From alt beauty Harry Charlesworth strutting his stuff in a cornfield to a modern-day Cinderella with a towering blonde wig and party frock gaffer-taped to her bare skin, the portfolio of photographer Alessandro Merlo is packed with fierce individuals living their best lives. Alessandro’s work perfectly captures the feeling that his subjects are utterly themselves, even if trying on outlandish outfits and even more outrageous personalities.
“I came to the realisation that what you decide to put in front of your lens says a lot more about your own character than it does about the subject,” the 22-year-old Italian photographer tells us from his West London darkroom. Alessandro shuns fashion industry standards of beauty, which he doesn’t share or intend to perpetrate. “I am much more interested in individuals who express themselves freely and challenge said beauty standards. I think this rebellious nature comes from my own inherent queerness and the fact that I always had to fight the status quo to assert my own vision. My photography does not seek mainstream approval; it rejects the very idea that anyone has authority over anyone else.”
Alessandro began this trajectory while studying for his BA at UAL. His final major project, 21, explored unconventional queer identity and the way that it manifests itself through make-up and clothing. Featuring a diverse range of subjects, from radical faeries to pagan matriarchs, the series was Alessandro’s attempt to open up further possibilities for queer identity and visibility – something still integral to his output. “21 presented a variety of imagery that unknowingly became the basis of my visual language,” explains Alessandro. “I now look at it for inspiration and I find myself referencing and expanding concepts that were already present in the original set of pictures.”
After “three glorious years of partying, making friends and taking photos” at UAL, Alessandro graduated last year, with post-gradation life playing out in equally stressful and liberating measures. Taking some time to regroup and reevaluate in Italy, New York and San Francisco (see his cheeky snaps of nude sunbathers by the Golden Gate bridge), he’s now back in the UK shooting editorial illustrations and assisting legendary Buffalo photographer Jamie Morgan. “I consistently admired and referenced Jamie throughout my university years,” enthuses Alessandro. “I even wrote a chapter of my dissertation about him before I even met him in person. I feel extremely lucky to be able to work alongside such a pivotal figure in the history of photography and I am eternally grateful to be taken under his wing.”
One of Alessandro’s favourite editorial shoots to date is Sheep ‘n’ Chic, art directed by Leo Carlton and starring queer legends Sussi, Salvia and the aforementioned Harry Charlesworth. Shot on a farm in Oxfordshire last October, the series is equal parts hot and nightmarish. The three are lavished with over-the-top styling, custom couture headwear and designer clothes and even befriend a gang of alpacas. Alessandro says, “We made our country glamour fantasies come to life.”
Considering film an integral part of his process, Alessandro enjoys the tactility and intimacy of processing his own rolls. “I always try to incorporate an air of fantasy in my photographs,” Alessandro says. “As much as I love documentary photographers, what really intrigues me about taking pictures is the ability to create an image that seemingly uses the same visual codes of our reality, making it possible for everyone to understand, but is completely staged from start to finish and only exists in relation to itself.” Presenting locations and sets that are so deliberately set-like (as well as over-the-top fashion) allows Alessandro to create a parallel universe, blurring the line between reality and fiction.