Friday, February 4, 2011

Photos of the Week: Secret Underground Lairs

I'm so glad you could join us, Mr. Bond
 Each week I collect 10 or so images from magazines and newspapers for a column I write for Le Lettre, a photography website. (Go here for my latest dispatch. BTW, if you are in the photo business in any way, or if you are a photo enthusiast of any kind, you should really check out Le can subscribe, too, and it's free. It's a amazing source of news about exhibitions and agencies and much more.) This all brings me to some pictures I ran across in Wired magazine by photographer Christoph Morlinghaus, who, I am ashamed to admit, I'd never heard of. I soon corrected that by going to his website and Skyping him.

Wired sent Morlinghaus around the world to photograph underground facilities. These are the places where Kraft keeps its cheese, where Corbis keeps its photo archive, and where WikiLeaks keeps its secrets. He went to Poland to photograph an underground cathedral where miners worship before they begin their work. He went to Wales to shoot an underground power station. The images he made are incredible--and I mean that literally. You simply cannot believe what you are seeing. It turns out the WikiLeaks's underground lair, which lay under the streets of Stockholm, was in fact designed as a lair: Ernst Stavro Blofeld and and SPECTRE underlings would feel comfortable plotting the destruction of civilization there (above). The Polish cathedral is like a scene from Lord of the Rings, a Middle Earth with a reality all its own. Morlinghaus's photographs remind us of a truth we already know but prefer to ignore: Truth is stranger than fiction.

Morlinghaus is based in New York, but right now he's on "sabbatical" in Colombia, and I guess he needs it. He told me he did the entire Wired shoot in two weeks, which meant he basically lived on airplanes. He was traveling with a large-format camera, but no lighting equipment. "I haven't set up lighting in years," he said. So all the underground images were shot with available light? Yes. How is that done? "It's the beauty of still using film," he said. He set up his camera, composed, and opened the shutter--exposures were typically 10 minutes or so.

If the truth that is out there is indeed stranger than fiction, sometimes it's because the real thing is based on fiction. WikiLeaks, for instance calls its facility the "James Bond Villain Data Center." Kinda makes you wonder what their agenda is, doesn't it? I like the fact that it's built in an abandoned nuclear shelter, so, in theory, after World War III WikiLeaks will be around to disclose the secret diplomatic cables that started it. Here is one of Morlinghaus's outtakes:

Not seen in this photo: the WikiLeak Shark Tank
Morlinghaus, who grew up "in a place in Germany that nobody has ever heard of--so say I'm from Hamburg, because that's the closest city"--said the site that awed him most was the Chapel of St. Kinga in the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Weiliczka, Poland. "It's really big--not as big as St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, but really big," he said. (Wired says that in fact it is 10,400 square feet in size.)

The Chapel of St. Kinga (above and below)
I suppose for people interested in photography, the most interesting site might be the Corbis Film Preservation Facility in an abandoned limestone mine in Pennsylvania. (Apparently this mine is also the place where all the biggies in Washington, D.C. will go in the event of super-volcanos erupting and causing end-of-times quality shiz topside. (At least they'll have stuff from WikiLeaks to read.) The Corbis cavern is now kept at 45 degrees, which is cold enough to help prevent deterioration of film and prints, but still warm enough for the mole-like minion who are busy cataloging the 20 million pictures down there. After they're done--and I guess they will be able to keep at it even after the killer asteroid strike of 2012--the air temp inside the locker will be lowered to minus-4 degrees.

The Corbis photo locker (above and below)

 The Dinorwig Power Station in Gwynedd, Wales features Europe's biggest man-made cavern. That's where the station's turbine sits.

The Dinorwig Power Station (above and below)

 Of all the underground sites that Morlinghaus shot, the most visually prosaic is the Kraft Foods Distribution Center in (or under?) Springfield, Missouri. What you have here are barrels of cheese (or cheez?), so, not much to look at for James Bond fans. For any of the zillions of you who will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday it''s a very important place, however, and I will explain why:

The Kraft Foods Distribution Center (above and below)

Wired says that nearly every ounce of Kraft cheese (including Velveeta, and you know you're going to be cramming nachos up through the third quarter) spends part of its life in these barrels. It's not aging, oh no. It's just keeping cool--underground refrigerators are cheaper to run operate than above-ground refrigerators. "It was pretty cold," said Morlinghaus.


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