Growth and Decay: Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone by David McMillan

In the spring of 1986, I came across a review in a London newspaper of a restaurant in Italy that the writer praised because it didn’t serve salads when the produce wasn’t fresh enough. This seemed odd. A few days later, I realized that the problem wasn’t because the produce wasn’t sufficiently fresh. It was because it was radioactive. On the night of April 26, a safety test procedure on the Number 4 High Power Channel Reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine went horribly wrong. The overheated reactor blew off a two-tonne steel lid, spewing perhaps the equivalent of 200 Hiroshimas into the atmosphere. (Like so much with Chernobyl, undisputed facts are hard to establish.) By April 30, unusually high levels of radioactivity were found in Switzerland and northern Italy. On May 6, the radioactive cloud had reached North America. It slowly became evident that this was the worst industrial accident in human history, a global problem and a catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also an event so dark, so complex and with so many ramifications that we are still collectively processing it.

David McMillan, Growth and Decay: Prypiat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone by David McMillan, Steidl Publishers, 2019.

The Winnipeg photographer David McMillan was first drawn to Chernobyl as a subject eight years after the disaster. He had read a 1994 cover story in Harper’s by Alan Weisman entitled “Journey Through a Doomed Land: Exploring Chernobyl’s Deadly Ruins.” Weisman was accompanying a team of American and local scientists attempting to a create a tool kit for survival in a toxic landscape. The paradox that Weisman noted was that this infamous, poisoned zone was showing signs of great fecundity. The city of Prypiat, whose 50,000 former inhabitants had provided the manpower for the nuclear plant, was becoming invaded by trees and bushes, and the 30-kilometre-wide Zone of Exclusion was turning into one of Europe’s largest wildernesses. Nature seemed to be thriving in the absence of humanity. Three months after reading the article, McMillan was at Chernobyl for what was to become the first of 22 visits. As he told the photo-historian Claude Baillargeon, who wrote the book’s well-researched afterword on the photographer’s working methods: “When I first ventured to Chernobyl in 1994, the experience was thrilling and totally absorbing. I felt I had found a subject both inexhaustible and consequential. I wanted to make photographs describing something I hadn’t seen before, which had the potential to be simultaneously beautiful and unsettling.”

Although the photographs in Growth and Decay are not sequenced chronologically, it seems that at the beginning of his project, McMillan felt some responsibility to “cover” the subject. There are early images of the gear left behind by the force of almost 600,000 “liquidators” who tried to clean up after the disaster: hopelessly contaminated tanks and one of the helicopters that dumped 5,000 tonnes of lead, sand and boron into the heart of the reactor at huge cost to the pilots. There are also portraits. A woman cleans around the wooden crosses of ancestral graves in her former village; a technician holds a fish taken from the reactor’s cooling pond to be fed to laboratory animals. There is a mushroom collector, and a dining-room employee with a Renoiresque bun sitting in front of a vase of flowers grown in contaminated soil. But this line of investigation does not continue.

At the time that McMillan was making these portraits, the Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich was concluding interviews with some 150 participants in the Chernobyl disaster. They would become part of an oral history, Voices of Chernobyl, published in Russian in 1997, with an English translation in 2006. The book became much more visible in 2015, when Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Alexievich is more than an oral historian, although it is far from clear how she obtains her remarkable results, which seem to be much more than simple transcriptions of people talking. Her own modest explanation is that “I have no time to paint a portrait. Things change too quickly…. I just take simple pictures. Snapshots.”

The interviews, which probably were also conversations, are presented as monologues, with Alexievich’s authorial presence suppressed. They are sequenced like a musical composition, and the voices are varied, eloquent, passionate, surprising and often darkly funny. In a period, both during the Soviet era and after, when there was a concerted effort to control the official narrative and to divert blame, the full horror of mismanagement becomes clear. As Keith Gessen, the book’s translator, writes, “It’s certainly true that Chernobyl, while an accident in the sense that no one intentionally set it off, was also the deliberate product of cronyism, laziness and a deep seated indifference toward the general population.”

David McMillan, Lobby, Children’s Hospital, October 2012, from Growth and Decay: Prypiat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone by David McMillan, Steidl Publishers, 2019, p. 125.

It is a rewarding experience to read Alexievich’s interviews while contemplating McMillan’s long sequence of images. The book, made over an extended period of time, invites slow looking. Almost without exception, the photographer visited the region in the month of October, which becomes a kind of control device. The landscape is a fallen Eden, crossed with the postapocalyptic zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Fences, lampposts, a basketball court, a children’s slide in the form of an elephant become engulfed by vines and trees. The same long view of Prypiat becomes, over the years, occluded by vegetation. The cultural markers of communism are unstable—busts of Lenin hover between kitsch and nostalgia.

Much of the book deals with interiors. Prypiat was not exactly Pompeii, but the signs of a sudden disaster and hasty evacuation are evident. The interiors are often abject, with peeling surfaces and rubble everywhere, although nature is always inching its way in, with branches, tendrils, vines becoming part of the décor. The genre of the ruined interior can be problematic. As found on sites such as Flickr Ruin Porn, with its millions of images of decay and its cheesy gothic quality, it can easily cause an abreaction, especially since not much built in the 20th century ages well. McMillan’s interiors are of another order, seen with an understanding of where to stand and when the light is right. They are also a record of a lost culture. The kindergartens are especially affecting, with their indicators of how seriously early childhood education was taken under communism—the music room, the Plasticine modelling, the care in labelling. The passage of time presses on the subjects as the photographer examines the same scene over the years. He even pays attention to the floors strewn with detritus, framing them in a way that gives them the quality of collage.

There is nothing tendentious about this body of work, even though the subject is so heavily freighted with its dark history. McMillan seems to realize that photography is better at describing the world than explaining it. But he clearly revels in the medium’s sheer descriptive power. To some, this work will look elegiac. To the educated eye, it will appear like the scene of a crime.

Growth and Decay: Prypiat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone by David McMillan, text by Claude Baillargeon, Steidl Publishers, Göttingen, Germany, 206 pages, hardcover, €65.

Toronto photographer Geoffrey James is the author or subject of more than a dozen books or monographs. He worked for seven years with Lee Friedlander on a project for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, photographing the work of Frederick Law Olmsted.