Francesco Merlini – Better in the Dark than His Rider

In sleep or in wakefulness, we are inhabited by images. Swimming just below the surface, they sometimes dash before us with the swoop of the flying fish. Slippery, they can be hard to hold onto. We are a repository of latent images that linger within us, awaiting to be conjured. Whilst the primary visual cortex handles image processing when we are awake, the secondary visual cortex, active during all stages of sleep, deals with latent images: it interprets and makes meaning of the visual data we collected during the day, consciously or unconsciously. Whilst we often think about photographs as the result of a mastering gaze that dominates and maps its surroundings, latent images and their relationship to certain ways of practising and thinking photography question the assertion of control we claim over world-making-picture-making. Latent images invite us to give up a little bit of our agency and acknowledge that our relationship to images goes both ways: we inform and recall the images we hold, but are in turn touched and informed by the images that we do not consciously know we carry around with us. It is a porous exchange between knowledge and unknowability, instinct and reason, memory and oblivion, that points to other ways of knowing and interacting with the world. 

Better in the Dark than His Rider (Départ Pour l’Image, 2023) takes its title from a 19th century manual of optics which explains that, because of the shape of its pupil, the horse sees better in the dark than his rider. To travel through the night, the rider has to rely on their horse. Like the photographer, they entrust themself to a non-human vision to navigate the world. It is a title that asks us to have faith in images, in where they take us, in what they can reveal. The photographs in the book have been drawn out from Francesco Merlini’s personal archive and have been assembled years after they were taken. Rather than resulting from a gaze that set out into the world hunting for something specific, they are born out of a languorous gaze: sensuous, tentative, that touches and holds the surface of things. Some of the images collected during the author’s journeys, such as those in the photobook, have become active and productive after a period of incubation; others are lost forever, or are yet to surface and reveal their potential. This approach interests me because of what it suggests in terms of different ways of approaching photographic, project-led practice: you can plan everything ahead, do your research and set out into the world knowing exactly what you are looking for, or you can trust the photographic process and set out into the world allowing it to reveal itself along the way. Most times, the best work is born out of a combination of the two. 

To build a book out of an archive requires the ability to pick up on what pictures show beyond the photographer’s specific initial intent, and the will to follow the directions they point towards. The ability to be not only a rider, but a passenger.1 And whilst all books are the result of a collaboration between publisher and artist, to create a cohesive work out of the open ended chaos of an artist’s archive requires a particularly close-knit collaboration. It is like navigating uncharted waters — you don’t really know what you are looking for or what you’re going to find until you’ve found it. Again, an act of trust, an act of faith. 

Better in the Dark than His Rider reflects on the “nocturnal vocation”2 of images and their dreamlike qualities, touching upon the relationship between dreams, vision and memory. The photographs of Francesco Merlini look both familiar and unreal; they materialise in coloured pages, embedded in greys, blues, reds and blacks, the colours of dusk, of dawn. The pictures seem to emerge from a state of repose cascading into sleep, daughters of a twilight transit that loiter in the threshold between darkness and light, night and morning. The impeccable colour-matchings of the book are seductive. They make me think of the iridescence of bird’s plumage during mating season, invisible to the human eye. To make a photobook fully composed by coloured pages is a bold decision, frankly difficult to pull off. Francesca Todde and Luca Reffo (Départ Pour L’Image) managed to turn this challenge into one of the most successful aspects of the book: the image-colour pairings feel inextricable and have clearly been crafted hand in hand. Beautifully printed by Longo, the materiality of the book, with its silky, porous paper, allows for a sensuous experience of the work and enhances the languorous gaze at work in the images. 

Subject matters span from peculiar remains of suburban and industrial spaces to animals, humans, cars, and 19th century anatomical drawings and illustrations, threaded together by recurring shapes or themes. Various images more or less overtly refer to optics and to the biology of the eye, perhaps placed there to help the viewer pick upon the main themes of the book. Sometimes the sequence feels a slightly cumbersome and less resolved, losing me in various points along the way: at times I feel a little spoon-fed, other times the occasional odd image takes me out of the small, contained world of the photobook, throwing me off pace. A tighter edit would have been beneficial to the creation of a more cohesive space in which to immerse oneself and stay. To me, some of the images become too telling and disrupt the delightfully enigmatic nature of the majority of the pictures. Some things have no need to be explained.

Overall, the design of the book, with its pitch black paper edges, the alluring colours and the enigmatic photographs effectively bring the viewer close to the hypnagogic state occurring whilst we fall asleep, where qualitatively unusual images and thoughts appear and drag us into the depth of slumber. 


1. Reffo, Luca (2023) The Dream Passenger, Better in the dark than his rider, Départ Pour L’Image, Italy

2. Ibid.

Francesco Merlini

Better in the Dark than His Rider

Départ Pour l’Image, 2023

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Benedetta Casagrande. Images © Francesco Merlini.)

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