I found a secret nuclear bunker in the middle of the City of Manchester. This is a building which many people walk past every day, unaware of its deep, fascinating history. The building was a state secret until 1968, having been built by non-English-speaking builders brought to Britain by NATO especially for this job and then taken home upon completion. It was designed and constructed to blend in to the surrounding area – it was camouflaged.
Inspired by the documentary work of the Bechers and Dillon Marsh’s series documenting disguised phone masts in South Africa, I have documented the textures and features and form of the street-level exterior of a building that houses the entrance to a NATO-built, cold-war era secret nuclear bunker in the city centre.
Unlike the Bechers’ and Marsh’s respective works though, I do not fully document the building in context. From my nine images a viewer cannot determine the location of the building, or the size of it. The building is a little-known secret and that is represented in my images by my obfuscation of the real, total size and form of it.
Some of my images show large formations of brickwork patterns which are visually confusing to try and perceive, and some of them simply capture small details. It is my intention that after viewing my work, people are more perceptive of the hundreds of years of fascinating history around them in every street.
My project has developed well. I shot multiple times at the location and allowed my research to inform and inspire my work.
I was influenced by Dillon Marsh’s series of photographs boldly documenting the camouflaged phone masts, holding the viewer’s attention on them, undermining the camouflage. I was influenced too by the work of the Bechers who clinically documented architecture.
I have sought to document the camouflage used to hide the secret nuclear bunker at my city-centre location by capturing only the textures and some of the form of areas of the structure. By isolating these areas I hope for the viewer to be reminded that even though something appears everyday, boring, or normal, it often isn’t. In Manchester particularly there is a huge and interesting history around us all the time but few people know about it, like how few people know about the secret nuclear bunker in the middle of Chinatown.
Below are the images I chose from my shoot for printing. There are nine in total and they’d be displayed in a 3 x 3 grid equally spaced horizontally and vertically – clinical almost in their presentation. They’re being printed borderless on A4 by DS Labs.
All of my images feature vertical lines cutting the frame in two showing the details and imperfections in the seams between different building materials.
Final Image 1
Final Image 2
Final Image 3
Final Image 4
Final Image 5
Final Image 6
Final Image 7
Final Image 8
Final Image 9
In response to my research into the documentary style of photography from the Bechers, and in response to my research into the thought and techniques of camouflage, this project is now progressing in a new and clear direction.
I wanted to explore the lie that this building is – it looks unremarkbale and uninteresting, but actually it hides a huge and fascinating bit of our history. I revisited my location and shot lots of detail shots of the textures and fixtures and fittings that the builders of this former state-secret used to make the building blend in. They are a form of camouflage – the normal, everyday appearance of the urban environment used to disguise and hide a huge, remarkable secret.
My final images will be photographic studies of the textures, close enough that you can’t see the whole location. By shooting so tight I’ll effectively recontextualise the individual elements of the camouflage and draw the viewer’s attention to the lie.
There are many very interesting possible shots, covering solid security doors, barbed wire, old and new brickwork, locks, and signage.
I prefer the images shot straight-on, as opposed to the few shot upwards (for example the barbed wire shot (number 6)) because that seems to isolate the subject and allows no background to be visible.
Below are my contact sheets from this recce.
Camoflauge has taken many forms over the centuries and over different areas, mostly in military applications but also in civil applications.
Dazzle Camouflage (Research.archives.gov, 1917)
Militarys have experimented with many different kinds of camouflages, from the black and white dazzle style pictured above, which is designed not to conceal the person or object (it was popular on ships in WW2), rather to give a marksman real problems in gauging the shape, size, distance, speed, and direction of movement of the dazzle-disguised military unit because the pattern confuses the brain.
Dazzle camouflage on the French cruiser FFS GLOIRE in the 1940s (Imperial War Museums, n.d.)
In civilian life camouflage is less noticeable. Dillon Marsh’s documentary study of disguised phone masts in South Africa is a great example of modern, non-military disguise.
Imperial War Museums,. THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR. Retrieved 20 January 2015, from http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205187249
Research.archives.gov,. (1917). Soldier in black and white uniform to conceal him while climbing trees. He stands in front of a house camouflaged to represent a fence and trees. Company F, 24th Engineers. American University, D.C. Army Engineer Corps., 11/14/1917. Retrieved 13 January 2015, from http://research.archives.gov/description/530710
Berndt and Hilda Becher are notable German practitioners of landscape photography. They produce typologies – arrangements of similar photographs of similar subjects – documenting industrial structures first, and later other notable types of architecture.
Their typologies are precise, clinical, objective documentary studies of their subjects. The buildings they document are shown in their surroundings, keeping them in context, and acurately record the shape, size and style of the building.
The Bechers first set out to document the disappearing industrial architecture.
In my research for this project I’ve decided to look into other photographers who are working around the subject of secret government installations, defence, and military themes.
Mishka Henner’s project “Dutch Landscapes” is a series of landscape photographs documenting secret government, military or political buildings and installations. The images are all taken from the satellite imagery published by Google Earth.
Many government around the world quickly started to censor newly available satellite imagery made easily publically accessible by Google Earth in 2005, with a variety of different styles of censorship. Some governments blur sensitive areas, some clone imagery from other locations, and some just put a plain colour block over the shape of the censored area.
“Surprisingly, one of the most vociferous of all governments to enforce this form of censorship were the Dutch,” Mishka Henner says in his summary of Dutch Landscapes (Henner, 2011), “hiding hundreds of significant sites including royal palaces, fuel depots and army barracks throughout their relatively small country. The Dutch method of censorship is notable for its stylistic intervention compared to other countries; imposing bold, multi-coloured polygons over sites rather than the subtler and more standard techniques employed in other countries. The result is a landscape occasionally punctuated by sharp aesthetic contrasts between secret sites and the rural and urban environments surrounding them.”
Dillon Marsh, a South African landscape photographer, shot a series documenting the different ways that mobile phone masts were hidden in his country.
His series of photographs of phone masts disguised as trees, “Invasive Species”, began shooting in 1996 in Cape Town, and “explores the relationship between the environment and the disguised towers of Cape Town and its surrounds.” (Marsh, n.d.)
The photos all use a common composition, with the disguised mast fully in shot, framed in the centre and reaching near to the top of the frame. This draws your eye straight to it, even where the disguise changes from mast to mast, in the photos the disguise is broken.
Robert Voit is another photographer producing very similar work to Marsh’s. Voit’s “New Trees” series started in 2003. (PopPhoto, 2011)
Voit’s “New Trees”.
I’m interested in these two projects because of how the document disguised structures. My assigned location is disguised from the outside, and was for some time a British state secret, and I potentially might be exploring similar themes in my own project.
Marsh, D. Dillon Marsh Photography – Invasive Species. Dillonmarsh.com. Retrieved 17 January 2015, from http://www.dillonmarsh.com/invasivespecies.html
PopPhoto,. (2011). American Photo: Robert Voit’s Fake Plastic Trees. Retrieved 17 January 2015, from http://www.popphoto.com/how-to/2011/02/american-photo-robert-voits-fake-plastic-trees
The first time I visited my location I shot some general coverage of it for future reference.
The building is unremarkable and non-descript. It is designed with high walls and barbed wire surrounding it, making it uninviting but not drawing attention.
I’m going to research some more on photography of unremarkable, every day buildings like the Becher’s architectural studies of old German buildings since that is how this building appears on the outside – although we know that inside it is actually very interesting. I want to try and explore that lie in this project.