Morell was born in Cuba in 1948. At age 13 he fled to the U.S. with his family, where they settled in New York City. When asked how he initially became interested in photography, he goes back to his days at Bowdoin College in Maine. “I wanted to study engineering, physics and math,” he recalls, “but I didn’t do so well with those subjects.” In 1969, he took a photography course from John McKee, an instructor he describes as amazing. “It was like a light went on,” says Morell. “Photography was such a clear medium for me, and I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Prior to taking McKee’s class, he didn’t view the arts as being “in the cards” for him.
Morell began to view photography as a way to express himself and to say something about the world. As he puts it, “Photography gave me courage and made me think in pictures.” As time went on and he acknowledged his visual talent, he found that self-expression through photography came easily. “I still like to solve visual problems through images rather than through words,” he states. Morell earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bowdoin in 1977 (and later received an honorary Doctor in Fine Arts degree from that institution, in 1997).
After graduation, Morell returned to New York and held a variety of jobs, from working at a hospital to being a hotel doorman. Of those days, he says, “I was struggling, like everybody else, but kept taking pictures.” His next challenge came when he enrolled in the graduate program at Yale University’s School of Art in 1979. “This put me in touch with other people who were doing photography seriously. I got to a very intense level, which helped me define my ambition a little better.”As an instructor at the Massachusetts College of Art during the late ’80s, Morell turned his classroom into a camera obscura by covering all of the windows with black plastic, which made the room pitch black. Then he made a 3/8″ hole in the plastic, which allowed an inverted image of the view outside — the street, cars, people and buildings — to flood onto the walls. “I found that it was a great way to get students involved in the principles of photography,” he relates.
In 1991, Morell took a sabbatical from teaching and decided that he wanted to try the camera obscura effect on the walls of his darkened living room. He spent the summer calculating the correct exposures to best capture this effect and took the first picture later that year with a 4×5 view camera and black-and-white film. “The exposure was nearly eight hours long, and it was a slow process,” he remembers. “But when I saw the pictures, I felt blown away — almost as if I had invented photography.” This is when his work with the Camera Obscura project began in earnest.
More of this article can be read in the Spring 2013 issue.