PAUL SOLMAN: Abe Morell has a thing for books and cameras. For years, he's used large-scale pinhole contraptions of his own devising, camera obscuras, to photograph the seemingly mundane. Morell, who also teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art, has risen to prominence with three published books, and a one-man show that toured the country. His work has been purchased by major museums throughout the world. Now a striking new collection of images, a book of books, is getting rave reviews for its images of books, many from the Boston Public Library, where we interviewed him recently. We began by asking Abe Morell how the book obsession began.
ABE MORELL, Photographer: In 1993, I was looking through a book of paintings by el Greco and, you know, flipping through the pages and this funny reflection came off the page, and I sort of said to myself-- as an artist-- "wouldn't it be nice to make a picture of that effect." And I did it and it became really this beautiful photograph. And I thought "okay, let's do more."
PAUL SOLMAN: In the last decade, Morell has shot a vast variety of volumes: From the laughably large-- Audubon's Birds of America-- to the stunningly small-- a hymnal by Rudyard Kipling; from a blank book dappled in daylight to the starry juxtaposition of "Two Books of Astronomy"; from "A Peeping Monk" by Raphael to this autobiographical close up of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms."
ABE MORELL: When I came to this country in '62 from Cuba, I didn't speak English. In high school in New York City, I had this wonderful teacher, and one of the first things he did was to suggest that I start reading "A Farewell to Arms." I think because Hemingway... he's a complex writer, but his words are simple. And it's this really almost perverse attempt to get so physically connected to the words that maybe I'm hoping for them to provide some other illumination of their meanings. It's also an informal thanks to Hemingway.
PAUL SOLMAN: Morell gives thanks to Hemingway, and the dictionary.
ABE MORELL: I really wanted to make a book feel very big. And it just knocked me out when I saw it because it felt like all the stories of the world, you know, are right there.
PAUL SOLMAN: That is, as French artist Jean Cocteau once said, "the greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order." But the stories that books tell Abe Morell are not just those within the binding. "Damaged Book with Dirt," tells a different sort of tale, as does, "Detail of Book Damaged by Water" from the Boston Public Library.
ABE MORELL: A while ago they had a flood in the basement, and a lot of books were actually destroyed by water.
PAUL SOLMAN: But to Morell, in the destruction was a kind of beauty.
ABE MORELL: The idea that water may still be kind of frozen in the, the patterns of this book. It's a book almost taken to its very limit.
PAUL SOLMAN: Morell also became immersed in the look of letters, from this aquatic alphabet photographed in 1998 to an old book of proverbs for the blind from 1841.
ABE MORELL: This is an interesting book. It's before Braille had caught on as a system. So what we're seeing is actually embossed letters. Blind people would touch these letters and read for inspiration. In this case, some sunlight was actually coming into the room, and I just thought, "okay. Blindness, sunlight, let's see what they have to do with each other."
NICHOLSON BAKER: Crackpots like me say that that's... that's the valuable thing about books. Their oldness is part of their beauty.
PAUL SOLMAN: Novelist Nicholson Baker, a former neighbor of Morrell's, has been on a high- profile crusade to salvage and store huge, 25-pound bound volumes of original newspapers. When he found out that Morell's art was now devoted to books, he enlisted the photographer to help chronicle his cause. But it was Morell's biblio-mania that baker really shared. A master of what might be called "micro-fiction," Baker built his first book, "The Mezzanine," around one lone escalator ride. So he's especially drawn to the discoveries that close ups provide, like this one from "A Tale of Two Cities."
NICHOLSON BAKER: I love to go in tight, and the type has just slammed into this mat of fibers and squashed into them, leaving behind a little freight of ink. But then, you're getting the same percussion of type coming in from the other side, and the two are kind of at odds with each other.
PAUL SOLMAN: Morell made a different kind of discovery in this 1851 English volume, which taught young girls to sew a shirt, for example, by example.
ABE MORELL: Every other page has a sample, a miniature sample of the thing that they were learning to sew or knit. So in the next page can be a little, you know, sock, a pair of pants. It's wonderful.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is that what art is about, finding surprises?
ABE MORELL: Totally. I made several pictures of this book and this one where the arm becomes this narrow thin line. It felt kind of grotesque, but I thought it spoke to the idea of this book being locked up in there for many years, as if it were a prisoner and maybe had lost an arm. I mean, this is a kind of-- I mean, at least in my case-- how imagination leads to making photographs.
PAUL SOLMAN: Sometimes, the role of Morrell's imagination is more direct, as in his "Alice in Wonderland" series with cut outs of the original John Tenniel illustrations. One night, Morrell dreamed of this image.
ABE MORELL: And so the next week, I had a friend come over with his drill and we made a very large hole through the book. My own take on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, that the book itself is the imagination. It's the hole that she goes down into is a book.
PAUL SOLMAN: Or it's the shadow she casts as an 18-inch high cutout.
ABE MORELL: There's all kinds of weird stuff that once you start reading books, it's like the apple, you know. Books have this double edge, and I think this shadow sort of is about that. This... the crooked path of knowledge.
PAUL SOLMAN: Nicholson Baker puts it differently.
NICHOLSON BAKER: A book from the outside is just a block of nothing. It's just a big heavy thing. The only reason that they have this strange power is that we know that there's a long linear experience in there. There are all those words and it would take a long time to read all those words. He's saying, "I'm showing you why these things are interesting to look at."
PAUL SOLMAN: Like this dictionary that reminded Baker of the one at home when he was a kid.
NICHOLSON BAKER: There was one of those thick ones, Webster's Third or whatever, given by my grandparents, and I never looked anything up in it really. But there it was open with a kind of Holland Tunnel running through it. And Abe caught that kind of grandeur of the architectural feeling of a book, a reference book.
PAUL SOLMAN: Architecture also inspired this final image, one of Morell's most recent.
ABE MORELL: The first thing that came to my mind was 9/11. My job as an artist and I was very conscious of it, was to make a beautiful picture of these two books without being heavy handed with it.
PAUL SOLMAN: And you don't care, or you do, that someone actually has the conscious thought of 9/11 when they look at this?
ABE MORELL: Not at all. No, I don't care. I think that most people will acknowledge subconsciously that this is 9/11. But I think it's also two books, and that's the way I like to work. Equal parts, discovery and maybe something that's common that we all share.
PAUL SOLMAN: Both discovery, and something we all share: A fitting epitaph for Abe Morrell's new "A Book of Books."