Photographer Abelardo Morell was born in Cuba in 1948 and grew up in New York City and attended Bowdin College and Yale University. His photographs have been exhibited and collected by major museums around the world including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. He has published a number of books including Abelardo Morell and the Camera Eye, Camera in a Room, Face to Face: Photographs at the Gardner Museum, Alices's Adventures in Wonderland and most recently A Book of Books (with a preface by Nicholson Baker). Abelardo Morell received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 and is a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art. He is represented by the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York City, and he and his family live in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Robert Birnbaum: Looking at your book, The Book of Books, I thought about the dichotomy of a visual culture and a literary culture and how we are always being told that we live in a visual culture. That's puzzling to me because I can't see how you can have pictures without words being attached.
Abelardo Morell: Right, right. Actually there is an interesting tradition of important photographic books like Robert Frank's The Americans, which had a very short poetic [Jack] Kerouac text, not really explaining the pictures at all, and Walker Evans' American Photographs, which, when it came out, had no words—zero words. There has been that kind of backlash of artists trying to take claim over the language of the visual without the support of words—apart and being considered on its own merits. I like the idea that images alone can carry it all. But I think you are right, the appetite for visual stuff is somewhat perverse now because it assumes that there is no intellectual appetite at the same time. It's this weird "swallow it fast" and pay now. I think a lot about language. The idea of how things are communicated and that's one of my interests in books, the surface that communicates ideas and stories and all that. In some ways, I am trying to integrate the two. I even have a close-up of a page of A Tale Of Two Cities and A Farewell to Arms to try to get a visual equivalent of what it is to read or to have words be significant.
RB: One image in the book that jumped out at me was the photograph of a page of raised type, which was a text for blind people. It wasn't Braille.
AM: Embossed letters. That's an interesting book because it was done in 1841. At one point blind people were asked to read by feeling real words embossed, physically raised. It was a difficult thing to do. Louis Braille had actually invented the system of Braille in 1827 or so. So Braille was actually competing with this other system. Eventually Braille did win because…
RB: Because blind people could actually use it. (laughs)
AM: Because blind people could use it and it was a system that dealt with how the fingers really felt. Some people think that the embossed letter book was made by sighted people because they said, "Look, you should conform to our system." But the reason I love that book is because in reality you have words becoming this physical landscape, and I do sometimes want to feel that words were born in nature, not made up. This is part of my attempt to picture that.
RB: Is that the sentiment that I should get from your remarks in the afterward of the book about the space between the book and the picture of the book?
AM: I said something like, "The magic of these objects lies between the photograph of it and the book itself." I wanted to make sure that people understood that it was photographic language being used. And it's through that language that the books become very interesting to me as not just old things and reminiscence—which is the last thing I want people to feel, is some kind of antiquarian, "oh, it isn't fun to look at the old stuff." I want it to be alive in some new way.
RB: I must confess to you that when I first saw the title to your book I was a little edgy about it. I was prepared to dislike it because—in the wacky world of book collecting and bibliophilia, the most valuable books are the books that have never been read. They have the most monetary value for collectors. To me, that makes them lifeless sterile objects. They are not what a book is, they are something else. I thought that The Book of Books was going to objectify books in a way that is foreign to what they are.
AM: That's the last thing that I wanted to do. There are some books in this book that are fairly rare and only a few people have access to them, but most of them are fairly ordinary books. People have read them or not. In fact, there is a photograph (in there) of a book where I have actually drilled a big hole in it. It's (maybe) a little bit of an attempt to say, "You know what, I don't want to become too sacred about this." A lit bit like the Buddhist saying, "When you see the Buddha kill him." Meaning don't objectify the guy, it's a way of life not the thing. So that's my big being a bad boy…
RB: There is a bookstore in Boston, the Avenue Victor Hugo that is, sadly, closing (though it will hopefully find a new site). One of the many wonderful things I have loved about that store are the signs that are posted saying, "Please touch the books."
AM: It's what completes them. I must say that having young kids got me back into the idea of books as these physical things. You know, reading to kids is a very interesting process. Where they turn the pages fast and you have to make sure that they don't actually eat them sometimes. So it's involving the book in a lot of senses.
RB: I know you said that you started taking these photos in 1993, and I recognize at least one from your artist-in-residency at the Gardner Museum in 1998, but I am not clear when you decided to do this book. Did you decide because you had a number of pictures of books…tell me how the book came about.
AM: I am glad that I didn't decide to do a Book of Books early on. Because then you start behaving or choosing things that will fit the book. I didn't start thinking about it until '99. I met with this editor Michael Sand and I had enough. I had a box of prints of books and then they rearranged themselves in some kind of book idea. I just work for a long time on something, and then if it's a book, it's a book. The first one that I made of a book that I liked a lot is from '87 when my son was one. And it's a children's book and that was fun. It wasn't until '93 that I picked it up again. It was just a Brookline Public Library book of El Greco. Just a regular book. I like looking at art books. You know how everyone sees these reflections on a page and they are interesting so I decided to make a photograph of that effect. It was so beautiful I thought, "Let's do more." It really was one of those terrific moments where it just struck me that the surface of this page had a lot of beauty and why not make a picture of the effect and when I printed it just felt like a no-brainer. Books have physicality and lots of meaning beyond their texts. So I began to make pictures on purpose about books. I went to the Athenaeum here in Boston and I got myself to be an artist-in-residence with access to books and I would go there two or three days a week.
RB: You got yourself?
AM: Well, there was no official program at that point. I knew people there and after a couple of weeks I was artist-in-residence. (both laugh)
RB: Sounds like artist-in-squatting.
AM: Yes, a more high class squatting. A wonderful man named Michael Wentworth (who recently died unexpectedly) really dug my project. I had a small office and a couple of lights and I would find books or they would bring books to me. It was amazing. You know, librarians get very interesting when you show interest in their stuff.
RB: I wonder what it is about this subspecies of humans—writers, librarians, readers, a photographer—who is a bibliophile—that have this great love for books?
AM: This obsession…
RB: In a way that clearly marks them. Somehow not like other enthusiasms, devotions, or hobbies.
AM: They think a lot about books and first editions. There could be worse subgroups. These people actually often read these things. They keep the ideas alive.
RB: Collectors do fit in there and they are people who do in fact objectify books. I am talking also about people for whom reading is such an elemental activity like eating and sleeping.
AM: I read but I have to confess I don't have the time to read a lot. Or I can't. But I am jealous of people like that. I was reading something about [Harold] Bloom, the Yale scholar, in this profile in The New Yorker. He spends hours and hours and hours just reading. That's what he does. When I was a kid—I grew up in a working class environment—some fun is made of people like that. Like these people don't make a living. They don't really work hard, with their hands. But now I have a different mind about this. They are working. They are definitely working and in a different way than us. I am envious of people who can in a prolonged way really work at books, work at reading. Like philosophers, working hard at thinking about something. That's tough. If I have 15 seconds in my mind that I can string a couple of ideas together enough to try to make a picture of it, I feel good.
RB: I think Bertrand Russell said something about if you were able to get one minute of thinking done in a day, you were accomplished. But you are correct about the cultural undervaluation of intellectual activity. I hear this idea of intellectual capitol made into some business school buzzword…
AM: In politics as well.
RB: One never hears the phrase ‘intellectual labor', which creates the capitol.
AM: Part of the disparaging sense that people have about readers or writers is that they don't know anything about the world, all they know is the world of books—which is not real. I think that's bullshit. There is a lot of stuff that goes on in reading where thinking about it puts you in touch with it. But, it does help to go and see a tree or something.
RB: The world that book people are allegedly out of touch with is the world as shown by Fox News and CNN.
AM: Which is a strange illusion of stability or the continuity of history. Anyway, reading about Harold Bloom, I was jealous about him sitting there reading his Dante. In a way, photography has been my way of thinking, putting some thoughts together in a stretch—enough to make the picture ask questions, philosophical questions about the world. I think Wallace Stevens said something about writing well is the same as seeing well. There is equivalence in precise language or good language that can be visual or musical or in words.
RB: I remember working with a photographer and I asked him if he had titles for the photos that we were working with. And he said, "Naw, I don't like to title my work." So for publication purposes I wanted (and did) title them "Untitled 1" through "Untitled 6" and explained that in the context that these pictures were going to be viewed some word connection would be helpful. Which may be my non-sequetorial preface to asking you how you feel about putting pictures of books into a book of pictures of books?
AM: Yeah, I like that perversity of a book giving birth to books.
RB: It has this Borgesian labyrinthine sense.
AM: Definitely there is Borges in there. It's like a hall of mirrors. The book reflects another book and in a way I am trying to suggest that these things are not permanent but shifting with meaning changes. In a few of the pictures in the book, I photograph things like Piranese illustrations where the book is half way open as if to suggest—more than to suggest—that most usually the official reading of a book is when it's open and there is a traditional way of getting the official meaning. When they are half-opened (and half-closed) something very interesting is happening as well. Usually we can't get information that way, but if you open your eyes for a little bit some very interesting images happen. Why not? And why not say that a half-open book is as interesting as a fully open book?
RB: Or a page of a picture book that has a magnifying glass over a part of one of the pictures?
AM: Yeah. I am really rebelling against—maybe rebelling is too strong a word—the standard way in which things are supposed to be looked at. Maybe the CNN way, but it's very boring when you are asked to see things from only one angle. It's inhuman. (laughs)
RB: Yes, and artificial. Perhaps even totalitarian.
AM: Very artificial. It's a way to have information to being digested in a very efficient way. I made a picture at the Gardner Museum of a Velasquez painting where I put the camera almost two inches away from the painting, looking way up, way up, at a funny angle, as if a five-year-old was looking at it. Well, Velaquez this skinny guy became this fat pompous interesting guy. Which is the true version? There is the standard one but there is the Wallace Stevens thing about thirteen ways to look at something—at a bird, a blackbird. Yes, I am interested in this ramification of meanings. Which is not to say that the world is like taking acid and everything is messed up and whatever—within reality there are some very interesting realities to be explored—and why not? It liberates people in good ways so those things are not totally black and white like our president is trying to suggest.
RB: Does the possibility that a photograph may end up in a book affect the way you might shoot a picture?
AM: A photograph is a photograph. When I am making a picture I am just interested in making a very interesting photograph. I don't care where it's going to go. I feel like I am in a lucky position to do whatever I want. And, if the results please, that's fine. But I am just interested in making my own very personal take on something interesting to others.
RB: Will you crop your photographs?
AM: No, no. The luxury of view camera is that you can actually see in the ground glass, everything. It's not like it's in a book and it's going to run— away with a spoon (laughs). You can actually have a frame maybe closer, and then you make several and then you edit later. But I don't crop. I don't need to crop.
RB: I was recently investigating Walker Evans' Cuban pictures and I came across the curious fact that according to Evans there were sixty-four negatives and that the Getty Museum holds 160 images. Clearly, Evans didn't mind cropping and augmenting his negatives.
AM: He did that once in a while. It was not generally his practice. It's a complicated issue because technically many of his negatives are not in good shape. Sometimes you have to crop around a vignetting effect. He was not a real technical master in that sense. My sense is that he generally wanted the whole image. There is a funny story about him having a graduate student print a picture of his and he had an 8 x 10 negative of something. The graduate student said, "Walker, this a 5 x 7 enlarger. It won't fit." And the story goes that he took a pair of scissors cut the negative and said, "Now it will fit." He didn't want to be precious about photography in some way. Paul Strand would never have done that. Or [Edward] Weston. He [Evans] was more into the bad boy—like, "well let's not idolize that stuff." I don't think he would have done that to a really great negative (laughs).
RB: I know that Evans made a really good deal for himself in arranging to do the photos for The Crime of Cuba retaining the right to select what was used. I think only thirty-two were used. And still the numbers don't add up, especially if he was averse to cropping.
AM: I worked a little with John Hill, who used to be head of the Walker Evans estate. I helped my parents identify certain locations in Havana. But that's an interesting question. I doubt that there's that much cropping going on. I think of Evans as essentially being a fairly straight photographer.
RB: On the other hand, he is a photographer in a nascent school of photography that crosses over between documentary art and journalism, early in his career. So the idea that he might augment a negative to get a certain message and not treating the whole image as sacrosanct kind of made sense.
AM: Yeah, although he didn't want to think of his pictures as art also because he was countering that whole Stieglitz "we're just as good as painting" school. He wanted his photographs to be like documents. Of course, he wanted to be an artist but it's a strategy to get around the labels. That still happens. Some people make pictures as if they were taken by your little sister. Very well crafted but the illusion that there is no conscious technique. I think Evans said something about, "photographs are only good to the degree that the artist hides his hand."
RB: Another argument for artistic transparency.
AM: I can see the merits of that. There's the sense that we are seeing raw reality.
AM: In Betchor's work you can see that this objectivity, the towers that look like no one made them, in a way. Anyway, it's a very American tradition of art making that the idea the ego is not involved. Passions are not involved but objectivity and clean facts. For Walker Evans there is the sun. For Robert Frank, a romantic from Europe, on the other hand, there's one or two pictures in The Americans where there is sun. The rest are overcast. This is a dark soul at work. (laughs)
RB: I guess that explains why he lives in Nova Scotia.
AM: That's a reason for it. (laughs)
RB: How did you get into photography?
AM: I went to college at Bowdin College in Maine. I thought I was going to be an engineer. I didn't do well in that.
RB: You thought or you wanted to be?
AM: I thought I wanted to be. I think my parents wanted me to be. I had gone to a pre-engineering course in high school in New York. I was okay at it. But I wasn't really prepared for the demands of a real college like this place in Maine. A tough course. So I flunked physics and I took a photo class. There are very few moments in my life when I can know decisively a change in life and that was one of them. It was clear I had a passion and a little bit of talent for it and it was all I wanted to do.
RB: You mean you were otherwise a normal person until college?
AM: Well, college began a whole set of huge transformations. I came from Cuba in '62.
RB: Directly to New York?
AM: To Miami. Then New Orleans.
RB: New Orleans?
AM: New Orleans in '62. Blacks had the back of the bus…Oh God!
RB: Why "Oh God?"
AM: Just the memories. The reason we went to New Orleans was that in Miami my father couldn't find enough work. Things were tough in '62. The government had this relocation program at the time. If you wanted you could go to a meeting in some government office and we went to this place and they had—I'd love to make a movie of this—they had maps of the US. And they would say," What are you good at? What kind of work?" Basically my father said he would do anything. And they said, "We have job possibilities in these cities including Montana, LA, New York and New Orleans." I think we knew some people in New Orleans. It was so surreal choosing where to go, "Oh let's go there." At the time it seemed fun. So we said New Orleans and that was really strange. The racial politics were at their worst. It was very tense. We ended up living in projects where very poor whites lived. So, we were very immersed in the deepest racial extremes that this country had. We had had no direct knowledge of what that was about but we felt it. I mean we really felt it. Then my father got a call from a friend in New York, who said, "I have job for you. Being a super of five buildings." So we took a Greyhound bus to New York in '62. So in '62 I went to high school, was learning English and someone from Bowdin College came and said they were trying to get diversity—I'm not sure that was the word back then—in the student body. So they got a friend of mine from Harlem and myself. We were accepted to Bowdin. We took a bus there and that changed everything. I was struggling but at the same time I was beginning to liberate myself in some interesting way—get to know the United States, have some American friends.
RB: Did you feel a sense of release going from the crowded city to rustic New England?
AM: Partly. Mostly, it was from my parents and the Cuban tradition, not having access to different ways of life. I began to freak out in some ways. I began to make films. Make photography, compose radical electronic music. I discovered John Coltrane at the time. And it went from there. I brought easy listening records to college. That was my speed at the time. Lawrence Welk, 101 Strings performing Beatles. Easy listening was really what I liked. And in six months I was playing "Om" by John Coltrane…
AM: Really radical.
RB: With the help of drugs or without?
AM: Without. I was quite terrified of drugs. Catholic stuff or whatever. I got a radio show and I was playing Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Charles Ives, Karlheinz Stockhausen. I was out there. Very interesting times (chuckles).
RB: I'm struck by the absence of any Cuban music from that list.
AM: Not at that time.
RB: Was it played in your household?
AM: Yeah, a little bit. Not a lot. Now, of course, I have 500 hundred Cuban CDs. I will also play Steve Reich and Celia Cruz. I like the diversity, but I am very tied up with Cuban music now. In the dark room, that's mostly what I play, Cuban music, when I am printing.
RB: Why do you think that is?
AM: At some point the immigrant—at some point you need to divorce yourself from where you came from so you can assimilate. I did that that— I loved the idea of John Cage and Coltrane—the taste of freedom. These people could just do. I mean Cuban culture, it's wonderful, but it can also be restrictive in its possibilities.
RB: Only somewhat?
AM: A lot. The idea of people playing their hearts out in some asymmetrical way or saying silence is a piece [of music]. It was very interesting to find this kind of freedom and it liberated me to think about photography and art in many interesting ways. I really grew a lot at Bowdin. I became a real fanatic of American culture. At that point, as opposed to now, a lot of my friends didn't know who Albert Ayler was.
RB: Is avant-garde music really part of American culture? Ayler probably died broke and ESP records probably ripped him off as well a bunch of others. On the other hand that Ayler and Trane and Coleman and Sun Ra and John Cage and so many others could play here, I guess makes it part of the culture, albeit marginal.
AM: Yeah, if you wanted to go that way. That sense of freedom was really quite helpful. Also many people at the time were "tripping" a lot. I wasn't. I also understood certain American tendencies to equate freedom with doing whatever the hell you wanted to do. That was not helpful. I took a course at Yale when I was in graduate school there with a guy named Thompson. He teaches in the African music and art department at Yale. He said something that really interesting and that I really understood—I didn't know I understood it until he said it— he said that in African religions and, of course, Cuba is tied up with so many African religions possession when people are getting the god and losing control and freaking out, there are usually a few people around you to guide and to protect you. People who are sober. And that he said the freaking out generation of the '60s, the sense that you could do that, individually was really quite a new take on freedom. That it was all individual.
RB: That wasn't the way it started. Even Leary and Alpert (Baba Ram Dass) acted as guides for the early experimenters. It was interesting that the attitude people who were using hallucinogens had gone from "We're into consciousness expansion" to "We're getting fucked up."
AM: That's what I saw mostly. It brought me back to my own Cuban roots. Afro-Cuban music is so tied up with community. Even when you do a drum solo it's always an acknowledgment of the background. You can't escape it. If you do than you are alone and there is a certain danger to that.
RB: One strong impression I had in Cuba was that people cared about each other. I went to a baseball game and there was a deep drive to center field, which sent the center fielder crashing into the outfield wall. He lay crumpled, stunned, at the foot of the wall. And everybody—from both teams—ran out to see how he was.
AM: Yeah, I know. Unheard of. The illusion of this culture is that you can do it all by yourself and you should do it by yourself.
RB: Rugged individualism being a fundamental tenet of the American ethos.
AM: That's where it goes bad, I think. At the same time I did learn from that rugged individualism. I mean, John Coltrane just doing things that leap out of the culture. I took that individualism and tied it up with the Cuban sense of form. I often talk about the way I make pictures or think about art in the Cuban sense of dancing. I was taught dancing by my parents. Cuban dancing is a formula. So just bouncing around and jumping around is considered lewd and ill mannered. So I was taught very well by my parents. There is a saying in Cuba that if you are really a great dancer you can dance on a brick. I love that. That sense of ultimate love for form but within that form you can do it all. That is tied up with choosing books. Seemingly a limited subject matter but if you really take care of things it opens up and you can do it all. You can talk about God or sex or damage. But I like that idea that it's possible. In Indian music there is that same sense of freedom coming from knowing the form.
Water Alphabet (1998)
RB: At the heart of my interest and curiosity about people who work in their lives to be artists is how you survive doing what you want to do in a world that is relentlessly market driven and consumer oriented?
AM: I don't know. I think the bottom line is that I have kept at this rain or shine. I dropped out of college at Bowdin, went to New York, and had, at one point, two jobs and weekends I would find ways to get into some darkroom and make pictures. And it never stopped. Even when things seemed pretty dark. I just kept believing in it. It's not the American way, either. I teach college. I love my students but they want it now. They want it fast. If it doesn't happen in a month they want to go and do something else. I think that is a mistake. Like lasting in a marriage…
RB: Of all the things we seem to inculcate in our children, there this depraved sense of time, which is unreal. Everything seems to be represented and presented in the now.
AM: It has to do with consumption. If you feel it buy it or do it. There's no reflection.
RB: How do you deal with the hard issues of representation and exhibition and selling your pictures?
AM: I found a terrific dealer in New York ten years ago, Bonnie Benrubi. I'm sort of married to her. I like her and she likes me and we understand each other. So, I'm lucky. She works very hard for me and I love being able to live in Brookline where my kids can walk to school. And not being in New York and going to openings every night and that whole crazy stuff—really it's sort of sick, the rat race of art. The answer is that I don't know…I think part of it is that I have made pictures only for me out of interests that I have and then they have been received well. But I've never made a picture thinking, "This is what the public wants next." I can't do it.
RB: Do you do work for hire? Do you accept commissions?
AM: No. Some people say, "I have a great apartment you know for camera oscura." If I like the view I will do it. But I won't do it just if it's Rockefeller. (laughs) No, no one commissions me.
RB: So you have managed to avoid having people tell you what to take and how to take it?
AM: The last thing I want to do is that. I have been asked for certain things and I say, "I'm just not good at that." One thing I was commissioned to do was illustrating Alice in Wonderland. And that was the first commission where I thought, "Oh God, I don't do that. I think of my own ideas." But it sparked some interest in me and I thought, "Okay, let's reread it." Of course, when I was in college everyone read it. It fed the times. And I thought, "Okay, maybe there is interesting stuff here." And I had a dream about a picture. Actually, I don't usually have dreams and I don't speak this way usually, "I had a dream about…" But I dreamt about a big hole through a book and that kind of thing. So I decided to make that hole in the book and make the picture. Then I was committed to it. I liked doing it, even though it was someone else's idea. In fact, I am interested in doing Through the Looking Glass, the next one by using mirrors. So that was a commission of sorts. But the important thing is that they didn't come over here saying, "Well we were sort of thinking that, maybe this is the way…"
RB: Right. "Uh, could you sort of tweak the contrast?"
AM: "Yeah, we were thinking of using your little daughter and a little sex here." (Both laugh)
RB: It has been a—I was tempted to say ‘dangerous' but perhaps I should restrain my editorializing—trend for hip art directors to use fine arts and editorial photographers to do commercial art.
AM: And, there is some very good work being done that way.
RB: And, you gotta do what you gotta do.
AM: There is also the matter of making money.
RB: That's what I meant.
AM: (laughs) There is a lot of fashion work being done now that is very interesting. Lighting the street and making fashion look like everyday people. Capitalism definitely wants to incorporate the world of art and it's done it so well sometimes it almost in tandem with art making. The trick is try to find new ways of doing it or to break the rules.
RB: It's also dangerous because these wonderful 60-second spots or the compelling print ads are in pursuit of what end?
AM: Yeah. In pursuit of what? Ultimately, it falls flat. In some ways now some commercials are trying to look awkward and like stuff that college freshman in filmmaking are trying to do. The slick awkward look…(laughs)
RB: There was a piece by Laura Miller in the NYT Magazine on the rise of Meta—which is exemplified by commercials that make reference to the commercial that is being made or movies that are self referential. It's all very clever but again what's the great value being promoted?
AM: For you to register that you want that car. Of course, these questions were asked a long time ago. Like Bergman showing you a film where you see the sprockets, so you say, "Okay, so we are watching a film." That's an interesting philosophical question. It feels like reality but it's really somebody else's reality. But it's gotten to a point where it doesn't matter anymore. What the questions were? There is a lot of social photography being done now to point to the untruth of photography. It's getting very dull now. So, okay photography doesn't tell the truth. So what? Everyone has known this forever. You are being clever when you are showing us, "Oh my god what we thought was a picture of a constellations is just bugs?" Oh wow! Thank you for setting the truth straight. But the problem is that a lot of the people who are supposedly giving you the truth, I don't trust. (Both laugh). I don't think that they are that deeply intellectual.
RB: That stuff is tenuous…
AM: And prankish.
RB: And contrived. I suppose some of this conceptual stuff has to be acted out to see its weakness. Didn't Warhol have film of somebody sleeping for hours and hours? Maybe the idea was interesting and then you see it and know it's not interesting.
AM: (laughs) I was one of those guys in college. Oh my god, let's do four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence on the radio. Not too interesting when you actually do it. (laughs)
RB: Would you say your life as an artist and I use that word…
AM: Yeah, yeah.
RB: For lack of a better word, has been accidental? That is to say, where you are at this moment in time, is that a result of a plan?
AM: After I took that college course at Bowdin with a guy named John McKee, I wanted to be an artist. There was no question. And I was very ambitious. Not in an overt kind of way but I have always had the ambition to just make interesting stuff. Somehow if I want something I'll get it. So there is a lot of self-impulse going on.
RB: Is that the same thing as planning?
AM: No. The planning stuff I'm not very good at. But if I get an idea for something I will work hard to realize it. I don't know what the outcome is going to be but now I have two or three projects in my mind and I am somewhat obsessed about them.
RB: Two or three. That's a lot.
AM: A lot, I know. Trying to photograph money. I am trying to photograph stuff having to do with Louis Braille and I also want to do pictures of mirrors. That's the way I work. I'll do some of that and some of this. And at the same time I have a family that I am very involved with and I teach at college. So it's a juggle. I like it this way. Just when I think I am some hot shit or something my daughter goes, "Boring." (both laugh) Puts me down.
RB: How old is she?
AM: Eleven. So it's nice to be humbled by your surroundings [rather] than have yes people telling you that you are the greatest. I think that's a mistake when people start thinking that they are too good for the world.
RB: My impression is that, as they say, the trajectory of your career rose in 1998.
AM: An exhibit was organized in San Diego—a mid-career retrospective and that traveled to a lot of places. Then there was the Gardner Museum residency and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There was a lot of stuff going on at once. The biggest thing for me was a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in '94. I made a picture of a light bulb that Peter Galassi at the Modern liked a lot. He put it on a poster. And I remember going to the Modern and the poster was outside and my parents and I are looking at it, like, "Wow! That's me." After that, let's not kid each other, being at the Modern helps. So I started getting some phone calls.
RB: Any large exhibitions coming up for you?
AM: There's a show in New York now and a show in June of photographs I made in Cuba.
RB: When were those done?
AM: Last year. I made four camera obscura pictures and some interiors. There is a book coming out in April of Cuban work. It's a book that incorporates American writers. Russell Banks and Ann Beattie and some American photographers and Cuban photographers. I'm the crossover…the Cuban-American. The book [published by Bulfinch] is supposed to reflect on what's happening in Cuba now, visually and through the writings. It's supposed to be an important book and there will be a show in June at the International Center of Photography in New York.
RB: That was the first time you were back?
AM: In forty years.
RB: Was that enough for a while?
AM: No, no I'm dying to go back but I have too many commitments now. I want to go back for enough time to do justice to my appetite. It's a very important trip for me. One of the most important things I have ever done.
RB: Do you ever shoot color?
RB: Did being in Cuba give you pause to consider shooting color?
AM: I'm not interested in color for myself. In fact the pictures that I made were inside darkened rooms. I don't want to jump on the bandwagon and photograph Cuba as if it's this collapsing colorful place.
RB: Do you know Robert Polidori's book, Havana?
AM: Sure. It's very beautiful. If you are going to do it, he did it. It's gorgeous, but there is a lot of minor work being done that's not very good. But I wanted go back in the shroud of darkness, from memory. That was my attempt to look at this place again. It was very interesting seeing family and relatives. Also, the fantasies I had developed over time. Once in a while it's really nice to test those things against a more or less real yardstick, "Okay I thought this but hmmm is a nice correction." For me, it's been a good correction. Some things I feel even more strongly about. I think the system has failed everybody but the spirit of some of my relatives, even though things are bad there, is fantastic. The music is amazing and it's a remarkable place. So it was almost like being in the middle of a long long, long sentence. Being here, looking toward the future as an American but not having the beginning words or sentence clear. You know, the opening paragraph—not having it and then going back and "Okay that really explains a lot of feeling and why I am who I am." Forty years, in a way I feel lucky. How many people have that opportunity to go back to a place forty years later?
RB: Meaning that it hadn't changed much or being able to do it at all?
AM: There were reasons I didn't go back. Fears. To walk back into a half dream and see your old house on a street. It was fabulous.
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing