Whether it’s snow-covered mountains or the rugged Alaskan wilderness, photographer Jennifer Russell’s landscapes are dreamy—and therapeutic.
About seven years ago, Jennifer Russell embarked on her first-ever journey by train—a day-long trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska.
“This particular train winds through the most breathtaking, natural landscaping anyone could ask for,” she tells me. “It’s warm inside the cars, but you have the opportunity to step in-between cars to poke a lens out into the fresh, cold mountain air for some good, unobscured views of the snowy hillsides.”
At the time, Russell’s family was stationed in Kodiak, Alaska. She and a friend had boarded the train with a singular goal in mind—to see the Northern Lights. Fairbanks is located just beneath the Auroral Oval, making it a coveted destination for viewing the lights on clear nights.
The journey was a quiet, peaceful one. As she traversed a pristine landscape, the photographer found herself pausing to take in the in-between moments along the way from one place to another.
Sometimes, she poked her lens outdoors, and others, she captured the view from the window as the train rolled past.
“Putting the beauty of Alaska into words is nearly impossible,” Russell admits. “Alaska is known as The Last Frontier because the majority of the state is rugged wilderness. The train winds through some of the most otherwise untouched land I have ever encountered.”
For the photographer, beauty lies not only in the epic, once-in-a-lifetime vistas but also in the more hushed, mundane scenes of everyday life.
“I enjoy the challenge of creating art from ordinary moments,” she says.
Beyond her role as a fine art photographer, Russell is a passionate practitioner of therapeutic photography—or the use of photography as a form of self-care.
“There are a million and one ways my camera has gotten me through the stress of a difficult week,” she explains.
Making pictures every day helps her stay mindful and grounded in the present moment. Much like entries in a diary, photographs can capture our memories and emotions in real time.
Right now, Russell is pursuing her clinical social work license. She’s interested in alternative approaches to caring for our mental health, including photography and other forms of self-expression.
“Therapeutic photography is the intentional use of photography in a way that is healing,” she explains. “This can be done in many different ways. My specific interest lies with understanding how we can use photography to address the mental health crisis in the United States. I believe photography allows someone to better understand themselves through studying their own work and sharing it with others.”
In therapeutic photography, as in fine art, there are no rules. Moments of poetic “imperfection”—such as motion blur or reflections—are embraced rather than feared.
On the train, as Russell watched one landscape melt into another, she kept her camera ready: a Nikon D750 and 35mm Sigma lens. Known for its versatility, the 35mm focal length allowed her to get wider shots while also capturing a view similar to what the human eye would see in real life.
Similarly, details from the interior of the train remain visible, adding another dimension to Russell’s work. The windows themselves acted as the ideal compositional device, creating a natural frame within a frame.
“I am a documentary-style photographer and typically include pieces of my own environment to give the viewer a feeling of standing in the room with me,” she says. “My goal was to photograph the journey itself, not only the destination.’
“On a moving train, it came down to pressing the shutter at just the right moment before missing the perfect shot or safely sticking my lens into the freezing air in-between cars without dropping my camera or getting frostbite.”
In the snow-covered mountains, where it was cold enough to freeze the artist’s eyelashes, the warmth of the train car proved a welcome respite.
License these images via Jennifer Russell Images x2.
Russell made her first train trip to Fairbanks in wintertime, when it’s dark enough to see the Aurora Borealis in all its glory.
“It’s primarily dark throughout the winter months in Fairbanks,” Russell tells me. “The sun rises just enough to be called dawn, casting orange and pink hues all over the snow-white landscape before shifting right back into sunset.”
Once she arrived in Fairbanks, she bundled up in several layers of clothing (and snow boots) and set out in search of the Northern Lights. Chasing the Aurora meant traveling off the beaten path and exploring areas far from civilization and light pollution, but she was prepared for the trek.
As it happened, she was traveling with another photographer who had experience shooting in extreme, remote conditions.
Russell brought a sturdy tripod and remote shutter release with her—two essential accessories for photographing the night sky. Since the lights change so quickly, she chose gloves that allowed her to have full manual control of her exposure settings.
“Shooting the Northern Lights is a joyful experience in settings—there a lot of different artistic directions you can go,” she reflects.
“The lights themselves dance throughout the skies; however, the brightness of the lights can vary significantly. I tend to slow the shutter to bring out the colorful lights and their movement, and keep the ISO low enough to avoid grain when possible.”
As she drove around Fairbanks looking for quiet areas with plenty of open sky, she happened upon a frozen lake. On that lake, she spotted a tiny fishing hut in the distance. She broke into a run the moment she saw it.
By the time she got to the hut, the lights were dancing directly overhead. At long last, she’d reached her final destination.
For more work from Jennifer Russell, be sure to visit her Shutterstock portfolio, Jennifer Russell Images, and her photography website. You can see all the images from Russell’s first journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks over on her blog.
License this cover image via Jennifer Russell Images. https://enterprise.shutterstock.com/image-photo/view-rural-winter-landscape-1876494415