1 of 7
"Metal Fabricating Facility, Pripyat"
David McMillan, "Metal Fabricating Facility, Pripyat," 2013, digital print, 36” x 44”.
2 of 7
"School Classroom, Pripyat"
David McMillan, "School Classroom, Pripyat," 2002, digital print, 44” x 54”.
3 of 7
"View of Forest, Dental Hospital, Pripyat"
David McMillan, "View of Forest, Dental Hospital, Pripyat," 2012, digital print, 36” x 44”.
4 of 7
"View of the Nuclear Power Plant"
David McMillan, "View of the Nuclear Power Plant," 1994, digital print, 16” x 20”.
5 of 7
"Portrait of Lenin, Kindergarten, Pripyat"
David McMillan, "Portrait of Lenin, Kindergarten, Pripyat," 1997, digital print, 24” x 30”.
6 of 7
"Railroad Station, Janov"
David McMillan, "Railroad Station, Janov," 1996, digital print, 24” x 30”.
7 of 7
"Tree in Hotel Room, Pripyat"
David McMillan, "Tree in Hotel Room, Pripyat," 2004, digital print, 36” x 44”.
David McMillan opens a window on the aftermath of Chernobyl disaster
The images are haunting. Children’s shoes lie scattered in a classroom covered with layers of grime and debris. A tree pushes against the ceiling of a hotel room, its moss-covered floor littered with glass shards. Shafts of light angle through the broken roof of a factory, exposing a jumble of rusting barrels. David McMillan’s ethereal photographs reveal decay, but also an eerie sense of abandonment, as if humans had suddenly disappeared, letting their everyday world slip back to some natural order.
And, in a sense, they have. McMillan’s images are from a 30-kilometre zone around the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, where perhaps 200,000 residents were evacuated after a 1986 explosion and fire released several hundred times more radiation than in Hiroshima. McMillan, a professor at the University of Manitoba, has made short visits to the site 18 times in the last two decades, inspired in part by a 1994 article about the exclusion zone in Harper’s Magazine by Alan Weisman, who went on to write The World Without Us, a gripping account of what might happen to the planet if humans suddenly ceased to exist.
“It really intrigued me and made me want to see what he was describing,” says McMillan, whose fears of compromising his own health dissipated early in the project. “I had been photographing what I believed to be the often-complicated relationship between the natural world and the built environment, so the exclusion zone sounded like an ideal subject for me. I also had an opinion about the misuse of technology, which, at least in this case, had made part of the planet unlivable.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, McMillan’s photographs have assumed greater metaphorical resonance. Still, comparisons to photojournalism seem inevitable, particularly with images of recent turmoil in Ukraine still fresh in people’s minds. But McMillan, originally a painter, sees significant differences between art and journalism: “My photographs can resemble photojournalism, much as sentences in print journalism can resemble literature.” While his images do capture the way things look at a particular moment in time, he says they also reflect his own subjectivity and aesthetic values.
Still astonished by what he sees, McMillan has one key insight from an area expected to remain affected by radiation for thousands of years: “It sounds clichéd, but the resiliency of nature.”
David McMillan’s exhibition, Exclusion Zone, continues to June 7 at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon.