Dino Kužnik’s Bleeding Magenta asks important questions about photography and conservation. How can we bring attention to the destruction of the environment without documenting an environmental disaster or the consequences of human activity? Can we instead focus on the beauty of nature to inspire awe and respect as a form of prevention? Here he shares the story behind the photos.
Words and Photography by Dino Kužnik
The set of photos in Bleeding Magenta started as one of those rejected experiments that eventually turned into a series. When on a road trip to New Mexico in 2018, I visited the mesmerising desert landscape that is White Sands. I was working on expanding my then not-yet-released series Shaped by the West. While observing and photographing the impressive formations and textures that the wind had shaped in the sand, I started thinking about how to show such a magnificent landscape in a new light. How could I present it to the viewer in a surreal, unique manner?
The starting idea behind the series was to “give the landscape a visual makeover”, make it stand out, to bring attention to something we so easily take for granted. I am a big fan of documentaries about our planet and an avid reader of texts on conservation. I can say that in the past few years, I have been bombarded with information on the negative impact humanity is having on the environment and I became deeply disturbed by how many people are still in denial of this fact. So, I wanted to give something back to the environment, as it has given me so much creative energy and inspiration. Through that motivation, I started applying lighting “makeup” to my landscape photos.
“The magenta colour felt the most surreal and unnatural.”
First, I experimented with diffraction glass. Next, I used a prism to bend the light in front of the lens, and I also applied other special effects like photographing through other glass, and Plexi. While I did like the photographs that those experiments resulted in, they just felt a tad too trippy and more suited for a series about the effects of LSD or magic mushrooms (maybe someday).
That day when I ventured across the dunes of White Sands, I decided to try to apply some strobe lighting to the photographs. I was experimenting with it and tried to “flash” a dune, but the sun was still way too radiant and harsh, and my strobe not powerful enough. So I waited an hour for the sun to move a little lower on the horizon and tried again. I still wasn’t pleased with the results, but then I accidentally lit the shaded side of the dune, which resulted in perfect exposure and a surreal photo.
I started experimenting with a few gels and ultimately decided that the magenta colour felt the most surreal and unnatural. It elevated the photograph, to something special – hypnagogic almost. I have been using this technique ever since and have started applying it to my landscape work as well as pairing it with light painted long exposure landscapes. Maybe I’ll find a new method in the future I want to experiment with and add it to this series of photographs.
If you had to choose a favourite photo from the series, which would you choose?
Choosing a favourite of anything is always very hard to do, so I will steer this question in another direction if I may. I do not have a favourite photo in terms of the visual value or aesthetic, but as photographers, we attach certain emotions to the photographs we take. This makes it quite hard selecting the final photographs for a series. You need to disconnect from those feelings that you have towards particular photos and look at them from a more objective point of view to see what forms a strong narrative and is visually consistent.
But if I had to choose the most interesting photo purely based on feelings, it would have to be the one taken at the Bryce Canyon, which I light painted while taking a long exposure. It was pitch black when I parked my car in the parking area of the lookout point. As I stepped out and gathered my photo gear from the trunk, the last car drove off. It was very dark, and I was alone. I felt a bit of anxiety overcome me, but for just a second. Then it was replaced with a calming feeling. I can’t think of many times in my life where I heard such quietness. The moon was quite high, and when your eyes adjusted to the dark, you could see the moonlit canyon in all its glory. At that moment I felt that I am a speck of dust in time, compared to the many million years it took to form the canyon I was photographing.
So you see, whenever I see this photograph, while it may not be the best or the most visually appealing one, it brings this feeling back to me, which elevates it, but just in my mind.
“I want the viewer to see something familiar in a new light.”
What gear did you use to shoot the series?
Most of the time I photograph on film. But because my Pentax 67 has a synch speed of 1/30 if used with an external flash (which is okay if the camera is on a tripod, but not so much for handheld shots), I decided to experiment on my digital camera, which is a Nikon D850. A fantastic piece of equipment and probably the best DSLR I have ever owned. A workhorse that doesn’t let you down.
I also use two speed lights, both from Nikon. I have an old SB-800 and a newer SB-7000, but I am seriously thinking of a Profoto A1 or B10, so I get more power even during daylight. I light my long exposures with two Coast high lumen flashlights and use magenta plastic gels, with which I cover the speedlights and the torches.
What do you hope people will take away from the series?
As this is an ongoing series and I am still working on it, it is hard to tell in what direction I might take it. I want the viewer to see something familiar in a new light. I want to get them to think about our beautiful environment, which we so many times take for granted. Sparking an idea or a discussion is my intent. But who knows, maybe that spark could eventually ignite a flame.
What are your plans for the series going forward?
This series doesn’t demand full dedication. It acts as a side project. A series of photographs I add to when visiting new places. I think I want it to stay free and open as sort of a metaphor to the actual subject I am photographing. When I feel the series has matured enough to tell the full and cohesive story, I will possibly present it in a zine or a booklet, which I want to publish myself. That will give me some closure – a satisfying end to the whole experience. But then again, it might evolve into something completely different in the end, like the texture that the wind forms and changes in the dunes of a desert.