As a genre characterized by topographical and sublime subject matter, landscape photography is often used to provide viewers with a better sense of a given place’s physical characteristics. Rolling hills, winding rivers and serene mountain ranges become the protagonists of a visual story, presenting the landscape’s nooks and crannies as inimitable features drawn by the hand of nature. But what if a place holds darker memories, despite its natural beauty? How can we capture both the light and darkness of a region in a single image?

For photographer Francesco Merlini, capturing this balance has been the foundation of his years-long project Valparaiso. Merlini was born in a valley in the Italian Alps, returning to his family home there regularly while growing up. Throughout the subsequent passing of both his father and mother, his appreciation of the valley’s natural beauty was met with internal tension. He tried photographing the landscape in a classical documentary style, but soon abandoned it after each bright, sunlit photograph didn’t exactly communicate the emotions he wanted to portray. Instead, he began creating images imbued with magical realism, calling to mind nightmares and conflicting memories taking place despite the beautiful scenery.

In this interview for LensCulture, Merlini speaks about his relationship to Valparaiso, the strange dreams he had about the valley while growing up, and the psychological impact of creating such personal work.

Many people live their entire existence where the solid earth is distended, ignoring the restless valleys that are dragged towards the sky. © Francesco Merlini

LensCulture: What are your first memories of being captivated with photography? Was there a specific moment when you realized that it was a medium you were interested in?

Francesco Merlini: This is a very difficult question for me to answer. It just happened, and I honestly don’t know why. One day, after I took some photos in my house with the first digital camera I ever purchased, I decided that I wanted to learn more about this medium. Photography is interesting because it is capable of transforming a gesture, dictated by the need to capture a birthday or an event, into something new and deeper. So, it was all catalyzed by this desire that I felt growing within myself. I always loved drawing, cutting and building things with my hands, and at some point in my life, these creative habits formed during my adolescence collided with my desire to show others how I understand the reality that surrounds me, and the immediacy of the photographic medium did the rest.

LC: This project is deeply personal. Let’s begin by speaking a bit about the geography in Valparaiso. Where is this place? What is the landscape like, and what is your immediate relationship to it?

FM: The valley where Valparaiso takes place is in the Italian Alps. It’s a typical mountain valley with a road cutting through it. If you take this road, within an hour you will see the landscape around you change from fields to forest, and then you will find yourself surrounded by rocks and peaks that separate the place from other valleys.

The transition between seasons produces deep transformations in this region. It’s very fascinating to see a blooming green valley become a muddy and mangy place in autumn, subsequently covered by a harsh sweep of ice in the winter. Small gatherings of houses appear in succession along the main road with almost regular intervals, like the granular beads along a rosary. The fog that runs down the ridges, especially in the late afternoon, changes the landscape over and over, isolating pieces of mountains, creating islands of rocks and trees that float over the heads of visitors.

When we grow up in the city, we think that the streets never end. Here, I expect the road to end after every bend, after every tunnel. © Francesco Merlini

My immediate relationship with this place, every time I take that road, is a mix of fascination and reverence. I’m always very glad each time I come back to it, but my first thought is about the people who live there for their entire lives, without any break from the dense and cumbersome setting.

LC: You describe it as a place that you love and hate—why? What’s the story there? How often do you return?

FM: I was born near the valley almost 33 years ago. My family has always lived in Milan, but we would go there for vacations. I decided it was time to come into the world one week before my due date, so I was actually born there, too. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been very proud of this. Some months later, my father decided to buy a house in this valley. Of course he did so because he liked the place, but I like to think it’s also because he wanted to seal a bond. My father passed away when I was 13, and my mother passed away a couple of years ago. Now that house in the valley is mine, and so that bond is mine, and it’s stronger than ever. Every time I go there, during the weekends or during the holidays, I think about the time I spent there with my parents. My heart and my mind are full of good memories, but it’s also painful to be back there, since it feels more empty since they left.

In a nearby village, a huge boulder broke off a ridge and fell on a parked car. You could barely see the colored flaps emerging from beneath the monolith. The engine was hot. © Francesco Merlini

When I was a child, I spent entire summers there. I had good times playing with other children and enjoying nature, but later, when I became a teenager, I started getting bored of that place, and I spent the summers complaining about being there instead of being somewhere else, having fun with my school friends. Fewer and fewer young people would go there with their parents, and so I felt alone. I felt like I was the only kid in the valley. When I was ten years old, I often dreamed of a landslide that, after wiping out the entire mountainside, struck our house. It was summer, and my family and I were sleeping in that house. I would always wake up from the nightmare relieved. Suddenly my childhood happiness transitioned into darker thoughts.

LC: While this “documents” a real place, the photos stray from traditional documentary images. They are narrative and cinematic. Tell me about that aesthetic choice. What role does fiction play in your documentation of the “real”? You use such a dark palette to make these images. Did you pull these tones from your own memory and construct them, or did they come about some other way?

FM: Right now, people consume photographs at a quicker pace, so I decided to use a photographic language that invites the observer to linger, to move closer and to squint in order to get used to the darkness of the iridescent images that conceal a personal journey towards reckoning with this valley. The dark palette and the colors of this project enable me to place the audience in a sort of limbo, where they cannot recognize with certainty where reality ends and fantasy arises.

Finding a way to collect my visions, dreams and memories together into a real environment has been a long process. I photographed these places for many years, but I was never satisfied with what I was doing. I think the real “visual idea” that stands at the base of this project arrived later in 2016, when I decided to put aside any kind of documentary approach, with the awareness that I have never been interested in the beauty of natural scenery or the objective reality of this place. I started to create a world of my own, with a subjective reality and a personal visual language that emerged from my desire to mix magical realism and documentary photography.

The history of the world is the story of a duel. © Francesco Merlini

I discovered magical realism some years ago when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. It is a way of painting a realistic view of the modern world, while also adding magical elements. I had an atmosphere and some visual references stuck in my mind (mostly painting, especially by Caspar David Friedrich) that I wanted to reach and, in order to achieve this visual result, I did many experiments that involved both shooting techniques and post-production, until I found a recipe that I thought was best for amplifying the emotions and the story I want to depict.

LC: These images hover the line between beauty and a nightmare quite well. What role does the dream world play in this work, especially in its relationship to memory?

FM: The project is full of single objects or scenes that have acquired symbolic and archetypal values. Memories and dreams are present in my mind through single images and single frames—usually the most intense ones that have survived over the years, while the contours have been forgotten. So I went out with my camera looking for the elements that I needed to give a visual counterpart to the memories and dreams I wanted to include in my narration. Sometimes, these were replaced by what I found along the way, which revealed something hidden. These two methodologies started a dialogue with one another, while filling in the holes of my reconstruction.

In this valley—I don’t know why—I’ve always dreamed a lot; very strong and vivid dreams, since I was very young. They were so vivid that, in my mind, they have placed themselves in the same location as my memories, creating a unique mix where fantasy and reality overlap.

One day I started building an object with branches and pieces of wood found in a clearing. It hurt me to look at those unused branches, motionless, without any chance of joining. © Francesco Merlini

LC: What do some of the dream-like scenes represent: the feet and legs posed on the bed, the strange wooden talisman, or the bonfire, for example. Why these symbols?

FM: At a certain point, I thought of including staged pictures that would display my memories/dreams in a more didactic way, but after some tests, I realized that I desired a more direct and sincere dialogue with the valley. I decided to keep just one of the wooden talismans in the final edit, as well as the image of the legs on the bed. Regarding the talisman, one day I built an object with branches and pieces of wood found in a clearing. It hurt me to look at those unused branches, motionless, without any chance of joining together again. I painted them white so that, once separated from time and negligence, it was evident that they had been part of something unique and unrepeatable. The photo of the legs is a self-portrait. The position of my legs was inspired by the tarot card of the hanging man, which means meditation, selflessness and sacrifice.

Every time I look into one of the holes that make up this land, I find inside, broken, the spear of a man. © Francesco Merlini
The lump in my throat is getting sharper, like a knife in a bag, ready to suddenly tear. Its green and gray irises seem to pulsate, like chrysalises about to open and reveal something wonderful, while simultaneously approaching death. © Francesco Merlini

In the series there are three pictures with an “human” subject—three pictures for three main characters: me, my mother and my father. The picture of my mother is the woman behind the curtain. I didn’t expect it, but it was the last picture I took of my mother before she died the following year. I couldn’t take a picture of my father, because he passed away when I was thirteen years old, so instead I decided to include a picture of a mineral he found that, in my mind, represents his presence. My father spent a lot of time on the mountains collecting minerals. He used to spend whole days smashing rocks with a hammer, like a long-term prison sentence, until eventually death came. His stones remain, adorning his tomb and our home.

My father used to spend entire days smashing rocks with a hammer, like he was sentenced to death. And eventually death did come. © Francesco Merlini

LC: The things you focus on are atmospheric and geometric—we always get a sense of a slice of something or a slice of a moment, rather than the whole picture. Why were these fragments important for you to choose, rather than something more totalizing?

FM: In almost all of my personal projects, I’ve always used vertical format because it enables me to keep distractions out of the frame, allowing the viewer to focus on the subject of every shot: a person, an object or a fragment of landscape that acquires a larger meaning, becoming a symbol of something bigger and collective—a new archetype. To me, slicing and keeping elements out of the frame doesn’t impoverish the picture of information, but it makes it less chaotic and more universal, enabling the viewer to complete the environment with their mind, filling the holes with subjective elements that lower the gap between my personal narration and their experience. In a project like this, the choice to use vertical format and to focus on a few elements over others is a way to avoid a photographic language that solely focuses on the beauty and magnificence of these places, as though I were a landscape photographer.

LC: What was your mental state like as you were creating this work? Did it help you to unpack things, or did it make you face things that are better left settled?

FM: I was interested in giving a voice to a place that changes, protects and destroys people, through its existence in our lives. Even if is sometimes painful, this project has been very useful for me, allowing me to process memories and emotions that were partially sedimented. I started working on the series when my mother was already sick and, thanks to this project, we spent her last summer together in this place. I’m so grateful for those memories, even though the situation added many melancholic undertones to the project. I really don’t know if this project had a therapeutic value for me, but I’m quite sure it helped me to elaborate on the fact that I became an orphan of my parents quite early on in my life. This place reminds me of that each time I go there, but it also mitigates my pain through all the good memories of the time we spent there, together.

It seemed that at a certain height, a cord could could be seen, but nothing was perceptible beyond this. It was assumed that traps and pitfalls were hidden within that invisible border, as well as the souls of the damned. The superstitious natives of the surrounding valleys spoke of an extinct and destroyed city on top of the mountain, now the home of enraged demons ready to take revenge on those who had mocked them. © Francesco Merlini

LC: What do you want your audience to take away from such personal work?

FM: Well, when I work on my personal projects, I always try to represent a subjective reading of an objective reality. I always think about my personal vision as a hint—an explosive primer for the viewer to develop their own personal consideration of the story that I’m narrating. Somebody can focus on the atmosphere created by the photographic language I’ve used, while also focusing on the photographic value of the single images. But Valparaiso is a voyage that is both mental and physical, personal but permeated with universal emotions and feelings that, starting from my story, can be revealed and found in everyone’s personal story. And it’s those realms that have a special place in everyone’s heart and mind, according to their memory.