The team work with Evgenii Bashta has started just after our meeting in spring 2016. The first common point of interest we found in our mutual passion for the history, nature and indigenous people of the region we both moved not long ago. I moved from Moscow in 2011, Evgeny slightly earlier came back to the native city after a long term project in other region. Very soon we have started to work on the basically documentary project "NOMAD CAT" about Ugra region and its local people - khanty and mansi; and still we proceed with its developing. Attending national holidays, khantys' camps, forests and small towns of the region we spent in the car a lot of time, so we had a chance to discuss our ideas, photographic preferences. As for the other photographers of the same age, my photographic story has started from the analog process. But with the progress of the digital technique my passion for the film images remained alive, so during our trips I shared my emotions with Evgenii. In March on our way back from reindeer breeder holiday Evgenii for the first time has mentioned his idea of the underwater large format shooting. It seems I was annoying enough with my cliché about the particular charm of the film photography that my colleague at least decided that I could be his ally in this almost impossible project.
Evgenii tells about the birth of the underwater large format idea: "All has started with the pinhole. I was so fascinated with the pinhole idea, that immediately I decided to try. But from the beginning I renounced the variants of the cameras from matchboxes or similar ideas. It was so clear for me that the shooting has to be done with the large format only. Then I set sights on the underwater pinhole, herewith I couldn't think about the standard cameras, in my head there was the image of the large format only. By the way from very beginning I thought about the sealing of the whole camera. Plus I planned to paint out the glass of the lenses with the black color and then to make the hole in this paint. But I doubt about the glass that could change the optic characteristics of the pinhole. This idea leaded me to the following question - do we really need the sealing? what should we seal in the empty box? The decision came just after, I realized that it was enough to make the sealing of the film, and other parts like lenses, simple shutter can work in the water. But it was so long time ago, 5-6 years probably".
After that conversation maybe several times we were coming back to the discussion of the underwater large format idea. But as it usual happens we were too busy with the current work, actually we didn't believe in the realization of such demanding project. On the other hand the idea was already born and it was growing and waiting for the right minute of the start. And it happened just like that. One day being off the city for the work issues I received the message from Evgenii that having such pause in our mutual work he had started the construction of the camera. It was in August of 2016. Very soon the camera and two first film holders were already done.
The camera is done for the 18x24 cm film size and practically is the simple sliding box.
In the meantime we have started first experiments with the monocular lenses and pinhole, in the totally dry studio and outdoors for the beginning.
Simultaneously with the above said experiments we have started the construction of the larger format camera (40 x 40 cm). We had the idea to use it for the first underwater shooting. This camera has traditional design with the movable boards and the bellow between it. This design decision despite the larger camera's size makes it more mobile and compact in transportation. Also it gives more possibilities for the shooting parameters regulation. Also in the studio we made first experiments with the new camera, still unfinished. We used both monocular lenses and pinhole.
The shooting under the water we started in June 2017. First of all we had to choose a suitable place for diving - not too far from the city, with the transparent water and the easy approach to the shore. With the help of local diver club we found the lake with the transparent water close to the big gas power plant. And so we've started the exploration of this lake in order to find the suitable shooting spots. The other interesting feature of the lake is the trunks you can see above the water. The lake was not really deep and probably it is the flooded forest with many snags. These snags under the water covered with silt and waterweeds impressed us by its fantastic and mythical view. The shoal of rivers perch came very close to the shore - there were not a lot of fishermen because of the relatively small lake size and the numerous snags.
At the beginning of the shootings we realized how many things still we had to make, purchase, adapt. First shooting season we decided to use our 18x24 camera and then to upgrade the big camera taking into account all possible inaccuracies and omissions. As we understood later we had enough errors - any practical work has a big difference from the theoretical evaluations. Constantly improving our equipment, shooting in the studio, refreshing our model wardrobe we spent this year. Last shooting of 2017 we carried out in the end of October already under the ice.
The Siberian weather is unpredictable and severe. We had to shoot during the thunder storm, snow fall, rains. Probably the thunder storm shooting was the most impressive one. Incredible thundering and powerful lightening close to the ETL leading from the power plant. Strong hail and downpour. And during this natural disaster we had to finish the series from 5 images according to the quantity of film-holders. Also we had enough funny accidents with the lost weights, the film-holders sailed away, the boat blown out in the middle of the lake. The local curious otter met us every time before shooting making her inspection of the equipment.
I believe the story about backstage of our project would be uncompleted without the description of the typical shooting day. As you understood from our pictures and the technology details, all shootings should have very careful preparation of the equipment, outfit, other small things necessary for working at the diving place. But previous to the underwater shooting we made trial shooting at home, adjusted the flash power, distance, aperture, prepared the model's outfit. At the shooting day we prepared 5 film-holders and all stuff according to the shooting plan. Besides the model's outfit, wet or dry suites and shooting equipment (large format camera, digital camera, flashes) every time we had no to forget side stuff such as knifes, cords, weights, different kind of tools etc.: without these small things the shooting could turn into a very difficult process.
Upon the arrival we assembled the equipment, dressed the model and prepared the photographer for the diving. Herewith the photographer-model separation was just a formality, because we could reverse our roles during the shooting and the work with the camera took the efforts of both of us. The next step was to prepare the underwater "scene": the camera transportation to the place, then we had to put some weights to the camera bottom (it has little positive buoyancy), with the small rubber boat we transported other necessary stuff - film-holders, lamps etc. The snags stuck out from the water helped us to park the boat and to have a rest between the immersions. The shooting itself, very often starting in the dusk, had 3 evident stages - the putting of the film-holder into the camera and the dark slide opening, then simultaneous immersion of the photographer and model (the model takes place, trying to keep right distance from the camera, the photographer opens the lenses, with the digital camera runs the flash and closes lenses tap and dark slide), next immersion was for film-holders change. Almost every time as I mentioned before we had some incidents with this process. But the weights lost on the muddy bottom or the film-holders sailed away because of the strong wind caused our indignation only during the shooting, now remembering such moments we only want to smile.
And here we are at the most dramatic moment on arriving to the studio. Every time the waiting and excitement: the joyful "All 5" or disappointed "Nothing".
Now having finished the shooting season of 2017, we have started the preparation to the next one. We plan to use our 40x40 cm camera, to immerse under the ice, to work with the equipment in order to use it for retro diving and shootings, to use the photographic paper instead of the films, to search new spots, to proceed with our historical researches and a lot of other things. Doing all these things we aim to realize larger projects about the relations between the man and the ocean.
And meanwhile we are getting ready to the new shootings and immersions we prepared over-water selection of the pictures about our work.
Text: Polina Petrenko.
Photos: Evgenii Bashta, Liliya Kostiv, Polina Petrenko, Andrey Semakin