First-year Bowdoin student Nevan Swanson calls photographer Abelardo Morell the “nicest guy ever.” Swanson had the opportunity to assist Morell as the artist produced new photographs for an exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, entitled A Mind of Winter: Photographs by Abelardo Morell, on view from May 5 to September 27, 2015.
Swanson’s father is a cinematographer, so he’s been around photography his whole life. “It’s kind of our thing together,” Swanson says. They once turned a room in their house into a camera obscura, an optical device in which a dark chamber of any size becomes a kind of camera. Blocking out all the light in the room except for one small hole in a window, they were able to project an upside-down view of the world outside onto the room’s walls. That experience led Swanson to research contemporary photographers who use camera obscuras, which is how he first learned about Abelardo Morell, Bowdoin Class of 1971, whose work has included making photographs using a set-up similar to what Swanson and his father did.
When Visiting Artist-in-Residence Accra Shepp, who taught Swanson’s Photography I during the fall semester, invited Swanson to assist Morell as he made photographs for his upcoming BCMA exhibition, Swanson jumped at the opportunity. When asked why he thought Shepp chose him for this honor, Swanson said, “I think Professor Shepp really enjoyed the risks I was taking. I don’t have a set idea about photography. I try to do a lot of different things. Working with Abe, that’s something that’s really clear about him, the breadth of work that he does.”
Morell returned to Maine several times this winter to make a series of photographs in the state for the first time since his college days. Knowing about Morell’s upcoming visits, Swanson reached out to the photographer over the December break to ask how he could help. Morell responded with a photograph: an iPhone photograph of some skinny trees with snow on the ground. He told Swanson that he wanted to make images like that, and asked whether Swanson could scout out some locations for him. Borrowing a car and asking advice on good spots from other Bowdoin students, Swanson picked sites like Simpson’s Point, the Brunswick Town Commons, and Reid State Park, taking photographs to send to Morell. When Morell visited Brunswick in mid-February, they visited these sites together.
Swanson said Morell wasn’t sure at first how he wanted to photograph the landscape, but he was experimenting with “focus stacking,” in which 6 to 7 photographs of the same scene are taken and then combined, each with the focus at a different depth. In the final image, everything, near and far, is in sharp focus. Swanson says the effect is that “you can’t really get a feel for what’s close and what’s far, it’s all perfectly clear.”
While in Brunswick, Morell also visited Swanson’s “Photography and Color” class, where he spoke about his college experience and his early and recent work, including his camera obscura images. For this new project, he suggested that Maine landscape paintings, Chinese ink painting, and various books served as inspiration. Swanson got a further sense of this over the recent spring holiday, when he visited Morell’s studio in Newton, Massachusetts.
While there, Swanson watched Morell make test prints for the Bowdoin exhibition. He also learned another technique from the photographer called cliché verre, in which a drawing is made on a glass photographic plate. Morell showed Swanson some of his older cliché verres, and then made a new one, which he combined with some of the photographs he’d taken in Maine. “It was so experimental. I’m pretty sure he didn’t set out thinking ‘I’m gonna do this right now.’ It was more like it happened by chance, which is really cool because that’s what photography is in large part.”
Swanson’s experience with photographing with Morell in Maine will not represent their last opportunity to collaborate. Indeed, having recently become one of eight students to win a McKee Photography Grant, Swanson will reconnect with Morell and his assistant Matt Cronin this summer in preparation for an independent project. As Swanson explains: “I plan to join Abe and Matt [to take part in a project] for a week in France … From the work I have done with them thus far, I have learned invaluable techniques and approaches that will improve my own photography. I then plan on going to La Ventana, Mexico, a small fishing village on the Baja Peninsula. … While there, I [will] venture into town at night and photograph both the landscape and the street life of the village. I plan to continue developing my narrative of La Ventane and forming a portfolio of photographs of the village, while employing [what] I learn from … Abe and Matt.” As a McKee grant recipient, Swanson will mount an exhibition and give a talk when school is back in session in the fall.
When asked what he gained from working with Morell, Swanson cites not only the methods he observed Morell using, but also how important it is to persevere and do what you love. “He was so happy. He said at one point ‘this isn’t really work for me, this is what I’ve always wanted to do.’”
A Mind of Winter: Photographs by Abelardo Morell, opens May 5. Morell will present an artist’s talk at 4:30 pm in Kresge Auditorium, Visual Arts Center, followed by an Open House at the Museum of Art. This exhibition forms part of the Maine Photo Project, a statewide, year-long effort in which museums, galleries, and historical societies will present exhibitions that celebrate Maine’s role as a magnet for photographers, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.