March 2014



Chernobyl Reactor Number Four tin type from film positive 2013


The end of May 2013 found four of us enjoying the hospitality of Josephine Sacabo and Dalt Wonk in their New Orleans French Quarter home. We spent three days in Josephine’s studio, exploring both wet-plate collodion and gravure printing, and the intervening nights at their kitchen table, talking and laughing, while eating and drinking. Josephine’s Master Printer is Meg Turner, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. The two work in tandem to produce limited edition works of Josephine’s explorations in illustration and communication. Meg came to New Orleans in 2009 and founded, with others, The Community Printshop at Louisiana Artworks. She first went to work in Josephine’s studio in 2010 as Workshop Assistant, became Studio Assistant later that year, and Master Printer in 2012. During our May get-together, Meg casually mentioned her desire to go “shoot” Chernobyl. She hadn’t bought any tickets, didn’t have any plan established, and didn’t appear to be thinking of it as much more than something else on her list of things to get around to. The next time I saw Meg, at PhotoNOLA last December, she had been to Chernobyl, returned, produced a portfolio about it, and had hung the works in a solo show at the New Orleans Printshop Gallery. It was a total blast to stumble into this great exhibition hanging on the walls at a community printshop, produced by an artist teeming with passion for her vision. We have held an interview across the internet over the past month.

Judy Sherrod: I know of you primarily as a printmaker. What is it that makes you a photographer?
Meg Turner: I trained as a printmaker, and still think of myself as one; really the way in which I engage photography is as a printer. I began to use a large format camera in 2008 when I took a traditional copper photogravure class. I shot negatives with help from experienced photographers, made positives and then created and printed copper plates in an intaglio form I was familiar with. I fell in love with the process, bought a 4×5 Calumet and kept printing. It sounds strange but I was drawn to the immediacy of it – making a plate in four days is still faster than spending a month drawing an architectural rendering of a building, which is what I was doing previously. So I never formally learned how to print silver gelatin prints, or even digital ones.

I view printmaking as the process of making multiples from a matrix, so that can be a lithograph stone, an etching plate or a negative. Printmakers are drawn to process and technique, and getting our hands dirty, so when I began to learn the process of wet-plate collodion, I immediately began to think about how it could be a multiple. The most obvious method was to shoot with glass negatives and make prints, but I was drawn to the tintype as a final object, because of its luminosity, and its very liquid smoothness. I began to think of the process merely as the most perfect form of printing. So how to make a plate from a previously shot negative? The world is a positive image so it followed that to make plates from negatives I would merely have to make positives and then expose them in an enlarger.
So, it’s a very printmaker-way of going about it.

JS: Why Chernobyl? You were one and one-half years old when the explosion occurred. How did you prepare for the trip? What were the logistics?

MT: Well I had been exploring the power plant here for years – using it really as my sanctuary. I’d go there if I felt cooped up or depressed or restless and it would always calm me down, I would find new rooms, new machines.

I’d bring my camera and feel productive. I felt like I was capturing an elusive dreamscape, especially in the last few years with rumors of it becoming a mall. I began to wonder how this experience could compare to the notorious ruins, the enormous and deadly failures of contemporary industry. Fukushima? Chernobyl? So I proposed a trip to my best friend and that was it. We did a little research into visiting Chernobyl, found the travel group with the best website, but they were booked. So we went with the website with the least spelling mistakes. We had to give them flight info and passport numbers over the internet, and these two burly Ukrainian men met us at the train station in Kiev. I honestly couldn’t be certain it wasn’t a scam until I saw the radiation warning signs along the highway.

Our trains had been late in Germany, causing us to spend 24 hours in Warsaw (where we bought secondhand clothes to throw away after Chernobyl). So we were lucky we booked a private tour because we got to Chernobyl 2 hours after our permits said, and we had a bit of trouble at the gate – the guards didn’t want to let us in. One guard had to hitch a ride to the headquarters to change the permits and we sat around the huge fence, staring at the fields of sunflowers.

Meredith, who lives on an old steel yard that recently went through soil remediation, commented that sunflowers pull toxins, including radioactivity out of the soil. Then the sunflowers have to be disposed of as toxic waste. She asked the guide if that’s what they were doing and he stared at her blankly and responded, “No, they are planted for sunflower oil. It is fine, it is outside the radiation zone!” We were literally feet from huge danger signs, so I was wary of eating. When we finally got in they actually took us to a workers cafeteria where people who are building the new sarcophagus, or managing, or scientists, still eat. They fed us a huge, Ukrainian meal that was heavy with boiled fish.

Then we got into the car and headed towards the reactors, stopping first to photograph from across the manmade canal. You could see a half-built cooling tower on the right that they were in the process of building in 1986. This part of the tour was very strict. It was in fact NOTHING like exploring a ruin. We were told where to stand to take what photo, and also told emphatically what not to shoot (out of the car window). This part of the exclusion zone was well maintained and busy. A consortium of European countries is funding the construction of a new cement “sarcophagus” to contain the still-leaking reactor #4, so it was essentially a huge construction site.
Then we headed to Pripyat, letting a herd of wild horses pass us on the road.

JS: What did you study? What did you read? And how did the trip change you?

MT: To be honest I did most of my research after I returned. Before we left I was focused on booking the tour and the train tickets and arranging what would wind up being a two month trip to Europe. So beyond minimal research into how to mitigate a day of exposure to radiation, I didn’t do much. When I returned I dug more, including finding the documentary The Battle for Chernobyl which is a very good look at the hours and days right after the explosion – the response and evacuation and containment. I also ran into some disturbing websites from pro-nuclear groups that were downplaying all harmful effects, downplaying the huge number of cases of thyroid cancer in the area, effectively saying “nuclear energy is safe, and Chernobyl was a design flaw,” but even that wasn’t that bad.

It was really sobering to look at a relatively small structure and think about the consequences of losing our vigilance in containing the lethal material inside. We joke about a zombie apocalypse or a worldwide economic collapse, but if that happens who’s going to keep maintaining the concrete sarcophagus? I mean zombies aside, that area has to be contained for thousands of years. How do we even communicate that to a future civilization? How arrogant are we to assume we will always be able to control it? It really drove home to me how insane the gamble is that we are playing for the sake of cheap energy.

JS: There are a number of ways to approach a project like this in terms of equipment and presentation. Please explain the choices you made and why you made the ones you did.

MT: I have experimented with different mediums over the years, but the goal has been constant: to bring the viewer into the places I explore. I want the person looking at my photographs to feel transported into the environment and feel just a fraction of the excitement and calm and wonder that I feel when exploring and wandering. So before I learned photography I was drawing, but I found photography to be faster and better able to capture texture in the space.

I learned on a Calumet rail camera, but have a Crown Graphic for travelling. That’s what I brought to Chernobyl. I had also been experimenting with 3-D stereoscopic images as another way to feel inside the space. Stereo 3-D viewing was popular over the last century (and lately in blockbuster cinema) but has never been taken seriously in the world of either fine art or documentary photography. It has such a magic to it.

I started shooting stereo on just my iPhone, but managed to borrow a stereo-realist film camera for this trip. Mainly Meredith was shooting the stereo while I was using the 4×5.
I chose to use wet-plate as the final process because I was so enamored with its lack of grain. I have been printing photogravures since 2008, and I love the process, but I was totally enchanted with the liquid smoothness of tintypes – how one could really feel like it was possible to fall into the image. I learned to make lith film positives for copper gravure, so I applied that knowledge to making tintypes from negatives.
The final show was comprised of tintypes, photogravure, 3-D stereo cards in wooden viewing boxes, and a large installation. The installation used two-way mirrors and bricks to make one feel like they were in the basement of a vast dusty building.
As for Fukushima – I would need to change my approach if I thought about going there. This past series was about how industrial relics that are ignored become playgrounds for exploration, crime, scrapping, and schemes. They have all been shut down for so long that no one is even trying to remediate or rehabilitate them. Chernobyl might be the bridge to thinking more about the consequences of how we build and what happens when we can’t just discard and forget – but I will want to come up with a new way to shoot and present.

There’s a woman who built a camera that responds to radiation. I would want to do something more in that direction, were I to try and photograph Fukushima, or oil rigs in the gulf, or the old refineries of Sugarland, Texas.


Meg Turner lives and works in New Orleans, Louisiana, but can occasionally be found in the Northeast where she grew up. Meg works on prints, photography, and installation projects responding to the landscape she explores. In addition to her own work and contract printing, Meg also prints for local photographer Josephine Sacabo, the most supportive and fabulous boss ever known. Meg is heavily involved with the New Orleans Community Printshop, which offers classes and facilities to local artists and educators. She believes firmly in the power of the press and the political potency of printing. She loves old and unused buildings, rides her bike everywhere, and is learning to juggle the intricacies of being an artist/arts administrator/teaching artist/adventurer.

Artist’s Statement

Judy Sherrod just returned from shootapalooza, the experiment, held in Port Aransas, Texas, on Mustang Island. shootapalooza is a beach festival celebrating photographers and the art they create. Sixteen shootapaloozanos came from as far away as Wisconsin, Seattle, Washington, DC, and Colorado, to talk about their work and show each other new ways to photograph, process, and print. Proceeds benefitted the Port Aransas Museum and will do so next year when shootapalooza rides again.