Creative spirits don’t always find their niche.

Sometimes artists quit before finding the right medium or the right inspiration to drive them forward. But then there’s Ellen Kuntz, who discovered at 17 that she couldn’t draw or paint, but photography helped her to reveal herself to the world.

The 2012 Billings Senior High graduate debuted her moody photographs in a big way this year — selling two photos at the Yellowstone Art Museum’s juried auction in March. Last week, Kuntz opened a solo exhibit at Transformation Spa and Wellness on the second floor of the Carlin Hotel on Montana Avenue.

“I have so many ideas running through my head and I want to get them out,” said Kuntz, now 18.

Her favorite subject is people. But her portraits aren’t typical. Kuntz likes to find the core of a person. Light and background are less important to Kuntz than mood and facial expressions.

The eight photographs she has on display at Transformation Spa show are atmospheric with a vintage feel to the black-and-white prints. Three of her favorite models were classmates of Kuntz’s at Senior High. So far, they’ve all gone along with her quirky photo shoots, including nude back shots of one friend and an evening

shoot near a neon sign at a downtown Billings motel.

“At first I thought I wanted to shoot photos of objects,” Kuntz said. “But when you photograph people, you can come up with a story. You tell the story through the photograph.”

Some of Kuntz’s self-portraits are more experimental. One shows Kuntz in a bathtub with smeared mascara and wet hair — a shot that reads like a novel.

“I don’t like to give names for the photos because I want the viewers to come up with their own back story,” Kuntz said. “When I need to title them, I use one-word titles like ‘Doubt’ and ‘Misfit’ and ‘Buoyancy.’”

Kuntz knows that some of her photographs are dark. But it’s like her work with Venture Theatre productions. Kuntz sets the mood for effect.

“Every day isn’t always going to be a happy day,” Kuntz said. “A lot of people run from sadness. You can realize that you’ll get through it and there will be another, better day coming.”

Kuntz said once she opened the window to creativity, she couldn’t quell the ideas because they are coming at her so fast.

“I have a little moleskin journal and I have 100 ideas in there,” Kuntz said. “One of them is I want to capture age. I’ll start with infants and go all the way through to the elderly. Women feel that there’s an age limit on being beautiful. They feel like you can’t be beautiful with wrinkles, but you can. It’s all in the way you carry yourself.”

Although Kuntz plans to study psychology at Montana State University Billings in the fall, she will continue with her photography as a hobby. She has already had two requests from fellow students who want her to shoot their senior pictures.

Kuntz’s photography show will be up for another month at Transformation Spa and Wellness, which is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The large framed prints sell for $100 and the smaller framed pieces for $50. To see more of her photographs, go to http://ellenkuntzphotography.com.

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Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.