master of photography:Nadav Kander

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wired.com – DUST is being shown at the torch gallery Amsterdam

Nadav Kander traveled to the steppes of Kazakhstan four years ago to see the “closed cities” of the Soviet nuclear testing area, a network of cities all but invisible to outsiders until the arrival of Google Earth. The photographer ventured first to the town of Kurchatov—named for the physicist who developed the USSR’s first nuclear bomb—where he found a guard at a gate. Kander, with help from a local contact, convinced the guard to let him pass, checked into the town’s only guest house, and set about making photographs with his large plate camera. His haunting images of an eerily beautiful landscape raise questions about secrecy, transparency, and the universal human attraction to ruins.

“I like to photograph things that are quite difficult to look at, but in a beautiful way,” said Kander. “It’s something I keep doing and doing because it nourishes me. It makes the viewer uneasy and challenges your idea of what’s beautiful.” This is a theme Kander, who is based in London, explored brilliantly in Long River, his Prix Pictet-winning series about the Yangtze River. The closed cities series, Dust, is showing at the Flowers Gallery in London and in an iPhone app. His images also will be collected in a book to be released in November.

The Semipalatinsk Test Site, also known as “The Polygon,” outside Kurchatov was the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear test site. More than 450 tests were conducted there between 1949 and 1989, all of them well within range of the town’s residents. There was little official acknowledgement of the impact of those tests on residents or the environment until after the site was closed in 1991. Between  1996 and 2012, a team of Russian, Kazakh, and U.S. scientists worked together to secure the plutonium residue in the area. Still, Kander wore a Geiger counter while shooting to ensure that he avoided areas with the greatest radiation.

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Kander is not particularly interested in talking about the history of the place, or telling the stories of those who live there now. “I’m not a documentary news photographer,” he said. “Any group of pictures becomes a document, but that’s not my intention. This is about the dark side of all human beings, the stuff that’s within us all.”

In Kander’s images, the structures, set upon monotonous grassland against a foreboding sky, could be ancient ruins. There is little to give the viewer a sense of place, or even time, in the vast steppes just beyond the border with Siberia. “This the area where the Tsar exiled Dostoevsky,” Kander said. “It’s really the middle of nowhere.” The place was all but unknown to outsiders until the era of Google Earth and ubiquitous satellite imagery made it far harder to scrub towns off the map.

Like the landscape they portray, Kander’s images are nearly absent of human form. “There’s simply not very many people around,” he said. “Which made me a little uneasy about the project at first, but then I realized that the destruction shows the humanity. These are somewhat portraits of mankind—the ruins eludes to human presence.” He believes ruins like those of the closed cities are a rich subject because they provide a glimpse, even an understanding, of how things went on long before us. “It settles us into mortality,” he said. “We’re attracted to decay because it shows us death and we can’t find out what happens after we die.”

Kander made two trips to the area to make the images in Dust, but does not expect to return. “I got into a bit of trouble there,” he said. “I was held and asked questions and they don’t understand me photographing these odd things. I don’t want to go back and chance it again. It could easily go wrong.”

images ©nadav kander / flowers gallery