In 'Shadow,' an Artist's Genius Comes to Light

Mark Feeney
The Boston Globe

Shadows are important for Abelardo Morell. An internationally acclaimed photographer who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art, Morell has to deal with them in his work. He also has spent his life living in the shadow of Cuba, which he fled with his parents and sister in 1962, when he was 13. Part of the beauty of Allie Humenuk's documentary about him, "Shadow of the House: Photographer Abelardo Morell," is the way it gives shadows their due while never losing sight of the predominance of light in both Morell's art and life.

The documentary's run at the Museum of Fine Art is part of a Morell boomlet. A major retrospective of his work, "A Room With a View: The Photography of Abelardo Morell," is at Amherst College's Mead Art Museum through Jan. 20. Also currently hanging are a gallery show in New York and exhibition in Buenos Aires.

The glimpses of Morell's work that we see in "Shadow of the House" suggest why there should be such interest. He is an exacting craftsman, whether taking still lifes, the camera obscura images for which he's best known, or trying new approaches. At one point, Humenuk shows Morell attempting to photograph lasers, and it's fascinating to see his response when he realizes an exciting idea has produced a dud picture.

More important, there's the rich ness of the photographs themselves. The camera obscura images, which superimpose inverted exterior scenes on everyday interiors, are at once mysterious, surreal, and elegant. They are also apt and unsettling metaphors for the sense of dislocation that has colored so much of Morell's life.

Neither Humenuk nor Morell makes too much of this. The documentary, which is shot on video and has no narrator, has a loose, easy, unemphatic feel. It feels, actually, rather the way Morell looks. With his round face and slightly distracted manner, he could be Barney Frank's kinder kid brother. Yet there's also a nagging anxious drive there that his wife admits to worrying about. It's evident when he remarks, "Success is not as interesting as I suspected. It just makes me want to do more."

Humenuk shows Morell at work: setting up to photograph, working on prints, hanging a show, teaching. She also shows him with his family. There are home movies from his adolescence (he looks slick in a leather jacket). We hear from Morell's parents. In a pair of winning sequences, we see him getting his kids ready for school and, later, traveling with them and his wife to Paris.

Along the way, we learn of Morell's discovery of photography, as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College ("The first couple of rolls I developed were like the DNA for my life"); his early emulation of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Henri Cartier-Bresson; and how becoming a father deepened him as an artist. That may sound like touchy-feely cant, but looking at Morell's images, we can see what he means.

There are two memorable set pieces in "Shadow of the House": Morell's becoming a US citizen (something he held back from, a striking detail) and his return to Cuba 40 years after leaving. It's a mark of Humenuk's unobtrusiveness that she underplays both - perhaps too much so.

The final shot of "Shadow of the House" manages to be moving, mundane, and matter of fact all at once, knitting together several of the film's concerns - family, continuity, security, the layering of the familiar and unexpected. It explains the title, too.

Mark Feeney can be reached at