I want to say how much I like Abe Morell’s Flowers for Lisa: A Delirium of Photographic Invention (Abrams, 2018). I really, really want to do that.
There are many admirable aspects about the book.
The interview with Lawrence Weschler. Although the interviewer seems determined to dominate the conversation and control all the metaphors, the photographer plays along nicely and manages to make his own points as well. The piece has been sensitively edited to retain some of the spaces between words, those little gaps in verbal fluidity that admit character into the narrative. As in this exchange, which evolves in reference to Abe’s projects leading into the Flowers for Lisa photographs and the challenge of making his hallmark camera obscura pictures in locations where the requisite darkened chamber was unavailable:
AM: I thought I could make a room, a portable thing, such as a tent.
LW: A camping tent…
AM: Well, a camping tent, but completely dark inside, pitch-black, and outfitted with a periscope on top, which could look out—a little bit like some NASA rover—at the surrounding landscape onto the bare ground below, within the tent, whatever that ground might happen to be: pebbles, grass, pavement, or the like.
LW: A sort of open-faced sandwich, with the ground as the bread and the periscope-projects image evenly spread out across it.
AM: Okay, yeah, and I could then photograph that projection from within the tent.
You get the drift.
The photographer’s commentary on the photographs. He is very open about the process of making the works, and Weschler elicits significant detail about the intricacies of Morell’s interactions with Photoshop and traditions of floral representation. Lisa McElaney, the photographer’s wife and the inspiration for this project, joins her husband in the enlightening thumbnail comments on the photographs. (She also contributes a engaging Afterword explicating the work from the perspective of a gift-receiver.)
The epigraph, consisting of Emily Dickinson’s observation about telling the truth, but at a slant. I’ve used that brilliant bit of verse myself a few times in the past; it captures photography’s innately deceptive take on reality and truth.
The photographs themselves. But I need to see them in person.
I glanced at installation views of the series on display at Edwynn Houk gallery and I longed to crawl into that space to see the prints at full scale. Because the book, though on the larger side at 12 by 10 inches, still cramps these images. The “delirium” of the work just doesn’t come through on the pages. The visual intricacies described in the interview are out of reach in the book’s plates. Like brushstrokes in a painting or the bite of a fine print in paper, reproduction fails to convey the pleasures of this work. I can imagine the delightful complexity but I encounter optical frustration as I peer into the pages.
Here’s an example:
This was the first in the numbered series of 76 reproduced in the book, the image that got the series rolling. It’s captivating, and bewildering. I get seasick trying to read into the work at this scale.
This isn’t a rip on Flowers for Lisa’s design or production. The conundrum illustrates limits; as an avid reader and collector of photobooks I know I always have to suspend disbelief and accept the difference between actual prints and reproductions. The nice thing about photography is that the translation typically doesn’t do as much to undermine the virtues of the original as it does to, say, sculpture.
So, bravo to Abe and this work, and I hope to see the prints in person someday so as to truly appreciate what is so vividly alluded to in the book.
Flowers for Lisa: A Delirium of Photographic Invention
Photographs by Abelardo Morell
Texts: Foreword by Abe Morell; Conversation (“Exuberance”) With Lawrence Weschler; Afterword (“The Gifts of Time and Flowers”) by Lisa McElaney
Design: Devin Grosz
Published by Abrams, 2018
Borrowed from Hennepin County Library