Views from Dark Places



Moving to Washington state has not been easy for me. After living in the beauty of Deep Springs Valley, almost any change would have been difficult, but nevertheless it feels like we have faced constant headwinds and disappointments since the day we chose to come here. This has been true for my photography as well. Washington was the last state in the west in which I had not lived, worked or spent significant time, but I felt that my experience in neighboring states and my decade-plus of serious photography would ease the transition. But honestly, I have been stunned by just how foreign Washington feels, even here east of the Cascades, and by how difficult it has been to feel any real connection to this landscape. I have felt voiceless up here and it has a times been intensely frustrating and depressing.


Inlet, Ice

During last winter and spring, I made a conscious decision to tackle my disconnection by attempting to make images with darker sides. Nature photography has a reputation, sometimes deserved, for offering only saccharine feel-good images of flowers and sunsets. I’ve always tried to look deeper in my work, but this year I’ve really leaned into expressing harsher emotions. I’ve been quite jealous of musicians’ ability to evoke frustration or sadness with just a few bars, as well as of painters’ option to assault a canvas with pigment in a physically expressive way. I can’t find a direct equivalent in photography, handling a camera angrily achieves nothing (if your experience is different I’d be interested in hearing about it!). Instead I’ve been doing lots of experimentation and searching for subject matter and compositions with harsher or more austere aesthetics and darker symbolism.

Basalt Lace 2

(I should probably add before going further: I’m alright. Frustrations certainly continue, but none of my personal friends reading this should feel any need to be alarmed or to intervene, though emails, phone calls and blog comments are always welcome and appreciated. And any artists who find that this resonates with them should be sure not to neglect getting any support and help they may need!)

Island and Isthmus

Minimalism is always a promising approach to this sort of work.



Seeing how minimal I could go:



A more traditional landscape, but in a very minor key:

Orchard Winter Light

Winter Orchards

Winter is a natural season to work the dark side, but I found spring surprisingly productive in this regard too. Coming to the Northwest, even the to the rain shadow, was a huge change from the clean beauty of the desert, and the riotous growth certainly lends itself to tense, chaotic visuals and symbolism.







These two images in many ways epitomize my experience of the last eight months. Tangled, thwarted, patternless obstruction, nothing worthwhile visible on the other side. I tried these in black and white, but felt that treatment gave them an elegance I did not want, so I left them in muted, unattractive color.





I’m know this kind of work is not to everyone’s taste, but I appreciate your looking: regularly scheduled programing of flowers and mountains will resume shortly. Have any of my readers attempted to wrestle with negative emotion through nature and landscape photography, either as creator or viewer? I’d be very curious to hear other people’s observations on the subject.

Basalt Lace

14 thoughts on “Views from Dark Places

  1. Your writing certainly gives these photos a depth of meaning that I wouldn’t have appreciated otherwise. It’s nice to make that connection, particularly since it’s usually very difficult for me to read human emotions in nature photos (beyond obviously “moody” ones). I wish you well making a connection to Washington. Is it the landscapes, weather, or people that seem so foreign to you, or all of it?

    • Thanks, Jack! Yeah, you see a lot of writing about emotion and artistry in photos, but very few people seem willing to get specific and personal. I wish both photographers and viewers would put cards on the table more often and talk about exactly what they get from an image. I realize, though, that that’s often very challenging to put into words. There’s always that element in art of, “If I could talk about it, I wouldn’t have to do it.”

      Washington: Some of it’s definitely social and there’s a lot that relates to specific dysfunctions of where we’re living. And it didn’t help that we literally didn’t see the sun for forty days after we moved here – I would have expected that in Seattle, but it was a surprise here in “The Palm Springs of Washington.” But I think a big part of it has to do with how settled the eastern Washington landscape is, and the lack of public land. There aren’t really any big acreages in eastern Washington where you can just wander and explore and feel lost in the vastness. Every other western state has plenty of that, and the lack of it here kind of blindsided me. Big Ag is everywhere, the Columbia and Snake are dead rivers with all the dams, the best tract of open land is open because it’s full of nuclear waste – Washington is hammered environmentally. The Channeled Scablands are interesting and have some neat stuff, but so far everywhere I go is hemmed in with orchards and power lines, more like hiking in an urban preserve. I know the North Cascades have big country, maybe I’ll fall in love with that (hopefully I’m heading into the Glacier Peak Wilderness tomorrow), but it’s rough not having those exploration opportunities for so much of the year.

      More positively,though, wildflowers here are the bomb, the big steep mountains beckon, I liked the Palouse way more than I thought I would, and I’ve gotten some glimpses of that vastness I like driving through the eastern Scablands. I have a long list of good stuff I want to check out.

      • Oh, that’s interesting about Washington, I didn’t realize that! Well, hopefully you’ll find some sweet open landscapes anyhow, and of course like you mentioned the mountains and backpacking there are incredible (at least in the summer, I suppose). I lived in Washington for a year right after college (Seattle for the summer, then spent the winter working/snowboarding at Stevens Pass, lived in Merritt). The first time it rained for 7 days straight I was like W.T.F. is this?! Then in the winter it seemed to snow nonstop which was great. I remember once after two weeks of snow the sun came out briefly and all of the sudden I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen shadows! The NW certainly felt very foreign to me; the whole vibe of the mountains/forests/water is so different, often dreary but also so majestic too. I still miss it sometimes, and would love to spend a summer out there backpacking around. Good luck, hopefully it gets better!

    • Yeah, simply upping my snow game would probably go a long way. It’s a very long time since I lived somewhere where that’s necessary. Hopefully I’ll have more opportunity this winter than last.

  2. I don’t want to employ the idea of the ‘tormented artist’ that in her or his pain and desperation produces a strong body of work… but the thought inevitably occurred to me. This is a fabulous set of images! I do not necessarily perceive it as ‘dark’ but it’s certainly very personal work.

    You know that I can VERY very much relate to the idea of having lost connection to a place – it took me quite some years to connect to truly connect to Southern California after moving here from Germany. Looking back at the photos that I made during that time, I can see the same struggle in them that you describe, and that I see in your photos – ENJOY seeing in your photos (I mean, not the struggle itself, but its artistic expression, this SEARCH).

    And at the same time though, I’m glad that I HAVE these photos – they’re different, and a document to this process. So – don’t stop, keep going, keep making photos. You’ll be glad to have them, too. Kudos & Happy Fourth, Jackson!

  3. The monochromatic images above are superb.

    I empathize with your sentiment regarding your new location. The stillness, the open space, and the stark grandeur of the desert West are hard to get out of one’s system.

  4. Pingback: Artichoke Thistle | Alexander S. Kunz Photography

  5. A tough transition. They just are sometimes. Maybe it has eased by now. You did a smart thing by searching for a way to express the discomfort in your art, and these images are wonderful, I think. I like the way you describe the process, your thoughts, the feelings. It’s refreshing to see someone devoted to photography – maybe especially nature photography – going deeper. “Dormant” is beautiful….”Drifted” and “Winter Orchards” together are an interesting pair – looking at the more abstract image pulls one to see the abstraction in the more traditional image. Those beautiful curves. I like the barely restrained power of “Underwater.” The tangles, and their parallel in your life, are particularly interesting. I’ve felt that frustration, and the photos (with your words) communicate it well, but I also have enjoyed the complex beauty of tangles of vegetation. I’ve tried, with little success, to photograph it coherently. To me, “Choked” with its all-over pattern is quite beautiful.
    “Regularly scheduled….” made me laugh. I wish I could say I felt I’d successfully expressed difficult emotions in art, but I don’t know that I have. More often, it’s the cliche of feeling frustrated, then getting outdoors with a camera and feeling better after losing my ego for a while. Probably that’s because I’m not currently dealing with a lot of difficulty. And maybe by now, the struggle has eased off. In any case you seem to be dealing with it with grace and intelligence. One other thought – switching the venue – trying indoor still lifes around the house, or street scenes – might be interesting as a way of shaking something free, then returning refreshed.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment, sorry I’m just now getting round to replying! I too have generally used photography as an opportunity to go out and find some beauty, whether in the spectacular or in the mundane. Attempting something else was tricky, to say the least. Happily, I’ve set this particular quest aside for the summer, but it will definitely be on my mind in the future. Thanks so much for looking and taking time to comment!

      • Don’t worry about when you reply – I am chronically behind with blogs, comments emails, etc. I look forward to whatever comes next. :-)

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