Black and white, inverted all over

Abelardo Morell must have looked funny, crawling around on his hands and knees, wielding a camera. The year was 1986, and Mr. Morell and his wife had just welcomed a son into the world.

A photographer who started out specializing in street photography, Morell realized that as a new father, he had found a new creative perspective. "I started making pictures as if I was a child myself," he recalls. "I tried to be [my son] Brady."

An exhibition of Morell's work, titled "Abelardo Morell and the Camera Eye," is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Here, his black-and-white images hang as a testament to his childlike sensibility.

Toy blocks, stacked high, seem like a skyscraper. A refrigerator, with magnetic letters on it, looks enormous. And the view from the top of a metal playground slide presents the steep ride down.

Morell concedes "it was a silly time" - the crawling around and all. But artistically, it was a serious time: "I felt like I discovered photography all over again," he says. Working within the confines of an apartment was freedom, Morell says, not "imprisonment."

"I was liberated to invent a new narrative," he says.

So strong was his passion for this perspective, Morell became known as an artist who shows "things for what else they are" (a quote from photographer Minor White that curators often use).

Through Morell's lens, objects and scenes are transformed into pieces of wonder: from an overflowing pot of water to the thickest dictionary; from a museum painting lit by a lone light bulb to a crumpled map in a kitchen sink; from his son looking at his shadow to an illustration of Alice in Wonderland.

Morell was born in Cuba and came to the United States as a teenager with his parents. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, he continued his studies at Yale University and received his Master of Fine Arts degree.

His works are part of the permanent collections of museums around the world, including The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The current retrospective, organized by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, will tour nationwide over the next two years.

What can viewers expect? A delightful taste of Morell's carefully executed works, loosely organized chronologically.

Early 1990s images, such as "Paper Bag" and "Water Pouring Out of a Pot," show how he continued his domestic themes. Other images focus on books, maps, paintings, and juxtapositions of art-museum pieces, the result of his residencies at several of Boston's venerable institutions.

But just when Morell might have stayed comfortably in a world that focused on arm's-length tangibles, something added another tier to his artistry.

In 1991, he set up a simple demonstration for students at the Massachusetts College of Art, where he teaches. "I wanted to show students how simple photography is technically," he recalled during a recent tour of his show. Morell set up a camera obscura (Latin for "dark room"), whereby a box is made completely dark except for one small hole, letting in a beam of light, similar to the way the lens of a camera works.

When that beam of light passes through the small hole (lens) into the box, an inverted image of the outside world is projected onto the far wall.

Morell began transforming entire rooms into cameras obscura and photographed the projected images. "I became hungry for big spaces," he says with a grin.

To the art world, the idea challenged Post-Modernist cynicism that was declaring photography "dead." Again, Morell was presenting - and continues to present - the familiar in a magical new way.

Morell captures the camera obscura images by positioning his camera inside the room and setting it for a long exposure, sometimes as long as 16 hours.

The results: An image of Brady's room with the neighborhood hanging upside down from the ceiling. A Wyoming hotel room crowded by the Grand Tetons. In New York, a loft hosts Third Avenue. And another New York hotel room is overtaken by Times Square.

Recently, Morell was commissioned to illustrate a new version of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (Dutton). By cutting out Sir John Tenniel's original illustrations and making the characters look three-dimensional, Morell placed them in his photographs. One, for example, has the illustrated Alice next to a stack of "real" books.

Here at the exhibit, the Wonderland images follow the camera obscuras and seem to bring viewers full circle -back to the childlikeness that first brought Morell recognition.

* 'Abelardo Morell and the Camera Eye' will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through April 11. It then travels to Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine (Sept. 19-Dec. 12); The St. Louis Art Museum (Feb. 1-April 16, 2000); Lehigh (Pa.) University Art Galleries (June 14-Aug. 13, 2000); University Art Museum, University of New Mexico (Oct 17-Dec. 10, 2000); Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville (Jan. 26-March 25, 2001); and the Detroit Institute of Arts (April-June 2001.)

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