top of page

Jennifer Scales - photographer, traveller and dreamer

Peissenberg | Germany

Jennifer Scales is a photographer based in Bavaria, Germany. The focus of her artwork is capturing the unique perception of travel – particularly train travel – using motion to create abstract landscape photography. While studying photo design in Munich (2003-07), she chose experimental photography as a main subject. After two years of exploring motion blur and camera movement, her diploma work "Der Weg ist das Ziel" (the journey is the destination) showed a wide range of landscapes in motion and was awarded top grades. Her solo exhibition in 2008 was the first of a number of national and international presentations – both in group and solo shows. Even though art had to take the back seat in 2010 when Jennifer became a (single) mother, she continued to work on her artistic position in smaller series. Focusing on specific trains such as the TGV (French high-speed train, 2009/10) or on specific locations as in her series "Made in China" (long distance and night trains in China and Taiwan, 2015), she refined her style of impressionist photography. 2021, the European Year of Rail, presented Jennifer with the opportunity to engage in a larger project again. She was selected to be part of the EU Commission's project "Connecting Europe Express". This special train zigzagged Europe for 36 days, and Jennifer was on board for half the journey, documenting European landscapes in 13 countries. It was also the inspiration for her current project, "Travelscapes" – a book with train views from across Europe, showing the uniqueness of each place in the universality of the travel experience. So far (Jan 2023), Jennifer has visited 24 European countries by train, mainly in Southern and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and is planning to cover Western Europe and the UK in 2023.

Jennifer, I know you are based in Germany, and your art genre is photography. Could you please tell us a little more about your background and your style of photography?

I often get asked where my English-sounding name comes from, given that I was born and raised in rural southern Germany. It's a funny story that can also give you an idea of the wanderlust that runs in my family. When my British grandfather needed a change of scenery after his divorce, he threw a dart at a map to let fate decide … he hit the Isle of Wight, went there, and met his second wife – a German woman who brought him to Bavaria. My dad later joined them there, which is why he grew up at the foot of the Alps and eventually met my mother. It's crazy to think that if my grandfather's dart had landed in a different spot, I might not even exist!

No wonder my photography involves a fondness for experimentation, the embrace of chance encounters, and a deep passion for travel. The technique I use is called ICM, or intentional camera movement. It involves physically moving the camera while taking a long exposure photograph, creating a sense of movement and abstraction. I love experimenting with slow shutter speeds and adding my own motion to dynamic subjects, from open flames to dancers with veils.

However, the one thing that I keep coming back to is capturing nature through the train window. Something about the train's motion, the fleeting glimpses of detail, and the constantly changing scenery inspire me. It's a way for me to capture both a moment in time and the experience of travel itself and document the nameless places that make up the journey between here and there.

I also have a passion for sustainable travel, and I believe that taking the train is not only more environmentally friendly than flying but also allows for a more gradual and connected experience. By capturing the beauty of train journeys, I hope to inspire others to appreciate sustainable travel and find joy in the journey itself.

Why did you choose photography as your artistic medium?

The love of photography came from my mother's side of the family. Her father, besides being an avid photographer himself, designed camera components, slide-framing machines, and studio lights throughout his career. My mum documented all our family vacations with her big Nikon SLR, so my earliest idea of photography revolves around this fascinating black leather box with velvet-clad compartments for the different lenses. When I got my first compact camera around the age of 10, I was surprised at how easy it was to document the world around me.

However, my real passion started in my senior year of high school. Living in small villages in rural Bavaria, there was little to do there for young people. So, when one day, I saw this guy who I knew from elementary school - standing in the middle of a meadow with a tripod. I was intrigued. I learned that he and a few others regularly met to go out on photo trips, and he invited me to come along. I borrowed my mother's Nikon (never to be returned), bought a few rolls of black-and-white film, and fell in love. I have always had an eye for unregarded details and little oddities "by the way". Photography finally allowed me to give these finds a stage, to capture and share my inner view. I started seeing the world in a different way, more aware of the beauty all around me.

In the end, there were three of us who totally went for it. We formed an artist group called "Blende 7", obsessed about composition, studied our "classics" like the works of Ansel Adams, and built a dark room in my cellar. When we weren't studying for our final exams, we spent our days outdoors, looking for interesting places and motives, setting up our tripods, and finetuning the settings. A lot of nights were spent in the dark room, developing the films and printing the results. I remember more than once coming up from the cellar after what felt like a few hours of work, only to see that it was dawn already. This was more than a hobby to me; this is what I wanted to do with my life. When we had our first group exhibition in 2002, I had already abandoned my "reasonable" studies to do an internship in a photo studio instead. The following year I got into one of Munich's highly coveted study places for photo design.

Can you describe your art practice and the process behind it?

Most of my series are created on longer trips, which offer the perfect opportunity for me to get into the flow of my work. My current goal is to photograph as many different European countries as possible, and these extended journeys allow me to immerse myself in different cultures and landscapes. However, I also make use of shorter train rides whenever possible.

When I am on the train, I always keep an eye out for windows that can be opened completely. In some places, mainly in Southeast Europe, there are still a lot of trains with this type of window, and it is the best possible setup for me. However, in Western Europe, this is rare, so I have to settle for finding a clean window without any reflections from the opposite side, which can be a challenge. Sometimes the space between two compartments is the best option.

I take my time to get a feel for the landscapes outside, noticing what's special about them, what's blossoming, and what trees and fields to expect. The photograph itself is a split-second decision. When I see something that catches my eye, I follow it with my camera, adjusting the speed of my motion to the object outside or the distance I want to focus on. After a day on the train, I have hundreds of images to go through. All the effects are created in-camera, but the raw images are often low-contrast and greyish due to dirty windows.

My current method of selection is to first do a quick round of yes/no decisions, selecting only the images that I deem worthy of a second glance and deleting the rest. Then I go through them again to get a feel for the collection. At this point, I will have one or two "first-glance favourites" that I open in Photoshop to see what's really there, doing a quick adjustment of contrast or re-cropping. I also love to zoom in to see the intricate details that often pop up in the middle of the chaos.

However, these digital images on my computer are only sketches with different levels of sophistication. I love to share them on Instagram, but I realize they are not "ready". The real artwork is born when I decide to print one of the images for an exhibition or the calendar I publish every year. I select images that work well together, determine the final crop and size (I use 2:3 and 1:2 formats), and fine-tune the editing to bring out the best in each image.

You have such a unique photography style; what was your journey into the art world like?

I love that question, even though it's a tough one. At times, I'm not even sure I have reached this fabled "art world". My diploma program was heavily geared towards craft rather than art, which made it difficult for me to position myself. It seemed to me that the "proper art students" had all the connections and knew the ropes, while I was totally clueless about the art world. Being an introvert in a culture where "see and be seen" is key wasn't helping either.

After checking out a few artists' residency programs and art prizes that all required "formal art education", I quickly decided that I didn't want to be part of the art world anyway. So, I focused on independent galleries and off-site creative events like the "Gallery behind the Trailer". In 2009, I turned my van into a mobile gallery to be able to travel and exhibit at the same time. As with the off-site events, having an abundance of ideas was never the problem – marketing, however, was. It always felt icky to advertise, and I somehow romanticized the idea of the poor artist who is true to her passion (which didn't stop me from thinking I might get "discovered" one day ;-)).

I did have a kind of a break in 2009 when I was invited by two collectors to do a big solo show in their location, “Galerie unterm Maulbeerbaum”. I could already see making a name for myself in the art world when in the middle of the preparations for the show, I got pregnant. Let’s say the circumstances were less than ideal, and I knew I would be a single mum from the beginning. So, in the summer of 2010, I opened my breakthrough exhibition seven months pregnant, sold a few works, and then said goodbye to my art career (and sleep).

In the following ten years, I have shown older works in group shows and worked on a few new series, but being the sole breadwinner and parent, I was often just too exhausted to do anything about my art. I didn’t feel like an artist, let alone have a place in the art world. I struggled with overwhelm, burnout, and depression, and it was only when a second burnout loomed in the first lockdown of 2020 that I gave up my day job and decided to allow myself to be an artist again. I used my financial cushion to get new equipment, invested in a new website and decided to give social media a try. I used the EU Year of Rail 2021 to come back with force – I talked my way into the EU Commission’s special train “Connecting Europe Express” and (thanks to my parents taking care of my son) had the opportunity to travel through 13 European countries within just 18 days.

I’m not sure if I have arrived in the “art world” yet but getting back to creating new works and showing them online and offline finally made me feel like an artist again.

Do you/did you have a mentor, and what did they teach you?

I will forever be grateful to my fashion photography professor. Although I had an appreciation for the creativity involved in fashion photography, I was spectacularly bad at the subject – maybe due to my total lack of interest in the fashion industry. One time, when I handed in a half-hearted assignment, he gave me a stern look and asked me: “So, what DO you like taking pictures of?”

I showed him my very first landscapes in motion, ICM pictures I had taken from a moving bus, and shared about my intense fascination for the subject. He urged me to develop my landscape photography and make it the focus of my diploma work. Even though we also had a professor of experimental photography, he became my thesis advisor. At the time, this validation that the experimentation with my camera had value as a subject was crucial for my confidence and motivation. I am sure that without that conversation, I would not have stuck with this subject for long enough to master and enjoy it in the way I do now.

What is your favorite photograph you've ever taken and why?

It's always hard for me to pick just one favourite photograph because each one captures a unique moment that I treasure. Every time I review the results of a photo shoot, I am filled with excitement to discover new gems among the images, and my "current favourite" is usually from one of my most recent trips. However, there are a few images that have had a special place in my heart for years. One of them is "Lichter Wald", a photograph I took back in 2007 as part of my diploma work. It's a view from the train line that runs through my hometown, just a few kilometres away from my parents' house. The forest was alive with the vibrant, fresh green of young beech leaves, and the sunlight filtering through them made the scene look like it was bathed in green gold. Even though the photo was taken with my less-than-professional first digital camera, it somehow turns 6 megapixels into an abundance of details and layers. When I look at this photograph, I'm transported back to that moment of pure joy and wonder. I see the visual distillation of spring. I have shown this image in many exhibitions, and in 2018 I finally printed it the size I always wanted: 100x150cm. It's currently on display at a health centre in my hometown, and I hope it continues to inspire others to appreciate the beauty of the world around us.

Are there any places you still wish to travel to and capture a moment with your photography?

Oh, there are so, so many! I am particularly fascinated by long-distance train lines.

I dream of taking the California Zephyr, exploring Canada's beauty on the Rocky Mountaineer, or crossing Australia from West to East on the Indian Pacific and North to South on the Ghan. There's India, a whole subcontinent with a dense train network cutting through fascinating landscapes – I think I could spend a year or two there. And, of course, I hope for the day that it is once again possible to discover Ukraine by train, cross over to the East and take the Trans-Siberian Railway.

None of these plans are compatible with having a school-aged child, especially because I avoid flying whenever possible. But who knows, maybe it will be easier to book sailboats for intercontinental travel in a few years, and I'll head off on a flight-free trip for the world's greatest railways.

In the meantime, I have easy access to so many great routes here in Europe. I have a never-ending fascination or the fact that all the tracks I travelled on so far are physically connected as a network of steel. The track that runs through Peißenberg is, in a way, the same one that crosses the arctic circle on the way to Narvik or reaches the Atlantic in Portugal or the Mediterranean in Greece. For my ongoing exploration of Europe, I plan to visit the British Isles this summer – I can't wait to document the beauty of the Scottish Highlands or the green jewel that is Ireland from a train.

What advice would you give single moms pursuing their artistic careers?

To be honest, I don't feel qualified to give advice as I struggled so much with being an artist and a single mom at the same time, especially when my son was younger. In hindsight, I think I should have taken more time for art. Or actually – any time at all. I worked as a freelancer for most of my life and always found a babysitter or childcare to cover for the time I did client work. But asking my parents to take my son just so I could do art? That didn't feel right.

For me, economic worries were taking up a lot of my mental capacity, and so I felt since I didn't make money from my photography, I couldn't invest energy in it. It took me a long time to realize that not being creative was impacting my mental health and ability to be a good mother.

So, my advice to other single mom artists is this: take the time for your art, even if it's just an hour a week. If you can afford it, get a babysitter. If you can't, ask family and friends. It's not selfish; it's necessary for your well-being and your ability to be the best mom you can be. Being an artist is not something you can put on hold for a few years – I've learned that the hard way.

What are you currently working on?

I'm currently working on a book project with the working title "Travelscapes". It was inspired by one of the greatest trips of my life, my 2021 experience on the Connecting Europe Express. I crossed 13 different countries in less than three weeks on board this special train in celebration of the EU Year of Rail. Being in constant motion and crossing borders almost every day introduced a new perspective to my artwork. As we were crossing Europe from West to East, I became increasingly interested in capturing the gradual change of landscape. I wondered if it was possible to capture each country's unique character, even amid the rushing details.

As I was enjoying the first time in a decade that I was on a solo adventure and able to reflect on artistic questions, I decided to explore "the rest" of Europe on my own in the following years. Since 2021, I have visited another 14 countries by train, adding a "South to North" perspective.

I am planning to organize the book in a way that presents the images in a seemingly endless succession, following a gradual change that you will only notice when you compare the beginning and end – Similar to the landscape that changes rapidly from field to forest to town, yet gradually shifts its character over long distances. My goal is to take the audience along on an imaginary train ride, discovering the beauty of Europe.

What is your proudest accomplishment to date?

Looking back, I'm most proud of being part of the Connecting Europe Express. Not just because it kickstarted my return to art photography but because it represented a significant milestone in my journey to regain my confidence as an artist.

In 2020, I was pushed to my limits. Working remotely while homeschooling was a never-ending juggling act that left me feeling like I was constantly dropping balls. The pressure of getting the same workload done in reduced hours, on top of the added responsibility of being my son's teacher, was suffocating. It wasn't long before my anxiety peaked, and I began to show symptoms of depression. When I finally left my job, I was utterly depleted. Luckily, I had parted with a severance that allowed me to take some time to figure out what to do next.

I decided to take a leap of faith and invest in my artistic career. I bought a new camera, hired a web designer, and set up an Instagram account. However, I was haunted by imposter syndrome. Having created very few new works and with only one or two significant exhibitions in the past decade, I felt like a "has been" and had no recent stories to tell.

Then I heard about the Connecting Europe Express, a special train crossing all of Europe in celebration of the EU Year of Rail 2021. I didn't know how, but I had to be on that train! It was hard for me to present myself as an artist worthy of contributing, but I stepped way outside my comfort zone to do it anyway. The Connecting Europe Express was never intended for artists, and the places they had available were meant for journalists and politicians joining the train for a few hours. The photographers on board were booked for PR purposes, so I had no real category to fit in as someone who would artistically accompany the journey.

This may be one of the reasons I didn't get any response aside from a vague "we'll pass it on" (another, of course, being that with Covid, it was totally unclear if the project could be realized at all). However, as the scheduled date came closer, I started exploring different routes of communication. Overcoming all my people-pleasing, compromising, and "never-wanting-to-annoy-anyone" tendencies, I contacted the office of the EU transport commissioner. That's when I finally got the chance to talk to someone about my idea and secure my place on board.

To this day, I am proud of myself for insisting because this trip kickstarted my return to art photography. It was such a liberating experience that added a whole new layer to the intent of my work. It inspired my current book project, connected me to the fascinating world of railway enthusiasts, and gave me a whole new appreciation of our infrastructure in Europe. I was so terrified to leave my comfort zone so far behind, but it was worth it!


bottom of page