.” He thought he’d create a portable room—a little house, a trailer—“but that would be a pain in the ass.” Instead, he ordered a prefab dome tent: a dark, hot, yurtlike structure that is only slightly less of a nightmare to haul in and out of baggage claim—or up to New York rooftops, where many of these pictures were made. Poking out of the top of the tent is a periscope, bringing in the view and projecting it faintly onto the surface below. That’s the image Morell shoots, in an exposure of many minutes or even hours. “Having a photographic-looking thing on the ground feels primitive and advanced at the same time,” he says. (The image of Central Park on the preceding spread didn’t require a tent—just black plastic taped over the windows, plus a five-hour exposure, during which Morell went to MoMA and had dinner.)

What’s his favorite part of working high up in New York? “To be in the middle of an amazing city, on a roof, inside a tent: It feels like you’re camping. But in a kind of a cosmic way.” As for the results, they’re otherworldly, too, but more backward-looking: “It’s an illusional sense of New York. A nineteenth-century feel, which I like. Sort of like that movie: My Own Private New York.

All photographs courtesy of the artist and the Bonni Benrubi Gallery


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