A Commitment to Remembering: The Photographs of David McMillan

By Becky Rynor on April 25, 2014

David McMillan, Hotel tree (2004), tree in hotel room, Pripyat, 2004. Digital print, 36” x 44”. © David McMillan

Originally from Dundee, Scotland, Winnipeg-based photographer David McMillan is known for addressing the relationship between culture and Nature in his work. That relationship is particularly compelling in the new exhibition, David McMillan: Growth and Decay, currently on view at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon. 

The exhibition features 25 images taken in the once bustling, affluent city of Pripyat, Ukraine. Founded in 1979 to service workers at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant, the city was abandoned following the meltdown of a reactor in 1986. Fleeing deadly levels of radioactive contamination, 50,000 residents left the city with nothing except personal documents, a few small possessions and some food.

Nearly three decades later, the city remains empty and uninhabitable, and is slowly crumbling. McMillan, however, has travelled there ten times since 1994 to document the steady progress of time, and the relentless creep of Nature.

The photographs are eerie, yet “strangely reassuring,” says Natalia Lebedenskaia, curator of the exhibition. “With McMillan’s work, you feel this slight sadness, nostalgia, as well as this vague, careful kind of optimism.”

“Initially,” McMillan told NGC Magazine, “it was pretty strange and surreal; because in some cases it looked like people had just left. Especially in schools, where most of the artifacts were left behind: school books, posters, pictures of students on the wall. It was just a very unusual phenomenon to have access to a good-sized city with no one there.”

The images in the exhibition include a tree growing in the centre of what was once an elegant living room; a clutch of dolls in a former nursery; a scattering of unclaimed, child-sized shoes. 

“It’s the realization that these are spaces that have been lived in, and we see the traces of the people who lived in them; but those spaces are being taken over by Nature and can never be lived in again,” Lebedenskaia says. "There is also this sense of a lost utopia for a place that was once one of the nicest places to live in the Soviet Union. It was newly built. It was a very technologically advanced city with beautiful public buildings, kindergartens, schools. The loss of that utopia parallels the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”

David McMillan, Blue Shelves (2002), school classroom, Pripyat, 2002. Digital print, 44’’x 54’’. © David McMillan

The National Gallery of Canada has more than 100 of McMillan’s photographs in its permanent collection. He was, in fact, a recognized landscape photographer when he became intrigued by the “tension” of what was evolving out of the Chernobyl disaster.

“There are ways in which it’s kind of heartening, because you realize that, despite us, the natural world seems able to live and almost thrive,” he says. “But it’s double-edged, because it’s very sad to realize there is this entire infrastructure; real people lived here and had happy lives, and Nature is displacing them. At the same time, that’s a good thing, because at least something is able to live there.”

Lebedenskaia says McMillan’s work shows unusual commitment. “There is a difference between what has become known as ‘disaster photography’ where someone goes in and photographs the oil spill and then leaves, or someone goes in and photographs post-Hurricane Katrina, then leaves and never comes back. They don’t have the connection to place that David has. Because he goes year after year, there is a kind of commitment there to the place and to the event.”

McMillan says the subject still leaves him grappling with the bigger issues. “There are a lot of times when what we do to the landscape is kind of a blight. So I am interested in our relationship to the natural world: how we manage to live and continue to live with the potential to destroy a place we lived in—or ourselves, if we’re not careful.”

David McMillan: Growth and Decay is on view at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon until June 7, 2014.

By Becky Rynor| April 25, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa.

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