Italian photographer Francesco Merlini was struck by a particular line in an old optics manual, in which the author discusses the fact that a horse’s vision at nighttime is better than that of the human riding it. For Merlini, it speaks deeply to his personal approach to taking photographs, which he says is characterised by a kind of “letting go”, whereby he places his faith in the machine he is holding, and relinquishes his control over a premeditated narrative.
The manual provided the inspiration for the name of Merlini’s new book, Better in the Dark Than His Rider. Published by Départ Pour l’Image, it contains a collection of photographs drawn from Merlini’s archive and presented here for the first time. The work spans different years, different continents, and different chapters in Merlini’s practice, and yet all are bound by a thematic thread that becomes clear as you flick through the pages.
Writing in the book’s accompanying essay, Départ Pour l’Image founder Luca Reffo notes that Merlini’s photos “reveal the unique perspective of someone who, like a sleepwalker guided by ghosts, seeks for something nameless…. The selected sequence unravels around the transitional stage between wakefulness and sleep, engaging with hypnagogia as a sensory yet dreamlike mode of semiconscious representation.”
The concept of hypnagogia guides much of the work found inside the book, with Merlini explaining that the dreamlike nature of his images was the first thing that struck publishers Luca Reffo and Francesca Todde when they began their collaboration.
Speaking in a recent interview with PhMuseum, Merlini recalls the process of working through his archives to find the right imagery: “As we started analysing this archive of hundreds and hundreds of images together, we saw that a story was there, and it was very clear. It had something to do with the way I photograph – Francesca and Luca often say I take pictures as if I were a stray dog, or a drifter, wandering with no specific aim.”
Looking through the photographs of deserted landscapes, solitary figures, and abstracted objects, this notion of Merlini as a drifter becomes clear. More so, it feels as if we are not in the real world, but rather in his head, seeing the outside world through the lens of his imagination.
Herein lies one of the book’s core themes – the subtle, porous line between consciousness and dreaming. Merlini’s images constantly change, from night to day, from outside to inside, from human to animal to plant and back again. At first glance, they feel incongruous and isolated from one another, but upon further inspection, the reader realises that it is their transience that binds them. Just as in dreams, the imagery we are presented with is disparate and yet somehow connected.
“Just like when the early bird comes across the last of the night owls, so we meet dreams and their immanent echo of the past while dozing,” writes Reffo. “Similarly, in Better in the Dark Than His Rider the dreamlike state walks the shapeless path to the oneiric, until one last detour throws us into the arms of a story, hazy and unknown, as we are caught in the relentless stream of dreams.”