Into the Dark with Linda Westin

Linda Westin - Deep blue night

Stockholm-based photographer Linda Westin creates fantastical images at night. Through careful illumination of trees, shrubs, cacti, and other types of natural vegetation, Westin weaves a dreamlike atmosphere that offers viewers an entirely new way of seeing the outside world. Badlands spoke with Linda about her background and what motivates her to pursue images in the dark.

Tell me a little about your background and what inspired you to pursue photography.

My background is a little erratic. I started out with photography when I was very young working in the darkroom on the local newspaper and doing late-night concert photography on the local music club. I had more artistic side projects and a few small exhibitions. During that time I learned Photoshop. After a few years, I left the newspaper to pursue general arts and went to art schools for some years to finally specialize in painting. Then I made an abrupt change and ended up studying engineering physics and finally a PhD in neuroscience. During my PhD I used novel microscopy techniques to study synapses in single neurons using fluorescent molecules. I never quit photography completely and worked weekends and evenings to support my art school and academic years.

Your images are beautiful and fantastical. A heightened interpretation of reality. Painterly. Was there a moment in your photographic journey when you made this leap from naturalistic to surrealistic? Did you feel limited creatively by natural light and the camera?

Thank you. I’ve always been drawn to the more artistic side of photography. Working with fantasy images or kind of dreamlike storytelling. When I decided to pursue painting I definitely felt limited by the camera. Or my own relation to photography at least. I was so dependent on people and environments, which doesn’t really fit with my creativity or personality. I’m really the most free when I’m in solitude. I think the defining moment, when I also felt I was completely free with the medium, was when I started my forest night project. I’ve always been drawn to darkness. There is something you can experience, which is just not there daytime. It’s dense, dreamy and scary and you get to see things in new ways. You also have to learn to trust yourself to be alone in nature, to feel safe enough to focus on the imaging and being free creatively. But for it to work at all you need light sources just to navigate. So the use of flashlight was forced for me and I just accidentally started using it in my images as well. Previously I did only natural light (in dark settings). My sense of freedom and creativity just took off from that single thing with the external light source, to work with light dynamically during long exposures. I think I at that time also was very influenced by microscopy imaging techniques and felt technically more mature to explore new ways of imaging nature.

Outside of photography, who or what has influenced your work most?

It’s so difficult to say. I have a broad interest in visual arts and sciences. But I would say that scientific imaging maybe has influenced me the most. Because I felt my photography was reborn in a way with the experiences from fluorescence microscopy. Not that what I do now has anything to do with scientific imaging, but my general methodology has definitely been influenced by my years in science.

Linda Westin - Tribute to The Muppets
“Tribute to The Muppets”

Where do you create most of your images? Are these environments near where you live?

I live in Stockholm and most images are taken in Stockholm with surroundings. Sometimes I go an hour south to a surf beach with low light pollution levels for starry nights. It’s a very isolated place with a beautiful pine tree forest just by the beach. I love that forest, the ground is covered with soft moss and the trees are bent and stretched and quenched, like people, and it’s just wonderful to walk around there and explore the different shapes and subforests. I usually get the sense of being indoors but outdoors, in compartments of the forests, a small biological volume with a view (night sky) that has no limit. I hang out a lot in botanical gardens close to the city as well, after closing hours. I love the cactus garden Mossen Costa i Llobera in Barcelona where one of my brothers live.

How much planning and preparation goes into a typical image? Do you find subjects during the day, then return at night? Or do you always find subjects in the dark?

I do both, but mostly the night exploration is part of the experience for me and the major reason why I do this. I more frequently go out in the forest just to be there. The imaging has become second to the experience even if it can add something as well to the moment. And later on it’s really wonderful to get to share it too by posting images. Now I go out when the conditions are the best for the skies, clear and usually moonless sky with no or a low density of clouds. For me it works best to both experience and image stars. Light pollution levels need to be quite low, so I usually travel a bit.

Speaking of the dark, I would guess you’ve come across wildlife, insects, or perhaps lost your way. Any stories you’d care to share?

There is definitely wildlife where I go. But it’s so dark, my eyes tend to focus upwards and I listen to loud music so I think I miss most of the animal life that goes on around me. One of the places I go to in the northern part of Sweden has bears and venomous snakes, so there I tend to be a bit more alert to the surroundings than in Stockholm. In Stockholm I’ve seen wild boars, cats, foxes and deer in the surroundings where I shoot. But in the imaging moments my mind is elsewhere. I never lost my way, because I navigate using my phone. Worst thing that has happened is I’ve misplaced my phone, but fortunately, I have 2 so I could locate the lost one again. Even though you can drift off during imaging I would never allow myself to get completely lost in wild nature, I have too much respect for that. The most scary things I’ve done and experienced is shooting forests or gardens close to the city, for instance, a very large and beautiful cemetery in Stockholm, Skogskyrkogården. That place is absolutely magical, but night time I’ve been so scared by encountering single people lurking around where I shoot. That’s the only place I left because I just was too scared.

Linda Westin on Instagram