From July 2004 to July 2005, British photographer Simon Roberts explored Russia’s sprawling topography, capturing the stories of a range of individuals by photographing them in harmony with the tones and bold features of their immediate surroundings and landscapes. The photographs from this journey were later compiled into the acclaimed Motherland, a compendium of images interlaced with quotes from seminal political and literary figures who Roberts contends define Russia’s modern identity.
Since Motherland, Roberts has continued to build on his own visual language, grounded in an expansive viewpoint that prioritizes the small-scale representation of his subjects in the greater context of their landscape and surroundings. But one particular project, created during the same visit to Russia that catalyzed Motherland, has received less notoriety than his more recent work. Polyarnye Nochi is a series that documents the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia from mid-December to mid-January, when—as a result of its close proximity to the Arctic Circle—darkness blankets the region for nearly 24 hours a day. The title, “Polar Nights” in English, directly refers to this phenomenon, occurring as the sun hovers just below the landscape’s horizon.
The main protagonist in Polyarnye Nochi is the unique winter terrain, while human subjects serve as supporting characters in Roberts’ storyboard. “The figures in my photographs make a similar point to the landscape,” he explains. “Anonymous and ant-like, dwarfed by their surroundings, silhouetted in the bleak, melancholic beauty of their environment.”
During this period of complete darkness, Northern Russia operates within a balance of extremes, including intense weather conditions that make operating photographic equipment a difficult task. So, Roberts made each photograph with a medium-format camera, using film reinforced with paper to save it from becoming brittle and cracking in the freezing temperatures. Reflecting on this process, he explains, “Using digital would have been impractical due to the cold temperatures that drain the camera batteries very quickly. The temperature averaged -25 degrees Celsius, but with wind chill it often got down to below -30. I found working in these temperatures very challenging—but also invigorating. Most of the time I could only spend about 30 minutes outside before all feeling in my fingers and toes disappeared, which is particularly difficult when you’re trying to operate a tripod and change film in the camera!”
While Roberts was already well-versed in manual photography before reaching the Kola Peninsula, what struck him most was the colour palette that came to define the images. “The extent of the blue hue was something that surprised me when I received the contact sheets after processing the film in Moscow a couple of months later. I decided to embrace this colour effect for the final series.” The resulting pictures in his series transport us to expansive scenes of industrial and residential landscapes, with buildings and machinery encrusted in frost, all blanketed in the striking cool blue of perpetual dusk. This combination of ice and ethereal lighting defines the crisp intricacy and detail in the subjects, unified by tones that hover between magenta and midnight blue.
The cultural references woven throughout Motherland also inspired the composition of the images in Polyarnye Nochi. “I was thinking about the representation of Russian winters by visual artists…as well as films like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev or art house film directors like Khlebnikov and Zviangentsev,” Roberts notes. He was particularly struck by a line from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, which he felt resonated with this body of work: “The day was neither bright nor gloomy, but a kind of blue-grey tint such as found only upon the uniforms of garrison soldiers…”
—Cat Lachowskyj and Eva Clifford
The full series can be found on Simon Robert’s website.