Tundra grass burned brown by snow, industrial smoke climbing blue sky, buildings crumbling in faded glory, people backlit by blazing orange or neon pink: Elena Chernyshova’s vision of Norilsk, the northernmost city in the world, is a series of surprises by which she extracts otherworldly beauty from ugly realities. Norilsk ranks as the seventh most polluted city on earth, and its origins are dark—it was built in the 1920s and ‘30s on the backs and bones of gulag prisoners. Now it is a company town that mines and smelts the world’s biggest haul of nickel and palladium. (Nickel is used to make stainless steel.)
In her pictures, Elena makes it feel as if she’s coaxing light and color to emphasize isolation. Indeed, when she began this project in 2012, it was “to investigate human adaptation to extreme climate, environmental disaster, and isolation.” Two years on, her study yielded riches, not least the optimistic fatalism Norilsk’s 175,000 citizens hone as survival tactic for the conditions of life there. As alloy to the national mentality, optimistic fatalism withstands fierce assaults: the average temperature is 14° F; winter lows get to -67° F; polar night—no sunlight—sets in for two months each year; and melting permafrost is destabilizing urban structures.
Norilsk is out there in so many ways. It is closed to non-Russians—you have to be invited to go—and can only be accessed by air and unfrozen waterways. Looking at Elena’s pictures, you can tell it’s lonesome for people, that the gorgeous aspects she captures, both natural and human-built, must buoy spirits, and that there’s peril in the ground and sky. But even if nature collapses and the experiment fails, if it’s not too fatally Russian to argue—so what? Who needs nature? (Anna Van Lenten)
Elena Chernyshova is a Russian documentary photographer based in France. After two years working as an architect, she quit and cycled from Toulouse to Vladivostok and back: 30,000 km, 26 countries, 1,004 days. The trip led to her decision to become a photographer.