Polyarnye Nochi

Unforgiving and dramatic winters have often been regarded as one of Russia’s most defining characteristics.  A Russian winter is redolent both of great hardship, extreme temperatures, physical privation, an atmosphere of isolation and desolation, but also of great beauty. Russia’s majesty is heightened by the intensity of its winter; for centuries, the Russian winter has been romanticised by many artists, from the master realists of the nineteenth century, to modern day film directors such as Tarkovsky and Zviagentsev.

Located in the perpetual twilight of the Kola Peninsula, in the far north-western reaches of Russia, Polyarnye Nochi captures the ethereal barometric occurrences affecting this swathe of land that lies between the White Sea and the Barents Sea.

Meaning “polar nights”, Polyarnye Nochi represents the naturally-occurring period in Russia from December to mid-January, when the sun remains below the horizon, allowing for only a few hours of sunlight daily. Using a medium-format camera, and reinforced film to prevent cracking in the -30º temperature, the extremes of the natural world are depicted in this rarefied glimpse into a region that lies almost entirely north of the Arctic Circle.

Like Motherland before it, Polyarnye Nochi is a testament to modern Russian life, and can almost be viewed as stills from a road movie; the photographs portray the half-light between the reality of the subject and the surreal quality of the image. A mesmeric display of shadowy hues covers the landscape: from glacial blue and wintry grey, to celestial lilac and peaceful white. The dream-like depiction of the subjects, both on a personal and geographical scale, is tempered through a long exposure, which renders as much detail as possible in the final image.

“Man’s ingenuity in the face of nature’s might is one aspect of these photographs.  But they are also studies of the way in which nature, and specifically, winter, despite being temporarily and often brutally tamed, is able to consume, transform, beautify and disguise the man-made world.  The photographs hint at the uneasy co-existence of man and nature, but also capture the indefinable and elusive beauty that emerges as a result of this precarious alliance.” – Alexandra Lennox, Intelligent Life, 2008


View installation shots here

Essay by Alexandra Lennox: “The influence and interplay of Simon Roberts’ Polyarnye Nochi and Russian cinema” (pdf)

Contact sheet of photographic plates (pdf)