On the Road With Dino Kuznik

American Southwest Mountains and road

Dino Kuznik’s photographs of the American West combine visual crispness with crafted nostalgia. In his series, Shaped by the West, vintage cars sit in front of midcentury houses beneath clear blue skies, and a stately palm tree lurks behind a boarded-up gas station. Kuznik’s relationship with the Western landscape began during his childhood in Slovenia: he saw it depicted in movies, and in music. As he and friends skateboarded, listened to and played punk music, they dreamed of beaches and living in California someday. Then, in 2013, Kuznik did move to the Golden State to take a design job in San Francisco. On weekends, he would drive away from the city and explore the surroundings. He now lives and works in New York, where he often photographs the urban environment, but he still travels often to capture the mythologized Western landscape. Here, he talks about his work, his early experiences with photography, living in the United States, and composing road trip playlists. 

What was it like growing up in Slovenia? What did you know or think about the U.S. at that time?

I have fond memories of my childhood and remember my younger years and teens as a really carefree time when I only cared about skateboarding, video games, music, my guitar and girls. I was also hugely influenced by American culture at that time. Slovenia succeeded from Yugoslavia in 1991, and after that, it was hugely westernized. I still remember the day we got cable TV. It was mind blowing. Cartoon Network, MTV, CNN… These were the channels I was glued to and they all introduced me to the American culture. I was very into punk rock in my teens, and because a lot of bands I listened to originated from there, I thought California was the most heavenly place in the world. We had a punk rock band at the time, and I remember we were daydreaming of moving to California one day. Funny thing is, I actually did. 

When did you pick up photography? What inspired you to do so?

My grandfather was partially to blame for that. He was a hobby photographer and had National Geographic magazines from the 60s and a bunch of photo books that we browsed together when I was a kid. I was also shooting on a point-and-shoot on family vacations down in Croatia every summer. But it wasn’t until college when I bought my first DSLR that I got more serious about photography.

I was always more of a visual person: I was drawing a lot, into graphic design, etc., and having a camera just felt very organic, an extension of that. Shortly after I started taking photos, I also started working in photography as a student — first as a journalistic photographer and then also as a retoucher and studio assistant. I got a lot of experience and saw what I liked and disliked about the profession of a photographer in Slovenia. This, in part, helped me define what I wanted photography to be for me or what kind of relationship I wanted to have with it.

Abandoned roadside attraction in desertVintage motel sign against blue sky

When did you move to the U.S.? Was it what you imagined it to be as a kid in Slovenia?

In May of 2013, I moved to San Francisco [for a graphic design position]. I was very visually stimulated, as everything was different than back home. Architecture, streets, nature, people, food — it was all so intriguing to me. I remember I shot around 20 rolls of film in just three or four days. But there were some aspects of the United Stated that bothered me. You see Slovenia is a very social country and we mostly take care of people if they are in need… The homelessness in San Francisco made me so sad when I saw it. I was really saddened to see people that need care just being discarded on the streets. Nobody cared. The contrast between the super rich and really poor could be seen every day when I walked to work. Education and healthcare are free back home and my first doctor and dentist visit was a realization about the system in America. A lot of new friends that I met had student debt and that was just mind blowing to me: You are trying jumpstart an adult life and you already have debt — crazy. These are the aspects that I still have a problem with and may eventually make me move back to Europe, but I really hope for a change in the leadership in American politics, so something is done about this. I think medical aid and education should be a human right and not something for the privileged and rich.

What attracted you to the American Southwest?

I lived in San Francisco for three years, so me and my friends always tried to go out of the city on the weekends. Traveling around California was an amazing experience to me, so I started documenting our trips. I think because of my upbringing and being so surrounded by the American culture, I tend to be attracted to very “Americana” motives. I always have a sense of peace when I am back in the West. I feel like I belong and my soul seems at ease, but that is in part also because of photography, which is kind of my [therapy] so to speak.

What interests you about desolate landscapes and the idea of solitude?

I get this feeling of fulfillment when I am alone, shooting the things around me that catch my eye. I get into this meditative state — it’s hard to describe it, but it feels great. I can say that this is a very therapeutic feeling and it kind of heals me. 

horse standing by cactus in desert

Why is it important to go on the road trips alone?

I think the solitude is important to me as I want to be with my thoughts and that feeling. I might not really be good company when I am “in the zone.” Also, I do not have to care about anything or anybody and their needs, so it’s really nice to just have this sense of freedom. I can go anywhere, anytime: [I can] wake up super early to catch the morning light or be alone in the dark in a national park shooting long exposures.

What is on your road trip soundtrack?

It depends on my mood. But I would say I usually start with some stoner-y psychedelic rock. When I’ve listened to everything and need a change, I would usually switch on a nice podcast, mostly focused on photography, art, technology, etc. I am also very open to different genres of music as I think that if you are open and learn from the things you don’t understand, you progress mentally and your taste with it. Now if we are actually talking artists, I have a playlist which includes Queens of the Stone Age, Ty Segall, Black Mountain, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Dead Meadow, Fuzz, Neu!, Follakzoid, Holydrug Couple, Moon Duo, etc. This is usually the one I start with as I add to it constantly and then diverge into more electronic, doom-ish, punk-rock-ish, hip-hop-ish music — depending on the mood. Right now, I am listening to the new album from Tyler the Creator called Igor. I shot with him recently, so that’s even more exciting.

Much of your work has an otherworldly or almost post-apocalyptic feeling. Are you inspired by science fiction at all?

Yes, of course, I can say that I am. I am usually inspired by things that make me think or leave an impact on me. Now that can be a new album from an artist I like, a movie I watch or book I read. But I am for sure inspired by sci-fi movies like Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, Ex Machina and Under the Skin. I [also] read some science-fiction books and comics, and while I do like them, I think the inspiration comes from the moving image the most. I am also planning some video work at the end of this year, so the inspiration will definitely come in handy there.

Where do you want to shoot next?

I will be always going back to the West, but I would love to go to South America — the Patagonia region is something I would love to explore. And on the other side, I want to go to Asia — Japan especially. These are the destinations I think I will visit soon, but there are still a lot of states in the U.S. I want to go and explore. It surely is a huge landscape [with] many motives to be discovered.