Hi Dino, welcome to Pellicola! Where does your interest in photography come from?
Since I can remember, I have been a visual person. But I must blame my late grandfather for introduction to photography, through photo books and a collection of National Geographic magazines he started collecting back in the 60s. He was an amateur or rather a hobby photographer and owned a few 35mm analog cameras. These are the same cameras I started using when the interest in analog photography consumed me in my college years.
Is it something in which your family is involved, or did you discover it by yourself or in relation to an educational background?
While my family always supported me in my artistic endeavors, it was my grandfather (As I mentioned earlier) who was a hobbyist photographer, and he sparked an interest in me. In my late high school years and college years, I started discovering various photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and other magnum photographers. That is how the interest grew until I saved enough money with summer work to be able to buy a Nikon D80 digital camera with a kit lens.
I remember my roommate at the time being so frustrated with me, as I was taking photos of everything, all the time. It progressed from there into a student job as a journalistic photographer and studio assistant and eventually as something integral to my being.
Most of your works are shot on medium format film, but we can see some digital pictures among them. Do you prefer analog over digital photography? Do you think these two modes may coexist or is it necessary to take sides?
Yes, I photograph on digital and film. I thought about this a lot, and the conclusion is that I like the process of photographing on film a lot more. You see, my aesthetic sort of formed organically by photographing on medium format film, and I was successful in bringing that aesthetic to my digital work I think, or at least to a certain degree.
I sometimes find digital photographs to be too clinical, sterile, a bit too perfect, in other words. I think all the imperfections of film and the fact that the photo industry wasn’t so focused on making the sharpest lenses back then, translates into a bit more character in analog photography. All that said, I do love photographing on digital, too, as it gives me the freedom to experiment, is integral to my profession, and I love the fact that I can rely on a camera and see what I captured right away.
If money wasn’t an issue, I would probably invest in a dark room and would definitely photograph on film more and experiment with enlargers, photo paper, etc. Maybe in the future.
And to answer your second question. Film had quite a resurrection in the last few years, and we can see the film look to be a very desirable fad right now. I hope I am wrong to call it a fad, though, but the industry makes it feel like that a lot of times, with film cameras becoming fashion accessories by celebrities and the film look being sought for above all else. There is absolutely no reason to take sides, in my opinion, and I hope film and digital can coexist for a long time to come.
You’re working as a graphic designer, but meanwhile, you’ve been achieving through your photo-graphic projects so as to collaborate with well-known firms like Tesla or artist Tyler, The Creator. Would you turn photography into a full-time job?
Well, actually, I went full-time photography in July of 2019. I have been working as a graphic designer full-time for seven years, and I am happy I did, because that took me to the US, and I was able to finance my own photography projects, but I had to turn a lot of projects away because of that. So now, the roles are reversed; photography is acting as my main profession, while graphic design is a side hustle.
I did find myself in a bit of a tough situation at the moment with the global crisis we are facing as all my photography projects were canceled, but I am happy to say that I have got some design work in to support myself during this extraordinary times.
Aint-Bad published your monograph Shaped by the West recently, which includes some of your most famous shots; do you consider it a closed project, and you’re planning on moving toward new visual horizons? Or will you continue your research in these desolate western landscapes?
Shaped by the West was a very personal project, and the photographs have a lot of me in them. It’s a projection of self and attraction to the subjects I was introduced to when my home country Slovenia subsided from Yugoslavia in 1991, and I was introduced to a wave of western culture through music, movies, etc.
Going forward, I want to move away from that and not focus so much on me, but rather on different subjects, but still attaining my signature style. I do a lot more research on the subjects I want to photograph now, not just aimlessly exploring and stumbling upon subjects.
It was the right thing to do for that body of work, as it was immensely therapeutic on me, and the whole series formed like this organically. It was a great self-analysis and realization, but I grew past that.
So to answer your question, I will still photograph similar subjects (and others) for sure, but in a more documentary way, I feel, and with less “self” in the narrative.
When and how your bond with the American culture started, and what side of this imaginary stroke you the most and influenced you? What was your vision of the United States? Tell us about eventual books or films you consider important in this relation.
Like said earlier, when Slovenia subsided from Yugoslavia and opened its doors to the Western world, my everyday being was flooded with the Western culture. First of all, with Television and programs like Cartoon Network, MTV, etc. , Hollywood movies and music, I was listening too. I was introduced to the American culture and so desperately wanted to be part of it. I still remember when we formed a Punk-Rock band in my home town, inspired by the late 90s, early 00s Skate Punk Rock bands from California. We would loke to daydream with the other members, how one day we will all be living in California and playing music.
The funny thing is, I did eventually move there, just not for music.
My vision of the United States was an utopian one, you know, not really a realistic one I was actually introduced to. I felt like it’s a land of possibility, where my creativity could flourish and I could be successful at what I did back then. Slovenia after all has only 2 million people, so I think it felt too small for me, the ceiling of success too low. I wanted to explore and see more.
It’s hard for me to highlight one specific book or show that influenced me, as it was a combination of everything that surrounded me when I was growing up.
But in regards to art I feel like artists like Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Harry Gruyaert, Robert Frank, David Hockney and Edward Hopper are some of the names that come to mind when talking about the iconic American Subjects. I kind of draw inspiration from all of these.
How did you experience the Slovenian situation at that time, and how did you use to feel about your country’s culture? Is there anything you didn’t recognize yourself in? And what differences you trace between Europe and the United States today?
I had a lovely childhood and a happy upbringing, so I am incredibly grateful for that. But I never really felt super nationalistic, I think that is due to the political situation I grew up in. As Slovenia tried to shed its socialist past and walk the walk fo a more capitalist country, we – the children growing up never really felt that we belong.
But I see things differently nowadays, and some of the beliefs that I had about the US were shattered when living here. Like the healthcare system – which is a joke, a significant and growing divide between the rich and the poor, the ridiculously expensive education system, which leaves young people in-depth, and I could go on and on. I see Europe a lot more favorably nowadays as the global situation we are in highlighted how deeply flawed this aggressive capitalist system really is. I could write a whole essay about this shattered realization, which I highlight in my book by showing my Visa struggle and with the narrative of how I offer the photographs (from idealistic compositions to the remnants of capitalist, like ghost towns and abandoned cars). While America puts on a mask, with all, it’s vastness, amazing landscapes, and the whole Americana vibe, the realities behind it, are very troubling a lot of the times. Going back to the question of subjects I want to focus on in the future, this is one that I will try to highlight. I was supposed to be working on a series right now in Death Valley, but it will have to wait.
I am also attaching the text from Shaped by the West, so you can get a bit more detail about the subject you were asking about
Dino Kuznik – Shaped by the West
“In my work I project my gaze onto some of the most iconic emblems of the American West: the car, the road, the gas station and the most totemic of all, the landscape. The motivation behind my choice of subject matter is rooted in the westernization of my home country in the 1990s and the subsequent lack of national identification. At that time, the goal in Slovenia was to shed its socialist past and make capitalism a success story. This shifting atmosphere resulted in confusion over what was archetypically Slovenian, and was felt most strongly by the young generation i was a part of. It was easier to identify with established, westernized realms, particularly in popular culture. Growing up with American imagery and values on TV, all in English, the American spirit was communicated to us through visually established symbols of the “world’s most powerful country”.
My relocation to California in 2013 further solidified my aesthetic. Shaped by the West is, in fact, a personal and artistic exploration of the emblematic symbols of Americana from my youth in opposition to my adult identity. The prevailing narrative is centered around a nostalgic vision of the American dream from my childhood, contrasted with the reality of living in the US and applying for an artist visa. The iconic landscape in my work becomes an interesting backdrop for an exploration of this unique cultural position within it. My photographs offer a highly aestheticized portrayal of what I find most familiar, in what is essentially an unknown landscape to me. This acts as a contrast to the conflict I feel in regard to my identity.
Photographing the familiar in the new speaks of a need for a utopian vision, while alluding to a generational sentiment of longing for an uncomplicated childhood in unpredictable times. Yet through the seemingly soft and innocent photographs, I aspire to convey the solitude of my position, depicted in the cracks of this idealized Americana.”
You’ve released and made public your series with Tyler, The Creator lately, capturing him within environments and compositions that truly reflect your personal aesthetics. How this collaboration started and how it evolved?
Yeah, that was a dream project come true. Tyler messaged me one day, saying, and I quote: “Can we shoot? I know you only photograph these desolate spots and buildings, but that is perfect! I want to be in these, treated like a sharp edge prop. Where the focus isn’t on me, but the space.” He found my work on Tumblr, which is funny as I don’t even use Tumblr. I think somebody must have posted my work on the platform.
It was an amazing experience working with him. He gave me all the creative freedom, didn’t oppose anything I suggested we try, and was a truly amazing person to work with, with absolutely no ego involved. I feel he understands other creatives, being one himself. I hope I can work with him again in the future.
It was a very relaxed shoot. I location scouted the day before the shoot and presented him with locations that I thought would work well. We met up in Palm Springs and drove to the locations he liked the most to photograph. He acted as his own makeup artist and stylist, and
I think he did a fantastic job. There was no big team involved – per his request, as he wanted to keep it relaxed. Without a doubt a dream project come true.
Do you think it’s difficult to get yourself establish as an artist today, considering the countless possibilities of learning about photography (and graphic design too) and its techniques supplied by Internet?
Well, I think it depends on what you want to do. But in general, yes. I think it’s a tough time to be an artist, especially now during this pandemic. As the popularity of photography has risen with the introduction of smartphones, so has quick consumption of content, which I think translated in a lot of photography work being devalued in people’s minds. And young photographers aren’t helping when they would do everything to be featured or exposed to more eyes, even giving away their work for free, or Instagram followers being perceived as something that speaks about the quality of your work (which is the farthest thing from the truth). Social media, in general, I think, is the main culprit here, which, if we dig deeper, operates in the main capitalistic values I mentioned before. But then again, nowadays as a photographer, you kind of have to embrace it. Also, the popularity of photography made everyone want to be a photographer, so there is a lot of competition nowadays, for sure.
I think we also need to ask ourselves what is established, really, or even better, as a photographer, what is it that you are trying to achieve or do with your photography? It’s a very subjective question, you know.
I know a lot of people living from photography nicely and can’t really say they are like Martin Parr, Stephen Shore, or Joel Meyerowitz – which in my mind are established, photographers.
I feel nowadays with the availability of so much information, the best thing one person can do, to keep themselves bulletproof for the future of automation, is to know how to do multiple things well.
A lot of times, I get a question: “Do you also do video, can you shoot digital and film or do you also post-process, etc.?” It’s not enough to only be a photographer; you have to have a skill set, quality of work, know people, nurture relationships, and have some luck too, to rise above the competition. But in the end, who am I to say that? There are so many factors that add or take from the success of the artist that I may not know about. What I am saying should only be taken as a very subjective opinion.
One last question Dino, where do you find the inspiration and which photographers or artists have influenced your production the most?
I find inspiration all around me. While most people like to list other photographers, I can say that I am the most influenced by the people in my life and the state of mind I am in. That said, I am inspired by music, photography, art, conversations, a rainy day, a road trip, a breakup, new attraction, etc. I have been really into exploring the moving image lately, especially from all the movies I watched with my girlfriend during this lockdown. I am exploring different genres of film from South Korean Cinema, European Cinema, and I must say that I do love almost everything that comes out of A24.
My favorite film from the last year was The Lighthouse from Robert Eggers. I can’t stop thinking about it – he truly is a master of storytelling which he already proved to me with his debut – The Witch. And that, to me, is something that I want to achieve with my work.
Something that leaves an imprint, and you think about it long after you see it. I hope I can achieve that with it to some extent.
I did already mention some artists in your previous questions, and would like to add Cleon Peterson, James Turrell, Dan Flavin, Curran Hatleberg, William Eggleston, Andreas Gursky and many more…
I am also very inspired and always like to discuss art and photography with my friends Nejc Prah, Cody Cobb, Arnaud Montagard and Reuben Wu. You should definitely check their work out.
Thank you very much Dino!
Thank you for the lovely questions! I am sending best wishes to you from New York. Hang in there and be safe!
Images © Dino Kužnik