In my last review for PhotoBookstore Magazine, I looked at Renato D’Agostin’s Archaeologies: Los Angeles, and took it to task for the limitations of its intentionality: How it set out on purpose to capture the city of Los Angeles in photographs and ended up with a book notable for its lack of surprise and abundance of shots of typical L.A. totems: palm trees, freeways, Watts towers, etc.
Well, I’m reviewing now a book even more intentional, Arthur Bondar’s Shadows of Wormwood, photographs both taken and found of the so-called exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor, which melted down—and shocked the world—thirty years ago, and Bondar’s book could not be more different from D’Agostin’s. This book is a true archaeology—a deep examination of a place that tells us as much about it as we could dare to want to know.
Bondar’s book opens (and often works) like a movie. We get a stark forest, black and white stripes of trees crowded together, followed by a blurry shot as if from a moving car of wiry towers, then a hand reaching in from the right and pointing at a haphazard barb-wire fence. Then, faint type on a black background, the title: Shadows of Wormwood. (The Wormwood Forest is also known as the Red Forest, which, as Wikipedia tells us, is “the four-square-mile area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant within the Exclusion zone. The name ‘Red Forest’ comes from the ginger-brown color of the pine trees after they died following the absorption of high levels of radiation.”)
Bondar spent eight years photographing the exclusion zone, and the book is a special kind of photobook: a “memorial book” to human disaster. Though Chernobyl was an accident (or, less charitably, a failure of Soviet technological safeguards) and not a planned attack like the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it also looms large in the course of human tragedy. (One can argue that Chernobyl stopped the building of most new nuclear energy plants, thus boosting coal-fired ones, thus speeding up climate change.)
The parallels between the nuclear meltdown and the atomic bomb seem clear to Bondar. His book has a similar look and feel to Kikuji Kawada’s classic The Map, Kawada’s book on Hiroshima published twenty years to the day after the bomb fell. What do we see in The Map? Mostly the stains and scars left on Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome, these stunning abstractions of what an agent of human death can write on unforgetting stone. Kawada also intersperses left-behind war detritus and even advertising posters into a powerful dialogue of then and now.
Bondar also captures a then and now, though for Chernobyl, the death the meltdown brought will never be replaced by any vital present. We won’t be making metaphoric correspondences between the horror of the meltdown and what’s going wrong with Chernobyl today because there is no meaningful Chernobyl today, barely any society at all in the exclusion zone. There is only what follows an eternal poisoning of the land.
Both Bondar’s book and Kawada’s are made up of high-contrast black and white shots. Instead of Kawada’s scarred stone, Bondar finds his overriding motif in the lost pine forest. Even though the photos are stark black and white, not color (which would show off “the ginger-brown”), the trees look damaged, not of our world. It’s with the line of pines that the book begins, and that’s how it ends. In between are Bondar’s own photos mixed powerfully with artifacts of a pre-disaster Chernobyl he picked up along the way.
We can tell which photos are found ones because they’re framed in black. (Bondar’s own are full-bleed.) But what he shoots is also what’s left behind—everything at Chernobyl is left behind, even the people still there. The whole book is haunted by what took place those thirty years ago. Yet there are signs of life. A pool of fish—are they alive or dead?—is followed by a boat in dry dock, hoisted feet above a forest floor, but that shot is followed a net full of fresh-caught fish, food, sustenance, life.
The next clip—yes, the book does read like a movie—is a solitary biker scooting across a wide white expanse, and then we’re on to those souls still in the exclusionary zone: a crusty old peasant woman, a yapping dog. Life is with us, but not for long. Here’s an abandoned train track, there’s a stately building (empty, crumbling) and an empty window in it, surrounded by faded scribblings.
There’s nothing unknowable in Shadows of Wormwood. Bondar’s chosen to remind of us exactly what happened. At the center of the book, on thin, yellowish paper, are documents, a report in Russian, a London Times headline, a map. A quick historical jolt, then we’re back in the zone, looking at people gathered with candles, then more people, in perfect blurred Provoke style, looks of horror on their faces.
Further along, a found photograph of the plant being built, followed by those dark, bare-treed, haunted grounds. There is no escape, not for the drunk-looking man reaching out for help, and not for those endless scarecrow-stark blighted pines that opened the book. As I said, that’s also how Shadows of Wormwood ends: more trees, more blur, more confusion, no possible hope.
In Kaneko and Vartanian’s indispensable book on Japanese photobooks of the ’60s and ’70s, they end the piece on The Map with these words: “Needless to say, this book was quite challenging for readers when it was first published; though it received critical praise, the general public found it overly abstruse, and at the time of its release, it sold poorly.”
To that small slice of the general public who cherishes powerful, artful photobooks: Don’t make the same mistake with Bondar’s Shadows of Wormwood.
Shadows of Wormwood by Arthur Bondar can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here and his latest book here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.