“Empire State Building in the Bedroom”

Clare McCullough

Art has long been used to make a statement, or simply be an expression of the artist. Surrealist scenes have often permeated more modern works of art. But sometimes these modern artists incorporate old techniques with the new in order to express their ideas of the world. Such as Ablardo Morell’s photograph, “Empire State Building in Bedroom”, in which Morell uses light and framing to express the impact of his culture shock when he first arrived to the United States.
When you first walk into a city, you see the skyscrapers tower over you at impossible heights. Light filters through the giants that are made of steel and glass and cut shadows into the sky, defying the natural order of things. Intimidating, frightening, foreign, at least that’s how Ablardo Morell must’ve seen it when he immigrated to America at a young age with his parents from Havana, Cuba in 1948. He received his undergraduate degree from Bowdoin college in 1977 and his love for art extended from there. In 1977, he obtained an MFA from the Yale University of Art (Morell). After the birth of his son, he started experimenting with the Camera Obscura in 1986, which is Latin for “dark room”.(SFMOMA)
A Camera Obscura is an ancient light trick and is considered one of the first proto-cameras . A Camera Obscura is something that, according to National Geographic, “receives images just like the human eye—through a small opening and upside down. Light from outside enters the hole at an angle, the rays reflected from tops of objects, like trees, coursing downward, and those from the lower plane, say flowers, traveling upward, the rays crossing inside the dark space and forming an inverted image.” When Morell was teaching a course on photography at an art college he turned his whole classroom into a Camera Obscura, he knew he had something. And so he started creating his works, turning darkened rooms into fantastic landscapes one of which was “Empire State Building in Bedroom” As a result.
The Empire State Building is draped over a bed missing from the city skyline, which is inverted in the background over the bed and nightstand, looking limp and tired looking, ”as if it had just come home from the hard work of skyscraping all day” (National Geographic). The building is shiny and casts a dark shadow over the white sheets. Above the inverted skyline, the sky is filled with clouds, making the skyline itself a little dim. The framing of the image is a bit disjointed, things that aren’t supposed to be in the photograph, are there. The skyline on the top and the shadow of the bed on the bottom leaves a large hole in the left-side of the painting. Although the physical wall of the room in which the camera obscura was created changes direction, it seems as if the skyline is almost unaffected by this, continuing on making a seemingly flat picture.
In this photograph, Morell was trying to convey the emotions of disorientation, and disbelief that he felt during the culture shock when first arriving to America. When Morell was 14, and he moved to the comparatively developed USA from Cuba, where he saw the towering buildings of New York. This changed his world forever. And so, he uses the Camera Obscura’s inversion to portray his absolute disorientation when first seeing the Empire State Building. By omitting the empire state building from the city’s horizon and portraying the sharp figure of the empire state through the use of shadow and light as limp, and silvery platinum he placates the imposing building and makes it seem even more strange. The use of a cloudy sky instead of a stark bright one emphasizes the ethereal feel of the photograph that he tried to convey.
Through light, he blurs the imagined lines between landscape and dreamscape, waking us up and almost jolting us back to more of an innocent time. His use of light makes the empire state building look almost liquid, the light seemingly coming in from the cloudy sky, his use of light is disorienting and adds to the simplistic irrational element of the photograph. The deep shadows of the piece put emphasis the bed in the middle, grounding the photograph. The only truly real thing in the room was the bed since it is the only thing that has clear lines caused by the lighting. The angled position of the familiar object is where the main emphasis is, leading your eye back to where the pillows are and ultimately, where the skyscraper is. Positioning is very important in this work as Morell uses framing to create more space in the sky by omitting the empire state building, and essentially taming it. Through that, he conveys what he would have dreamed of doing at that young age into an unlimited version of reality. By blending the famous building into a domestic scene, he gives himself more control over it making the skyscraper more unusual, conveying what he might have felt when undergoing this huge culture shock.
Camera Obscuras have been used throughout human history. Ablardo Morell brought this ancient technology back and so turned out our perception. He turns our dreams into landscapes through his use of framing and light in “Empire State Building in Bedroom”, Morrell expresses his reaction to the then foreign to him, USA.

Works Cited

“Abelardo Morell, Camera Obscura Image of the Empire State Building in Bedroom, 1994.” SFMOMA. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.
“About Abelardo Morell.” Abelardo Morell. If Magazine, 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.
O’Neill, Tom. “Bravura Camera Obscura.” Camera Obscura. National Geographic, May 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

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