Star Trails in Violet

Star Trails in the Tien Shan

A star trails photo made on E6 film at the Almaty Astronomical Observatory. The discoloration is from a combination of accidental irradiation and expired chemistry.

This is my favorite mountain photo, by any photographer. I looooove that it’s mine. So what the hell’s going on with it, right? Here’s the thing…the Soviet Union did a great deal of experimentation in Kazakhstan. They did some social engineering – requiring doctors, lawyers and professors to become farmers, and farmers to become doctors, lawyers and professors. And they did some radiation experiments as well – crop dusting cities with radioactive dust, spreading radioactive waste across the landscape – just to see what would happen. In the city of Semei, formerly Semipalatinsk, you’ll see a larger than normal number of people missing half a left arm, one of the odd mutations (that isn’t fatal) caused by prenatal radiation exposure. So a few weeks before the trip to the Almaty Astronomical Observatory, we’d gone out to the Singing Dune, in the middle of nowhere, and after I got the film back, looking like this, I learned that there’s a good deal of radiation left over from the experiments. Good thing I’m planning not to have children.

The other thing, and this may have changed in the last several years, but when I lived in Kazakhstan in the mid 00s, certain things were difficult to come by, and photo chemistry was on that list of certain things. My film would get developed in whatever chemistry they could find, and it often resulted in odd color shifts. The radiation and old chemistry combined for this incredible look.

What makes this my favorite mountain photo is the alienness of the sky and the pink cast on the mountains, combined with the strange bit of armature stretching across the entire vertical plane on the left. You can see an airplane moving from the mid-left to the upper right in a series of three blips of light, and a satellite moving against the grain of the star trails in the lower right in a faint streak. It’s completely different from any other mountain photo I’ve seen, and quite a bit different from most other star trails, as well.

Just in case you have any money left for holiday shopping, this photo, along with many others, is available for sale at, where you can buy prints and cards.

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