Shadow of the House is an intimate portrait of photographer Abelardo Morell. I followed Abe for over seven years, uncovering the mystery and method of his artistic process, the role of family in his life and the impact of his background as a Cuban refugee. The narrative skips across time and space to reveal Morell’s journey from his early childhood escape from Castro’s regime to his status as a world-renowned photographer.
I first learned about Abe in 1991 when I stumbled into one of his lectures. I remember he said something like, “It is amazing how a good picture can make me want to get up in the morning.” That resonated for me.
I started making Shadow of the House in the summer of 1999. I went to Paris with Abe, his wife, Lisa McElaney, and their son, Brady, planning to produce a short film about Abe’s process of making his camera obscura photographs which create an ambiguous marriage between the interior environment and the outside world. Abe had made oceans swim on an attic ceiling and 42nd street invade a hotel bedroom. In Paris he wanted to make a camera obscura photograph with the Eiffel tower.
To create these seeming optical illusions, Abe finds a room with a compelling view and covers the windows with black plastic. He cuts a small hole in the plastic and the view from outside spills onto the wall opposite the window upside down and inverted. Suddenly a busy street is on the wall of a conference room. To capture the scene, Abe leaves his camera in the room and exposes the negative over the course of the day.
I imagined scouting endless numbers of rooms to find the perfect locale in Paris. I wondered if he would find a place -- maybe I didn’t even want him to find the room because a failed search could be an interesting metaphor for the artist’s struggle to keep moving forward.
But just the opposite happened. In ten days Abe made 6 or 7 images. I felt as though all of us had worked non-stop and I returned home exhausted. But during this trip I developed a deeper understanding of Abe’s drive and how he feels most comfortable in the world when he is making art. I recognized that there was a more complicated story that I wanted to tell.
I began to film his daily life -- Abe eating breakfast and reading the newspaper and talking on the phone with his parents. I was in his basement filming his fastidiously organized collection of chemistry bottles. We sat together and waited for the shutter release of a long exposure.I saw him carefully examining tiny details around him. Sometimes he took all day to transform what he saw to make one photograph. I came to understand that these observations were what kept Abe going day after day. It was by watching Abe that I realized that I needed to be patient and let the meaning of moments accumulate in order to make this film. I allowed myself to mirror Abe’s process.
In some ways Abe became my “excuse” to film. Because I was filming Abe, I found myself in a gallery in Barcelona watching people walking through the market stalls. But, I was not looking out the window; I was watching their reflections on one of Abe’s framed images. On his still black and white image, I saw color and people moving. I filmed it.
During the period of time that I was making this film, Abe returns to Cuba for the first time since his escape at the age of 14. He visits the house where he grew up. The scale is wrong, the details have changed, but he is finally there to witness what had been “home.”
I made a film about an artist whose work and methods I admire and whom I admire as a person. His life story gives rise to important questions about identity, commitment to family, and cultural politics. In Shadow of the House, the viewer sees the un-glamorous work behind Morell’s elegant images. And for 7 years, I was learning things about myself, framing my way though my own life as an artist, letting time unfold as I crafted my observations into a film.