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Pentax Spotmatic, images from Pripyat and Kyiv, Ukraine. 2019
Approach to the Chernobyl exclusion zone

April 20th 2019.

Standing on the edge of the 10km exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

I only had two rolls of time expired Ilford HP5 with me, these had been carried on an abortive trip, passed through 15 security x-ray machines, had been stored in less than ideal conditions and then brought to Chernobyl. Thinking that they may have lost some sensitivity 18 years after they were made, I added a bit to the development times. As a consequence, the results are rather grainy, as befits the subject.

The Spotmatic behaved well, returning 70 images from the 72 exposed. I thinned these down initially to 42 prints, and then chose the ones you see here. 35mm really needs to be thought about compositionally as there is really too little negative area to be able to crop it. All the images are full frame.

Pripyat Sign


A city specifically created to house the workers and their families of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor plant, just 3km away. Construction started in 1970 in what is now Ukraine, but back then was part of the USSR. By the standards of the day, Pripyat was modern and well constructed, it's citizens considered themselves fortunate.

Pripyat was a vibrant city of 50,000 persons until the early morning of 26th April 1986, when Reactor No. 4 at the power station exploded, scattering parts and dust from the nuclear core far and wide. The inhabitants were evacuated with little more than a few hours warning starting on the 27th April. Thought to be a temporary measure, Pripyat and many surrounding settlements remain abandoned to this day.

The poor guide was exasperated, I was always the last one back at the meeting points. Waiting for the light to fall on this sign so that it glowed, made me several minutes late. The sign itself is the name of the cafe it adorns, and it simply mirrors the name of the town itself, Pripyat. The guides spend a maximum of four days in a week at Pripyat, to minimize their exposure, and the speed at which they hurry along visitors suggest that they are keen to stay less.

Pripyat Cinema

The once busy street in front of the Pripyat music school. Like many soviet era social buildings it has monumental overtones, illustrated by the facade here. Unlike many though, the quality of construction was very good. Although left to the ravages of Ukrainian winters, the buildings have held up quite well. The individual mosaic tiles decorating this facade are still mostly holding fast, and the deterioration is little different to some seen in still occupied cities out in the East of the former USSR. Albeit with more vibrant undergrowth.

The idea here was glimpse the structure through the rapidly encroaching nature. Two frames were made, the other with a smaller aperture to increase the depth of field, but the softer of the two images is by far the best.

The sense of a 20th century Angkor is undeniable.

The Ferris wheel at Pripyat The Ferris wheel at Pripyat is probably one of the most photographed structures there. The wheel was only ever enjoyed by a handful of test engineers, for the park where it is situated was due to open a few days later for the May holiday.
The Ferris wheel at Pripyat

It's easy to be transfixed by the Ferris wheel, an object meant to delight and entertain, that never got to fulfil its purpose.

When the Pentax Spotmatic was bought new in 1968, neither this Ferris wheel or the city it was destined for existed. Yet the camera has outlived them.

The Ferris wheel at Pripyat The Pripyat Ferris wheel is surviving the elements reasonably well, after 33 years of harsh winters. It turns gently through quarter of an arc, powered by the breeze. In time, something vital will rust through and it will subside.
Pripyat Mural

In more recent times a few murals have sprung up around the decaying city, primarily celebrating the return of nature to the entire exclusion zone. With little interference from human activity, the wildlife is thriving.

In the years following the disaster many looters entered the city and took things like aluminium window frames, which is why a great many are missing. Much plant machinery from factories and workshops has also vanished.

Pripyat Mural Another of the nicely executed nature murals, enhanced by the young saplings that spring up all over the city.
Pripyat returning to nature There is something fascinating about the way nature has invaded the city and started systematically demolishing it. I'm reminded of the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia when reviewing these images.
Pripyat returning to nature Pripyat returning to nature

A young tree clings to a shallow depression filled with earth, its roots tunneling through fissures in the structure of the Cinema Prometheus. In time the tree will grow too heavy for the root structure and will fall, acting as its own lever, it will ease open the cracks and dislodge another chunk of masonry, creating an opportunity for another sapling. Then in winter water flows into cracks, freezes and expands forcing it to open a little more. And so the relentless process will go on.

The main hotel in Pripyat, it's guests long since checked out. Some, no doubt, permanently.

Pripyat returning to nature Nature needs precious little invitation to start inhabiting abandoned human spaces. These trees have made a foothold in an unlikely looking corner. Sheltered from the wind, debris, leaves and seeds collected here, forming sufficient earth for the process to start, these birches have made the best of the spot gradually demolishing these steps.
Pripyat returning to nature This cafe once had an uninterrupted view of the river by Pripyat's harbour area. Now it looks out onto woodland.
Pripyat returning to nature Even in the centre of the city, in the open plazas the relentless reclamation goes on. It's a poignant and peaceful place. This building is the Palace of Culture, named "Energetic" and contained a large auditorium. There is no direct translation of this Russian word, but it infers Energy Worker. Almost every aspect of Pripyat is a celebration of the power plant and its role, a very soviet institution. Irrespective of any views on the political systems that underpin our societies, those that lived and loved here merely wanted to get on. Through no fault of the average "Energetic", in an instant what seemed secure and safe became transient and deadly.
Pripyat returning to nature Pripyat Stairwell

At left, one of Pripyat's large number of apartment blocks towers defiantly above the encroaching woodland. The streets are hard to spot now, buried under leaf litter and rotting tree debris. Occasionally a traffic light protrudes from the earth, betraying the location of a once major junction.

The stairwell of the Palace of Culture, "Energetic" complex. Once glazed, ill advised thieves have taken the aluminium frame. I wanted a graphic image here. As the Spotmatic is a 35mm SLR, it doesn't have lens rise. In order to get the verticals parallel the print had to be angled and the enlarger lens stopped down to minimum.

Pripyat returning to nature

These rotting park benches still sit where they were being stored, as they were new and awaiting installation, now covered in lichen and too rotten to ever fulfil their original purpose.

The Takumar f/1.4 lens fitted to this Pentax Spotmatic has a particularly characterful depth of field, I love the transition from focus to soft. This image was made with a strong green filter attached, to enhance the contrast between the wooden slats and green lichen.

Pripyat returning to nature Most of the apartment blocks are intact, windows closed and strangely inviting. These Poplar trees, occupy the space once reserved for cars and trucks, for it was a major road.
Pripyat Stadium

The stadium now bears witness not to the speed of athletes, but the speed at at which nature has turned the playing field in front of it into a dense woodland. Following the disaster the playing field was used as an impromptu helicopter pad.

According to our guide, this structure was never used for it was due to be opened shortly. It would, instead, bear witness to how fast a city can fall.

Pripyat Theatre Store

Within the theatre store, the thieves have apparently shown little interest in removing the political elements.

Although not every image was taken using the Spotmatic's meter, this one was.

Pripyat vehicle workshop Mould streaked windows within a vehicle maintenance workshop. All the tools and machinery have been taken.
Pripyat vehicle workshop A differential bevel gear, rusted but unused, maybe a relic from the last job cast aside on the morning of 27th April 1986.
Pripyat vehicle workshop

The remains of vehicles behind the workshop. Judging by the damage it was probably just in the yard being scavenged for parts when the order to leave came.

The truck is actually an olive green, but the green filter used to increase the contrast has done its job admirably, isolating the subject from the background as intended. The filter is dense enough to require a two stop correction, allowing the lens to be opened up where the depth of field is shallow.

Kyiv Aviation Museum, Mill Helicopter

Safely to the South of Chernobyl is the capital city of Kyiv, where the next images were taken at the aviation museum at Zhuliany airport.

Detail of a Mil 6 helicopter

Kyiv Aviation Museum, Mill Helicopter

The same Mil 6. Dating from the late 1950s the Mil 6 was at one time both the largest and fastest helicopter in the world. Later versions sprouted the large winglets seen on this example. Some examples were used to drop tons of sand, lead and boron into the gaping wound in Chernobyl's reactor 4, becoming heavily irradiated in the process and winding up untouchable and abandoned. Their pilots fared little better.

The image above was made without a green filter, of the same machine number 22, but this image made use of the green filter to darken the sky, giving the impression the helicopter is near white, instead of mid green.

Kyiv Aviation Museum, Mill Helicopter Mil 26 Detail of the larger Mil 26, itself designed to replace the Mil 6.
Kyiv Aviation Museum, Mill Helicopter Mil 26 The Mil 26 is the largest helicopter currently flying in 2019. An indication of it's size is that the tail rotor is as large as the main rotor on some smaller helicopters. One version, the Mil 26S is particularly pertinent as is was hurriedly created in order to drop sand and boron at Chernobyl.
Kyiv Aviation Museum, Tu95 Bear When the Pentax Spotmatic was new, there would have been little hope of it ever getting this close to a Russian Tupelov Tu94. Despite prolonged exposure to the elements the exhibits at Zhuliany are maintained in fairly good condition, many Aviation Museums around the old Soviet Bloc countries present little better than storage yards these days, Zhuliany being a welcome exception.
Kyiv Aviation Museum, Tu95 Bear Detail of the Tu95's magnificent contra rotating propellers.
Kyiv Aviation Museum, Backfire beyond razor wire

Spying on Tupelov Tu22Ms...

Although still current inventory in 2019 in Russia, Ukrainian Tu22Ms are now relegated to museum status, but the object of this photograph was to give it that surreptitious feel.

Bubbles in a bottle A bottle in the gutter in the spring sunshine had this condensation pattern forming within, I just liked it.
Kyiv Windmills, at historic building centre

There next follows a bit of an obsessive series of windmills at the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine.

You'd be forgiven in believing that these are very old, but some are as recent as 1947. They have been collected from around the regions and re-assembled here as examples.

Kyiv Windmills, at historic building centre Kyiv Windmills, at historic building centre What can I say, I like windmills. The Spotmatic's original Super-Takumar f1.4 lens has yellowed significantly, as they all do. Although the lens is regularly treated with UV to reverse this, it still has a yellow tinge and accordingly is only used with black and white film these days. Having said that, a fairly dense yellow filter was used to bring out the clouds in these images, but even then they required additional burning in.
Kyiv Windmills, at historic building centre Deliberately allowing the sun to shine into the lens produced these rays and the six blade iris artefact.
Kyiv Windmills, at historic building centre Some of the windmills are the post type, where the entire structure can be swivelled into wind, but these have rotating caps. The closest one dated from 1947 and I was interested by the texture in the decaying roof.
Kyiv Windmills, at historic building centre

A cautious variation on the other shot, moving to place the sun behind the windmill, just in case the result was too ugly. I can't make up my mind which one I prefer.

But the Pentax Spotmatic continues to work well, and it's a delight to use.


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