It was a freezing, arctic day in Puskin, Russia. It was in February of 1995. I was hauling around a view camera case filled with tungsten lights, cables and plug adapters. I had a big bag of Hasselblad cameras and lenses over my shoulder. I was about to enter the Alexander Palace for the first time. But first we had to convince the head of security that everything would be okay. We were some of the first Americans to enter the historic building in a long, long time as it had been repurposed from "palace of the czars" to "headquarters of naval intelligence" sometime after the revolution.
The first thing I saw was this ceiling. I thought it looked wonderful. I loved the details and the colors. So I grabbed the battered and scarred Gitzo tripod and assembled a Hasselblad Superwide camera on top of it. The Superwide was legendary among architectural shooters. The 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens permanently grafted to the front was supposed to be absolutely rectilinear and used at f5.6 and slower the sharpness could be breathtaking.
Once I had the camera set up and position and roughly sighted in via the wonky optical finder that came with the camera I grabbed a Polaroid back and made a test frame on the black and white instant film we used at the time. My brain did some subconscious adjustments based on the Polaroid and then I loaded a back with 12 frames of Fuji Provia 100 in it onto the camera. As was the custom at the time I shot three frames. One at the exact setting which I presumed was the optimum exposure and then one frame about 2/3rds of a stop under that exposure and one that was about 2/3rds of a stop over that exposure. I took one last look at the ceiling and then pulled the camera off the tripod and caught up with my translator, our restoration architect and our armed, military escort.
I am pretty sure the last czar didn't have a strip of electrical conduit running along the wall next to the ceiling in his day but I am happy that I was able to see some of the glory and design of the time.
A trip to Pushkin rewards one with a chance to tour the (very fabulous) Catherine Palace and to also see the exterior of the Alexander Palace. If I could though I would give the traveler a couple pieces of advice: First, don't plan to go in February. It's cold, snow-covered and cold. Unimaginably cold for a Texan. Second, don't take 500 pounds of lights unless you are going on assignment (we were...) they'll just slow you down. And third, be sure to listen to your military escorts when they tell you that a certain view is forbidden. They really mean it.