I was inspired by a recent 35mmc post to put together a set of 5 photos of the Riga Air Museum in Latvia, which I visited this summer at breakneck speed (and only just caught my flight back to Copenhagen) against the protestations of the museum guy that he hadn’t shown me the best bits yet… and anyway I grabbed my partner’s OM-1 with a 28mm lens on it to get as much stuff in the frame as possible, stuck a roll of Ektar 100 in it – I’m not especially familiar with camera, lens or film – and took some pictures.
The museum is a spare lot on the edge of Riga Airport. I would guess that the exhibits are all the hardware that was left behind when the Soviet Union ceased to trade at the end of 1991. There had been a good deal of drama in the Baltic Republics, and I can’t imagine the question of what to do with this stuff was at the top of people’s minds. I’d spotted the monster heavy-lift helicopter (Mil Mi-6 “Hook”) through a window in the terminal on a previous visit and was keen to take a better look another day. There are lots of photos on the Web of the equipment here as I guess it’s one of the better collections in Europe that isn’t in Russia itself. It’s seen better days, with clear plexiglass in the canopies and bright paintwork on older photos but I’d argue it’s all mellowed out rather nicely and looks a lot less likely to hurt anyone.
The first picture is of an Ilyushin Il-28 “Beagle”. This was a 1950s bomber aircraft, probably analogous to the British Canberra, of which I think the North Koreans are still flying Chinese copies. It had a plexiglass nose at some point- even the Soviet airliners had them- which has been taped-up or replaced with an opaque material. I love the patina on this, the weather-streaks on the rivets and the ghost of the number ‘38’
One of the many contradictions in my life is between my committed personal position against militarism and war, and my childlike wonder at military vehicles and especially aircraft. They have amazing shapes, details and aesthetics, that should be artistic flourishes but are obviously highly specific to efficiencies within their murderous purpose. We had a lecture in my Architecture undergrad about why American Cold-War-era spacecraft looked like soup cans and the Soviet ones looked like miniature versions of St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the look of Soviet military hardware is likewise very particular.
Next there are a couple of early Soviet helicopters, from left-to-right a Mil Mi-2 “Hoplite” and a Mil Mi-4 “Hound”. Part of the joy of looking at Soviet aircraft is the faintly ridiculous NATO reporting names they were given, which I take great pleasure in appending to the examples here. This “Hound” has taken on a fetching pink hue as the seasons have ravaged its red civilian paintwork and its curious deep-sea-creature bearing. It also has landing gear at the front that resembles a scaffolding tower or a supermarket trolley and may still have a huge rotary piston engine in its nose. The rotor-blades cast wonderful shadows on a day like this.
Tied to a post like a dog outside the newsagents (I think the rope and peg are actually to remind me not to go and hug the fuselage) is a Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig-15 “Fagot” in a two-seat training variant. It still wears its number and the split intake at the front recalls a scholarly drawing of a prehistoric shellfish, fossilised much like this old aeroplane which had its heyday in the era of the Korean War. The film and the camera’s metering have done a pretty good job of keeping highlights and shadows under reasonable control here.
A strange and glorious exhibit is the cockpit-sections of three airliners, lined up as if they were hunting-trophies on the wall of a giant plane-spotter’s hallway. From left, Tupolev Tu-124 “Cookpot”, Tu-114 “Cleat” and Antonov An-24 “Coke”. You can still fly short-haul in the regions of Russia and the former Soviet Union in the latter if you’re feeling brave. There’s a thing about having glass noses on these machines- for practicing bomb-aiming on a slow day? – although I can’t imagine you would be able to see very much through them these days. Unlike the history of their times, they are certainly less transparent with the passage of time. The typologies and history of these planes are interesting- like the military aircraft they evolved in parallel to those of the rest of the world, and I had a great time with the internet identifying them.
The last of my pick of five photographs is a side-on view of a Mil Mi-8 “Hip”- the world’s most produced helicopter which has many wonderful bits for the feature-oriented- some rocket-launching contraptions, a fearsomely complicated hub on the top, blades showing with age their reptilian segments, big clamshell doors at the back, lovely lines of rivets, a mouldy old red star and a strange tube down only one side. I think this might be my favourite frame of the whole film, with the angle of the sunlight showing off the fundamental curves of the thing and the dents and ripples in the panels. I like all the circles too: of the exhausts, the windows with their nautical appearance and the wheels.
The Olympus OM-1 is a superb camera, but you probably all knew that already. My partner and I agree that Jane Bown’s pictures are also superb, and we enjoyed a great documentary called “Looking For Light” available on Amazon Prime which is both very moving and shows how brilliant her work is. I therefore persuaded Maggie to acquire the OM-1 (as used by Bown), so I could have my Pentax MX back. The Olympus does everything the Pentax does (apart from tell you what aperture and shutter speed you’re using in the viewfinder) with so much more mechanical finesse and one of the very best-sounding film SLR shutters. I’m also surprised that the shutter-speed control on the lens-mounting wasn’t more widely adopted as it quickly gives you so much control without having to take your eye away from the finder. I’ve obviously had to give it back so couldn’t depict it in the featured image above. It was such a sunny summer’s day and the light was fantastic so I just shot away at everything at f11 and 1/250th- processing is by Exposure Film Labs with their nice ‘sloppy borders’ option. The Ektar was pretty much what I could find in July this year in the Great Colour Negative Film Drought of 2022 and its results are pleasing. I’ve a couple of rolls left which I look forward to using.
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