Shaped by The West: A photography story by, and conversation with, Dino Kužnik.
Dino Kužnik | NEW YORK
This is an ongoing series of America as I see it. It is the America I got to know when growing up in Slovenia, Europe.
Slovenia declared independence in 1991 from Yugoslavia and became a republic. With that, the floodgates to the western world were opened and following surely behind the flood of westernization. I grew up watching movies, playing video games, listening to music and doing activities that were predominantly influenced or produced by the west. From cable TV channels like Cartoon Network, bands like Green Day, Offspring, NOFX… Skateboarding culture and skateboard movies, all introduced me to western culture. In high school, when we formed our first punk rock band with my friends, we would dream of being in California – in our overly baggy pants we would be riding our skateboards and listening to punk rock music, going to shows, to the beach, desert and just have an amazing time. Such a carefree time, that was.
As luck would have it, I actually ended up in California. I moved there in 2013, not because of a punk rock band – but because life happened. I got a job as a Graphic Designer and moved into the tech mecca that is San Francisco. Living and travelling around California tremendously shaped my aesthetic vision and organically made me shoot in a different way Different than I would do it otherwise. By constantly taking photos I developed a style, that just came organically – but also in a big part subconsciously – It came from the past.
I have since moved to New York, but I still feel a big connection to the west of America. So much so, that I have been going back on road trips for the last 3 years. I am still very much attracted to the feeling of freedom I get whenever I return. I road trip by myself with my thoughts and a camera. This is a very therapeutic process for me and I think that shows. I put myself into my captures – my images are all me. A projection of my state of mind and a blast from a different era. Shaped all the way across the Atlantic.
In your words, please tell us how you make a living?
I make a living as a graphic designer in a tech company and I chip in a bit as a photographer. Strongly considering moving into photography full-time. I am currently working on realising that dream.
What gets you up in the morning? And what’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
On a weekday, it’s the alarm on my iPhone and the drive to the shoot of course. Especially on the weekend. Although I mostly show my Western material, I do shoot a lot of street and test different things and techniques here in New York. So I try to do something related to photography in my free time and try to shoot every day … even if it’s just with my iPhone. I love waking up to a nice day when I can just walk around Brooklyn with my camera.
So… back to the morning. The first thing I do is turn my alarm off on my phone and look at the reflection on my wall, by which I can tell what kind of weather is outside – if it’s sunny you see these nice silhouettes of my plants that are on the window shelf and the trees outside that sway in the light Brooklyn breeze – that’s a good day right there. Second thing, I usually read the news a bit, check Instagram, see if the stock market crashed, etc… all while playing some nice tunes … I like to take time before I actually get out of bed and start the day.
At what age did you start photographing and what was it that sparked this passion?
My grandfather was a hobby photographer, so I got familiar with his film SLRs when I was really young, but at that time I only shot on film point and shoot on family vacations. I think what sparked it to a certain degree, was my grandfather and his collection of National Geographic Magazines from the ’60s and up to the late ’80s. We would spend countless hours browsing all the issues and looking at the photos.
But that spark didn’t really ignite a flame until the first year of College when I got my first DSLR. I remember my roommate being annoyed with me as I was constantly taking photos. It totally consumed me, I would be taking photos of everything, everywhere, all the time – you know … shitty photos, but you got to start somewhere. I also rediscovered film by using my grandfather’s Praktica MTL 3 and I was hooked. The feeling of not seeing the photo made you more careful with your exposures and picking up negatives from the processing studio felt like Christmas every time. That was something so profound to me – that feeling, especially when you got “the shot”.
“The solitude and immersion into the environment focus my mind and I become really observant. I just feel this authentic connection … nothing is superficial, pollical or fake.”
What is it about making photographs that you love the most?
I usually go on solo road trips and totally disconnect from my life in New York. But this is something that has an amazingly therapeutic effect on me. The solitude and immersion into the environment focus my mind and I become really observant. I just feel this authentic connection … nothing is superficial, pollical or fake.
I like to think that my photos are the projection of my inner peace and the state of mind that I am at the time of making them. The photos aren’t just an observation of my surroundings, they are also a projection of self. There is a lot of me in there. So in short, what I most love is the process.
What is the most unique and interesting situation photography has landed you in, so far?
I would have to say, that for me the most interesting situation was when I had photos exhibited in the same space and time as Martin Parr’s photographs when I was shortlisted for Sony Photography Awards in 2017. I think that was the most interesting situation by far … Martin Parr is one of the few photographers that I kind of idolize.
“I guess I take something from everything that leaves a lasting impression on me.”
Name some inspirations, photographers or otherwise.
There are so many photographers that inspire me, but if I have to name a few, that I really love – Todd Hido, Stephen Shore, Vivian Sassen, Alec Soth, Martin Parr … a lot of Magnum photographers, from the legendary Cartier Bresson to the best storyteller that is Joel Meyerovitz (really, you can listen to this guy for hours).
A lot of times I would find inspiration in music and film, but it’s hard to nail that down to a few directors and musicians. In some of my photos, you can definitely feel a bit of psychedelia and could easily pair it with a stoner/psychedelic track.
I really like my compositions to be layered while also very tidy, but not to the point of being sterile … so I can relate to, let’s say, Stanley Kubrick’s or Wes Anderson’s style of visual storytelling. But those are just two examples … I guess I take something from everything that leaves a lasting impression on me.
There is also a ton of people that I get inspired on a daily basis, that I found on Instagram … but that list is just a bit too long.
What cameras and gear do you most enjoy using at the moment?
These days I mostly use two for my work. The Pentax 67 II and the Nikon D850. First, a medium format film camera and second, digital full frame camera.
They are both heavy beasts when paired with good glass, but I am mostly driving with all my gear, so it’s not a big deal. If I hiked a lot, I would most likely switch to a lighter camera like let’s say a Mamiya 7 and maybe something mirrorless for digital.
I also carry a film point and shoot with me at all times. I went through a lot of them in the years (mostly because they all broke), but now I carry the Yashica T5.
What is your favourite photobook?
I can’t narrow it down to only one. So here are a few I own and really like: Todd Hido – Intimate Distance, Stephen Shore – Uncommon Places, Currant Hatleberg – Lost Coast, Alec Soth – Niagara, Vivian Sassen – In and Out of Fashion and I just got Rueben Wu’s – Lux Noxis, which is amazing.
“I have a pretty critical outlook on my work and can go from liking something to totally hating it in a short time. I also think that my vision or at least the way I view photos in general changes through time”
What’s your favourite shot so far? And what’s the story behind it?
I have a pretty critical outlook on my work and can go from liking something to totally hating it in a short time. I also think that my vision or at least the way I view photos in general changes through time, so I can’t really choose a favourite, to be honest.
I can tell you a story of a photo, that could have been my favourite, but I missed it. It happened on my New Mexico trip. I was thinking a lot about this shot and it still keeps me awake at night sometimes.
So, I found this abandoned mall next to the highway a few miles out of Albuquerque. Towering in front of it was a tall pink sign with a very interesting texture of deterioration on it… no more text or commercials as they faded over time and I thought that was a nice metaphor. I set up the tripod and camera and took a few shots, but decided that I would wait, till the sun just hit the signs and the grass underneath was already in the shadows, to get a nice layered image and a bit of separation.
There was nobody around for miles, just the cars on the highway speeding by in the distance …so I waited. I think like 30-45 minutes in I was browsing my phone, and I looked up towards the sign for a sec … and there he was – A cowboy on a horse, straight out of a Western, riding towards the sign. I dropped my phone and ran to the camera and tripod, but because my camera was set up for a longer exposure and the cowboy was just so close to the sign already, I missed the perfect shot.
Imagine this … a mountain in the far background, a big sign with a deteriorating texture towering in the foreground and right between the two poles of the sign, that cowboy on the horse. I could never have staged it better, it was just too perfect … but it wasn’t staged at all.
I fucked up though … I was shaking. Said, fuck it … I’ll go after him and ask him if he can ride back so I could get that photo. But while I started running towards him and calling him, he started to gallop and was gone with the wind.
So yeah … I’m still losing sleep over that one. Maybe it wouldn’t really be the best photo if I captured it, but still. The fact that I missed that scene … you know. Damn it!
I reckon you’ll see that cowboy again Dino.
Would you say your process is more documentation through your eyes, or a curated and staged story told through your photographs?
I drive alone through the American west and document the environment and the things that I stumble upon and find interesting. But nothing is basically staged, it is as I find it. I would say 98% of my photographs are not staged or at least the photographs that I show. I only move myself, never the subject.
It’s more documentation through my eyes and a projection of self, as I already previously noted.
Lastly Dino, can you tell us about a film/book/album that you’ve come across recently that left a lasting impression with you?
I recently watched “You Were Never Really Here” by Lynne Ramsay. From the photography to the music, acting, editing… Well, let’s just say I was thinking about the movie for some time. The films that make you think and stay with you for a while, are my jam. I am also a big sci-fi fan. My top 3 sci-fi would have to be Alien, Moon and Under the Skin.
My favourite album right now is the new one from Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, titled Wasteland and I have been listening to all the albums that King Gizzard released last year … those guys are crazy (crazy good of course).
I am in the middle of the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which really made me think about humanity. I just debated about some of the subjects in the book with my good friend who visited New York the other day. I would really recommend it.
A Gobe Interview with Dino Kužnik via Brooklyn, New York