Pepi Merisio’s folk stories. An interview

by Paolo Mattei

One look at his black and white photos, and you feel like jumping into them. You could listen to the stories told by the gentlemen sitting at the table with their hat on, or by the old woman holding a rosary between her fingers. You could be a kid again and play leapfrog, or run to play ball in one of the most beautiful squares in the world, miraculously empty and pleasantly made available just for you.

Photographer Pepi Merisio was born in 1931, in a small town near Bergamo called Caravaggio, hometown to none other than ‘pictor praestantissimus’ Michelangelo Merisi.

His photos have been telling stories by images for almost seventy years. From the second half of the 1950s, he started collaborating with Italian and international magazines: “Epoca”, “Stern”, “Du”, “Paris Match”, and “Réalité”, to mention but a few. He showcased the Italian countryside, pilgrimages and the Catholic world (his reportage on Paul VI, “A Day with the Pope”, made history), the folk traditions on which our country’s history is based. He has published a wide range of books that portray and explain Italy in the past century just as well as some of the best essays in sociology and anthropology.

Needless to say, we jumped at the chance to interview him.

“In attesa dell’udienza”

When did you first fall in love with photography?
I was still in school. I started to fool around with one of my father’s old cameras, taking photos. Then, gradually, with help from some friends who had more experience and knowledge than me, I began to venture more seriously in the field. I never quit.

You were born in Caravaggio and your last name is Merisio: we cannot help but think there must be a relation with Michelangelo Merisi…
Funnily enough, there actually is a relation. In 2010, four hundred years after the great Lombard painter was born, some scientists and researchers led by Bologna’s University started to analyze what are thought to be his mortal remains, found in Porto Ercole. They reached the conclusion that every member in the Meriosio family in Caravaggio has some common DNA with the great painter.

With no need for DNA testing, some have pinpointed a stylistic relationship between your photographs and Caravaggio’s paintings, especially in the use of light and shadows…
Caravaggio is unrivalled, and beyond any compare – especially in different fields like painting and photography. I deeply appreciate Merisi. I would love to find out the reason behind his mysterious “Lombard absence”.

What do you mean?
Well, how can Caravaggio not have created any works in his first twenty years, even during his apprenticeship in Milan? Everyone knows that his sublime art exploded in Rome, around 1594. But what did he do before that? How can there be no trace of his Lombard period? He went from nothing to some of the greatest masterpieces in late-16th-century Rome, like a bold from the blue…

Who are the artists that have influenced you the most?
Renaissance painters, not so much for the images in which I portrayed people’s real life, as much as for the photographs I took of towns and cities: the ones centered on urban and architectural elements. It might come as a surprise, but it’s true. Although my culture is based in the Middle Ages and owes a lot to Romanesque style, the Renaissance has always fascinated me. I even published a book on Renaissance architecture.

Pepi Merisio, "In Valle di Cogne"
“In Valle di Cogne”

What about other masters of photography?
I can’t name a single author, but was deeply impressed by the American documentary photography movement, started by the Farm Security Administration. Discovering those photos of the 1930s’ Great Depression in the United States, including those by Dorothea Lange, was crucial for me. I was exposed to the dramatic images of poverty arising from the Wall Street Crash of 1929 just as I started to observe – with uneasiness – the fast and silly changes Italy was undergoing in the 1950s and 1960s. The country was running a foolish race towards a fake, plastic progress.

What do you mean by “plastic progress”?
I mean the frenzy for everything new, which can make the incredible value of the past go forgotten. In those years, I saw some beautiful, old sacristies stripped of their amazing, wooden, 18th-century furniture to make room for horrible celluloid cabinets. I remember that during a job in a valley near Bergamo I photographed a 17th-century statue of the Madonna, dressed in wonderful lace gowns. I returned a few days later to shoot more photographs in color, and it was gone: they had sold it in as little as 48 hours. I experienced first hand the effects of people’s stupid wish to get rid of the past. And it was happening all over Italy, as if there was a race.

Farmers, folklore, countryside, and the Catholic Church are the main recurrent themes in your work. This has drawn you close to writer Giovanni Testori and director Ermanno Olmi.
Olmi filmed “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” after seeing three books I had published in 1969, dedicated to traditional crafts and places around Bergamo. Being the master that he is, the fact that he drew from my themes to create such an outstanding movie made me very proud. As regards Testori, I wish I had met him earlier but I am happy I had the chance to make a book with him – titled “Sacri Monti delle Alpi” – in the early 1980s.

What is your relationship with literature?
My education is based on pre- and post-war poetry and novels, which centered on working class people’s life. I am a fan of Piero Bargellini, and of course of Manzoni’s “The Betrothed”: I believe only the people who live in Lombardy can truly understand its beauty [laughs]…

Pepi Merisio, "Milano. Le chiatte sul Naviglio"
“Milano. Le chiatte sul Naviglio”

The Catholic Church is strongly hierarchical: how did you come to publish your reportage on Paul VI on “Epoca” in 1964?
I think I felt an affinity with Paul VI because we both knew the world of the poor, and we both loved pilgrimages on foot on the mountains, as devotional and penitential journeys that often lasted for days. I had photographed several such events, including the one to the top of the Sacred Mount of Oropa, in Lombardy.
My practical connection with Paul VI, however, was his private secretary, monsignor Pasquale Macchi; in 1962, I delivered some photos of Montini – who at the time was archbishop of Milan – that I had taken during his visit at the Caravaggio Sanctuary.
The Caravaggio Sanctuary is one of the places that has always inspired me, with all its pilgrims, and especially those afflicted by illnesses.

Then what happened?
Both Macchi and Montini liked my photos. Later I met the secretary in person, and from that moment on we started building a relationship of reciprocal trust. Once Montini was elected pope and assumed the name of Paul VI, I was asked to do the “A Day with the Pope” reportage. I assured monsignor Macchi that I was not looking for a scoop, and that I would work at the service of the Pope. I told him, “Look, I will take pictures and then you can see them and choose the ones you like”.

What was the most striking part of the experience?
Having to do with such a good-natured and happy person, so different from how he was represented by the mass media and from how people generally perceived him. Looking at my photos, it is clear that Paul VI was not a sad man at all. All the urban legends about his introverted character were annihilated by those images. I was very happy because my goal was to show the Pope’s real personality – humble and open. After all, I have good empathy with faces…

How so?
Sometimes, when I look at someone’s face, I get a special feeling – I feel a deep affinity that allows me to discover the soul of the person I have in front of me, even without talking. Sometimes I joke that I can look at someone and know whom they vote for, without ever saying a word.

You’re almost a clairvoyant…
No, not at all, it has nothing to do with magic – I am a realist catholic… I’d rather say that I have a special, fortunate kind of intuition.

Speaking of reality. How would you sum up your way of photographing things? How do you “control” the scene you are about to immortalize?
Whenever I have to photograph people or places, first of all I try to find out more about where I am and whom I have in front of me. The “event” of photography can only happen after this first phase of research. This way, my photographs are a surprising match for the memories I have in my head and in my heart, and for what I have seen with my eyes. You should always do research before taking a photograph: photography needs thought.

And what about Cartier Bresson’s “decisive moment”?
You can truly “seize the moment” only when you know what is behind it. And this derives from discovering and getting to know the story that happened before taking the picture. Every photo should be based on a historical and geographical preparation, and on a gradual approach to the event. To sum it up in a simple statement: I do not think about anything when I take a photograph. But I must admit I have thought a lot before.

Pepi Merisio, "Nel porto di Genova"
“Nel porto di Genova”

How are the working-class situations you photograph today different from the ones you portrayed fifty years ago?
One main difference is people are not as “recognizable”. I used to be able to photograph FIAT workers in their coveralls, with the carmaker’s brand on them; priests wore hats and cassocks; lawyers had specific jackets and ties. Photographs could describe the social status of the moment, place, and person. Today, everyone wears the same clothes. If you go take photos of a pilgrimage in Lourdes, you then have to write captions that sound something like, “The priest is the third from the left, in the pink shirt”. Society has uniformed so much that images today require a commentary, while in the past photographs could tell a story even without words. Images were a description in their own right, they were documents. In the porticoes along the river Po, the men wearing black capes conveyed a clear meaning – simply because they could not be found in Rome, Venice, or anywhere else.

So is it safe to say that you like the past better than the present?
No, not at all. I like to walk around Piazza Duomo when it is flooded with the colors and lights of contemporaneity. The world goes on, at its own pace, that that is just fine. But you asked me about the differences between what I could observe fifty years ago and what I see today, and I cannot help but mention the widespread indistinctness, the general loss of aesthetic personality, and the way highly symbolic moments have vanished. You could once recognize priests and housekeepers, lawyers and workers; now a homogenous and shapeless mass flows past, and it’s hard to tell its story. That’s all.

Speaking of contemporaneity: do you ever work with digital cameras?
Yes, also because I have a few very talented grandchildren who take good care of the photographs I take. They are the ones who extract images from the memory cards: I just continue to shoot photographs as if I had film. I take the card out and give it to them, and they turn those impulses into photographs.

Gianni Berengo Gardin fears archives will disappear because digital memory is ephemeral…
I completely understand Gardin’s fear. Digital files are not “things” like film. But I still enjoy the huge benefits digital photography has to offer.

One last question: what are you currently working on?
I am working on the last volume in the “Italia della nostra gente” series, a collection published by Ecra to showcase the beauty and culture of our country: squares, villages, rivers, castles, streets… I am co-editing this year’s book with Philippe Daverio; the title will be “In lieto convivio”: Milan’s Expo 2015 is all about food, after all…

Pepi Merisio "Osteria del Sole"
“Osteria del Sole”

Pepi Merisio, "Paolo VI accende il cero pasquale"
“Paolo VI accende il cero pasquale”

Pepi Merisio, Riomaggiore


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