‘Pyramiden has captured a part of my heart – so many secrets, stories, such beauty… Diolch yn fawr!’ Samantha Saville, Aberystwyth, Wales, UK.
The guest book at The Tulip Hotel, Pyramiden, in which I attempted to sum up the impossible, has entries from 1987 up to 2000 (I guess some tourists found it after the settlement closed in 1998) and then resumes again in 2014.
Last year I visited the town as part of the fieldtrip visit to Petunia bay and discussed a key text on Pyramiden. For this trip, spending a couple of nights at the hotel and wandering the streets, hills and through the buildings of this Soviet-time settlement,sometimes alone, has been another quite magical experience. Perhaps that its history is so recent, yet seems so distant and another world away from the one I was growing up in is what makes it so very intriguing. That you can glimpse the different layers of development, inhabitants and activities in the peeling layers of the disintegrating structures and their contents at every turn had my imagination firing on overdrive.
I was again happy to be playing tag-along, this time as the newest member of the Longyearbyen FotoKlubb, another great group experience! Pyramiden is something of a photographers paradise, and the already fairly large engagement with the place through this medium serves to circulate and increase this kind of value. The excitement of seeing so many unusual objects, structures and configurations of things, the remains of a different culture, the aesthetic appeal of decay, imperfection, colour and textures, they all beg to be captured and taken away, shared and remembered. Indeed a site like Pyramiden offers something far from everyday modern, organised, tidy life which conceals its workings behind intact infrastructures of all kinds. As a fellow photographer asked, ‘Have you ever taken so many strange photographs?!’
Photography being the key engagement with a place was interesting, and led me to notice different aspects – light, visual impact, details and gave a sense of security that as we roamed through building after building, I would not forget what I had seen. Sharing this excitement with other photographers was fantastic on many levels -observing what others were trying to capture and discussing why and how they were doing so. As a novice I was at times frustrated as well, it was fun to try to create some artistic shots, but often the results were just not what I was actually seeing, the camera might not lie, but it tells a very different version of the truth sometimes! I couldn’t fit it all in, the light was not coming out right, I couldn’t capture the smells, the dustiness, the noises and silences. I was torn between keeping up with our wonderful guide, Sasha, telling his collection of stories and ‘capturing’ as much as I could. In my time alone when the Fotoklubb had left it was apparent that photographing everything had become an addictive habit and duty. I let myself slow down and see/feel/listen both through the lens and around it a little more closely. No complaints, just extended reflections on photography as research.
One of the core componants of ‘Urban exploration’, exploring abandoned built environments which are often difficult to access, is photography and videography. I am not sure how far you can class visiting Pyramiden as urban exploration, it being a key tourist attraction. Certainly I felt I was getting a taste of it when I ventured into buildings off the beaten track and could conjure up my own stories, and there is definitely an assertive agency of exploration from the necessity of romping about with a rifle slung over my shoulder. I only managed one slightly risky climb up a ladder before all the clunking metal in the wind got the better of me though! These feelings, imaginings and the affects of their communication are just as much a part of the activity as the documenting through photography: