10 Conceptual Photographers Who Compose Visions of Surreal Darkness

Mikael Aldo, fiery door, eerie woman

The exploration of ideas and human experience is at the heart of conceptual photography. Despite its lengthy history—arising from the mind-centered works of artists such as Marcel Duchamp—conceptual art and photography have never been defined as official movements, but rather as creative methodologies.

However, many young artists today are using photography in combination with Photoshop and other photo-editing tools to visually express, with surreal and symbolic imagery, the nuances of the human spirit and psyche. Quite often, as is the nature of life, these scenes become dark. The result is a growing body of photographers who powerfully channel their own personal narratives into fearless and poetic explorations of sorrow, alienation, and death.

Top: Mikael Aldo’s “The Beginning of Ashes” explores the inevitable and fatal effects of deforestation on all living things.
Kyle Thompson, Graveyard Girls, three ghosts, women
“Graveyard Girls” was a haunting collaboration between Kyle Thompson and Marissa Bolen.

Kyle Thompson

Kyle Thompson is a Portland-based photographer who takes beautifully eerie portraits and self-portraits set in deep woods and abandoned buildings. He has an incredible ability to obscure meaning to reveal the ephemeral, emotional present. Featured here is “Graveyard Girls,” wherein three dreary, clay-colored women personify the quiet, life-draining experience of despair.

Mark Harless, drowned man and woman
The work of Mark Harless frequently depicts the human body interacting with nature in symbolic and emotional ways.

Mark Harless

In this haunting image by Mark Harless (aka, Bleeblu), two figures lie side-by-side in a shallow pool. With their pale backs left to the empty air and shoulders lightly touching, they suggest a relationship between intimacy and death. Harless often explores the vulnerability of the nude figure in nature, and he has an astounding ability to explore both darkness and transformative beauty.

Amy Haselhurst, Broken Sundowns, woman in fiery fog, destruction
The visual poetry of Amy Haselhurst: a dark figure emerges from the steam in Hverir, Iceland.

Amy Haselhurst

No one quite shows symbolic moments of both power and sensitivity like Amy Haselhurst. When it comes to conceptual photography, she focuses on composing images that explore the interior landscapes of the human mind. This one—depicting a shadowy figure emerging from the steam—invokes a cathartic, double-sense of apocalyptic dread and the euphoria of survival. The fact that we can’t see her face makes her surreal presence evermore interpretable.

Jackson McGoldrick, floating body
Gravity ceases to exist in Jackson McGoldrick’s dream-like portraiture.

Jackson McGoldrick

Jackson McGoldrick mixes darkly surreal elements into his spellbinding portraiture. Nature has a solemn and supernatural presence in his works; bodies engage in deep rituals under stormy or tree-filled skies. This self-portrait depicts McGoldrick suspended in the air, as if torn between two worlds.




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Hieronimus captures sorrow and isolation in this rainy, blue-toned photo of a woman at the edge of a river.

Chris Hieronimus

Chris Hieronimus’ washed-out conceptual scenes convey the states of melancholia and contemplation. Embodying sadness, courage, and self-awareness, his ethereal subjects wander down empty roads, through fog-choked fields, or curl beneath the roots of an old tree. Hieronimus’ artistic mantra is “the change is me,” referring to the power of human passion and creativity to enact positive transformation.

Kavan the Kid, model Lauren Kopp, dark photo with hands over a woman's eyes
Kavan Cardoza uses conceptual photography to communicate inner worlds of darkness and mystery.

Kavan The Kid

The work of Kavan Cardoza (aka, Kavan the Kid) leads us into the darker side of human experience. His images are passionate, beautiful, and often bloody, using vivid colors and cryptic imagery to evoke visceral feelings in the viewer. This image, titled “Darkest Secrets,” inspires a simultaneous fear of and attraction towards the unknown.

Laura Makabrasku, bare chest, sacrfice
Intimacy, beauty, and death breathlessly collide in the story-filled images of Laura Makabresku.

Laura Makabresku

Myth and fairy tale play an important role in the work of Polish photographer Laura Makabresku. From the River of Styx to the murky forests of the brothers Grimm, she creates worlds full of emotional allegories—beauty, youth, death, and dreams arrive through otherworldly visions of sacrifice and spiritual communion with animals.

Mikael Aldo, skull-faced boy under water
Mikael Aldo takes an eerie dip in a fish pond with a grisly skull.

Mikael Aldo

From personal journeys to global issues of deforestation, conceptual photography provides the ideal medium for Mikael Aldo to weave deeply emotional stories. The above image, titled “Imminently Living,” features Aldo himself, submerged under the water and holding a skull over his face. His underwater body coupled with the grim visage seems to express the vulnerability of life and the ever-looming presence of death.

Gabriel Isak, In a Dream, spiralling staircase and darkness
A recurring dream inspired Isak to create this image of a staircase descending into darkness.

Gabriel Isak

To view the work of Gabriel Isak is to walk through the realms of the unconscious. His images are characterized by solitary figures set against dark and vast landscapes. Emanating with both serenity and desolation, the faceless subjects become embodiments of the viewer’s own emotional wanderings. The long staircase, for example, signifies a drop-off into the unknown, but the viewer manifests what lies at the bottom—terror, transition, or both.

Alex Stoddard, In the Wake of Thunder, girl, storm clouds and a flock of birds
“In the Wake of Thunder”: Stoddard’s melancholic subject, swarming with insects, invokes the emotional gravity of a storm.

Alex Stoddard

Alex Stoddard’s growing collection of unique and narrative-rich images will seize your imagination. He knows how to seamlessly blend reality into dark fantasy; among his gallery, pale sea-witches haunt rocky shores, nude figures peer from shadowy forests, and a young man (modeled by Stoddard himself) drinks from a fountain of blood. If you’re interested in learning more about conceptual photography, Stoddard’s world is a great place to explore.

Photos © respective artists.
Hayley Evans

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Hayley is a freelance writer and editor hailing from the West Coast of Canada. Her affinity is with the written word and anything that is dark, beautiful, erotic, or strange. Follow the author @ Twitter , Instagram, and view more articles.