Filmmaker Philip Grossman has been dazzling us with haunting and revealing images and video from the Chernobyl disaster site, recently adding aerial videography to his repertoire. Videomaker was fortunate enough to sit down (at least virtually) with Philip to learn a bit more about this intriguing multi-year project and what drives him to capture this stunning imagery.
Russ Fairley: Philip, choosing to shoot in Chernobyl and Pripyat is an odd choice, as it has historically been a place people think to avoid. What drew you to the disaster site in the first place?
Philip Grossman: I grew up near Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and lived through that event when I was 9 years old. I believe this started my fascination with Nuclear Energy. Fast forward 32 years or so and I was working at Intercontinental Hotel group as the Director of Global Enterprise Solutions Architecture for about 7 years and just decided to take a break from “corporate America.” My then girlfriend (Update 6/1/15: now wife :-). We got married in a 300 year old abandoned church in the Chernobyl exclusion zone), Elizabeth Hanson, told me to focus on my fine art photography for a year. At that point, I had a few small gallery shows and met with the curator of the High Museum in Atlanta who said they all liked my work but there wasn’t a cohesive body. So I put on my Engineer hat (I am a graduate of the university of Colorado, Boulder with degrees in Architectural Engineering and Illumination Engineering) and tried to figure out why someone like Annie Leibovitz is more famous than Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, both great photographers and it really boiled to down to content. It's (in their case) who they photographed.
I set out to figure out what I could photograph that would be different, that few people had photographed or could photograph. And I kept coming back to Chernobyl (my family is from the Ukraine originally), so I decided that is where I would go photograph. I took my first trip in November 2011, thinking it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and went mainly to photograph, but took a small Panasonic TM700 handicam for personal video. Three months after returning to the States, my partner Arek from Poland, who helped arrange my first visit, asked if I wanted to go back and of course I said yes, but only if we spend more then 4 days in the zone. I have now made 4 trips and spent 32 days in the zone with a 5th trip leaving on May 24 for another 12 days. I have also moved from shooting 90% stills/10% video to 98% video/2% stills. I now have a collection of 3,000 photos (I have shot well over 15,000) and about 30 hours of video with 50% being 4K. I was also the first person to fly a drone in the the Chernobyl Region almost 4 years ago.
RF: It seems that your photography and videography has not been limited to traditional means, and you've embraced technology whole-heartedly. How do you think the advancements over the last few years have influenced your artwork, and in particular, how have the changed and morphed the Chernobyl project?
PG: My father is a surgeon and my mother is an artist and I am the middle child, so I have always been pulled both by technology and art. I love how the various technologies allow me to be creative in telling a story whether it be with photos or video. The technology has allowed me to be more flexible in telling the story of Chernobyl. I switched to shooting 4K two years ago with a Sony FS700 and a Convergent Designs Odyssey 7Q. The addition of 4K has added so much detail and texture to the story telling and allowed me great flexibility when posting in HD to do pushes/pulls etc and still maintain the HD detail.