I have always loved The 19th Century photographs of the American West by Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson but, when I had a commission to photograph these landscapes anew, the work of these men daunted me—so much so that, for a long time, I couldn’t imagine how I would approach making landscape images myself. But like many immigrants, I felt moved to explore the vastness of my adopted country. To picture America’s national parks, I invented a device—part tent, part periscope—to show how the immediacy of the ground we walk on enhances our understanding of the panorama, the larger world it helps to form. I wanted to find a way to make these well-known views of familiar and iconic places into my own private discoveries.
Jamie M. Allen of the George Eastman Museum describes what I do with my tent-camera better than I can in his book Picturing America’s National Parks (2016): “the resulting photographs are a mix of image and texture. The image is that of a common scenic view; the texture, however, is derived from the land itself, the very spot where one stands to experience the scenery. The ground cover – dirt, tocks, grass and sand – typically lies at the onlooker’s feet, ignored in favor of the vista. Morell, conversely, ties the ground to the scenic view, transforming the geology of the landscape into his canvas”.
The fourth century poet, Lu Chi, wrote: “We enclose boundless space in a square foot of paper”. I know he was defining the task of the poet but, to me, his words shape my own ambition as a photographer.
Tent-Camera Images on the Ground: America and Abroad
Tent-Camera Images on the Ground: America’s National Parks