8 minute read

Scars in the Sand

Excavating the traumas of Death Valley, Giulio Meliani unearths profound metaphors of privation and hope

Dwarfed by the endlessness encircling him, the man in the frame cuts a lonesome figure. Wedged within a vacuum of constant vacancy, his presence is practically abnormal – a defect amongst sterile wastelands and unending emptiness. His seclusion is ghostly, occupied by an eeriness that subsists in bone-dry coasts of salt and rock. Here, he’s mere fragment – an echo of an abandoned afterthought, left behind long ago.

Wandering through the northern stretches of the Mojave Desert, Giulio Meliani virtually conjures the spirit of ‘The Lost 49ers’ – a gutsy cabal of unlikely prospectors, traversing this vale in the winter of 1849. Although only one sourdough was thought to have perished, remaining members are said to have resigned themselves to fated encounters, face-to-face with eternity. Mercifully, fortune favored most. And so, as surviving souls bid farewell to their averted, would-be graveyard, one thankful heart was said to have exclaimed: “Goodbye, Death Valley.” From here, a myth was born.

“For me, photography and trauma have always been connected,” Giulio begins, solemnly pondering the heart of his imagery. “My entire childhood was spent in my grandma’s garage in Brazil. One day, the place flooded, and all the photos were lost. Because of that, I have very few pictures of myself as a kid. When technology evolved, I got a little obsessive. I guess I had this desperation to not let my past be erased again.”

As with the tale of the mining nomads, the crux of Giulio’s story is one of triumph in the face of adversity. From lost memories to professional photography, his successes have surpassed the pain of setbacks. Focusing his GFX100S on the grooves and indentations of nearby formations, he considered the nature of hardship. In those rock-strewn blemishes, the image of the scar began to take shape, and suddenly, the hostility faded. Without question, Death Valley was maimed and mutilated, but perhaps more significantly, it was mending – repairing its wounds with the remedy of time. “When I chose to photograph Death Valley, I didn’t have an accompanying story. I was just intrigued by the place itself. I wanted to let the creative approach materialize when I got there. The Ubehebe Crater kick-started my process,” he explains, referring to the park’s renowned volcanic cavern. Estimated to have occurred between two thousand to eight thousand years ago, Giulio found the destruction of the pit curiously beautiful. With a certain ellipsis, the violent phenomenon was distinct from its source. The devastation wasn’t dissociated, but with ample space, the abrasion was a reminder of the valley’s endurance – a token of its survival. “Scars and traumas are what shape us as human beings. When it’s happening, of course it isn’t pleasant. But, in time, maybe you can start to appreciate the beauty. I started thinking about people I love and what they’ve been through, and how your response to suffering molds you. You have to take pride in those marks. I wanted to find the erosions that tourists wouldn’t engage with, looking at these surroundings in a different way. Seeing the stains, and imagining what caused them. The whole landscape became a representation of that resilience.”

On July 10, 1913, Death Valley recorded a staggering 134°F, the hottest temperature ever logged on the earth’s surface. Summer 2021 wasn’t much better – a blistering 130°F giving credence to the census-designated ‘Furnace Creek’, a ranch where these burning trends are monitored and verified. Mindful of such sweltering conditions, Giulio avoided travel during the fiercest season. When he did set out, surroundings remained oppressive, but manageable. “Luckily, I didn’t go there in the middle of summer. I don’t even think the rangers let people in. It’s that unbearable! I went in autumn, so the heat was still present, but it would also get cold at night.” At first, the valley was totally inhospitable – actively antagonistic and cruel. But then Giulio adjusted, and slowly, that unorthodox beauty began to emerge. “It’s so attractive, you can’t help but stay,” he explains. “It added an extra layer to this allegory. It reflects what we’re like as humans. We’re scared to show our ugliness, we think it’s better to hide and conceal. But, like our scars, those are the things that characterize us. The duality is what interests me.”

Investing in an RV, Giulio explored the park extensively. The vehicle permitted him the sleep required for long hikes in grueling circumstances, widening his canvas with a more expansive outreach. “I didn’t want to camp for that reason. When I got there, I literally drove for three hours, and couldn’t get out of it. It’s insanely vast. Living in LA, I’m always condensed, but this was the first time in a while where I felt truly alone.” The enormity of blankness summoned a new thought: how should one visually signify this immensity, this scale?  Stunned by the quiet calm of seemingly infinite space, Giulio tuned his ear to the wind, rocks rumbling beneath his feet. An idea materialized. “I didn’t go that far, but when you create in the desert, size comparison can be really hard to illustrate. Adding a human figure always helps give dimension. When I take photos of a dune or mountain, if I don’t have a point of reference, you can’t appreciate the size.”

Translating a creative concept into practical reality, Giulio also discusses how his gear brought these ideas to fruition. “Wide lenses definitely helped. I wanted to be versatile, but compact. I chose three for the GFX100S – FUJINON GF23mmF4 R LM WR, GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, and GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR. GF45-100mm was the most resourceful. Not quite a wide angle, but very adaptable. I used GF23mm for broader shots, with absolutely no distortion. I never wanted for anything. The camera is insane, especially when you consider the size. It’s robust, and the color range is beautiful. The IBIS is also crazy for the size of the body – it’s hard to believe.” Surveying mountains in the background, Giulio framed his horizons with a typical rule of thirds, but ultimately found himself yearning for something more. By placing the camera lower to the floor, he emphasized the formations of salt, and the sheer boundlessness of the environment. “I wanted to show as much of the ground as possible, but also needed something to showcase the magnitude. Compositionally, those shots were created as reference decisions, as well as creative ones.”

As well as his daytime designs, Giulio managed to document the cool, nocturnal hues of the Death Valley skyline, its bluish tranquility cascading across the open-ended ether. The disparity of color was deeply intense, underscoring a composure that was at odds with the reality of the experience. “It may look serene, but that night was really windy, so it was a constant challenge trying to balance the camera on the tripod,” Giulio laughs. “I didn’t want to capture light trails, so the process involved a lot of exposure time tweaks. I’d perform a test, check it, then adjust my setup so I had a closer version of what I wanted. Then it was a balance between ISO and shutter speed. After about 30 seconds, you start seeing movement in the stars – this camera is really fast. Around ten to 15 seconds was a challenge. I was wrestling with the wind! In the end, the color contrasts were perfect. Blue against brown was gorgeous.

A bluish sky overlooks Death Valley at night

Photo 2022 © Giulio Meliani | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 5 secs at F5.6, ISO 4000

“I’d review the shots every night, and have the same feeling. I felt so connected. This place just understood me. In personal projects, I try to be more exposed so that people can relate. In a world of perfect looking, pre-packaged social media, it’s vital that we open up about our own issues and doubts. My biggest concern was to not be depressive. I think this approach is optimistic. With a certain amount of time, everything can be appreciated, even when the marks are still there.”

In Death Valley, the faded remnants of catastrophe blot the terrain, but it’s these disfigured dells that make the desert a sum of its parts. And that sand is always moving: lifelike fluctuations, perpetually in-flux, rebuilding and restoring itself, wave after wave.

Ripples of sand stretch far and away in Death Valley

Photo 2022 © Giulio Meliani | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/400 sec at F9, ISO 1600


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