The Last Things
Photographer David Moore delves into the underground world of London's Crisis Management Centre. Click Play Video for an online exhibition
The first photograph in David Moore’s The Last Things book, which accompanies an exhibition of the same name, is the image of a stairwell with a tiny sign pointing the way to a bomb shelter. A quote from a Ministry of Defence official on the opposite page reads: ‘I don’t understand how you got this far.’
The British government have never officially acknowledged the existence of London’s underground Crisis Management Centre, the first (or last) port of call for the British Prime Minister and his privileged retinue when the bomb finally drops or the sky falls in.
After two years of hard-headed negotiations, the MoD finally afforded Moore the opportunity to roam the never-before photographed corridors, paltry private quarters and charged engine rooms of London‘s subterranean seat of power.
With Moore’s resulting exhibition now adorning the walls of the Belfast Exposed Gallery (the exhibition‘s debut venue), and his accompanying book now available to all and sundry, will the MoD finally bite the proverbial bullet and admit the obvious?
‘This is the first and the last time that anyone other than government employees will be allowed in there,’ Moore states. ‘The photographs are there for everyone to see, but the MoD still won’t admit that the place actually exists. I suppose that’s just the way it is.’
Having made his name working for various international Sunday supplements and in the commercial market since the late 1980s, Moore now works mainly as a teacher. The Last Things is his third solo project. His first, The Velvet Arena, according the University of Westminster's Professor David Chandler, documented the 'intimate social spaces [of London] where deals are struck and confidences are broken, plush units of power and influence sequestered away from the unimaginable reaches of the city'.
Moore's second solo work, The Commons, took the photographer's fascination with London’s concealed spaces one step further. A highly acclaimed collection, The Commons brought the eye of the everyman into the exclusive world of the Palace of Westminster.
'A lot of my work is about the observation of state and government institutions,' explains Moore. 'The Last Things came out of The Commons, because after that project I thought, can I take this idea of using documentary photography any further, to allow a view for the rest of us into places that we might otherwise never see?'
With the help of Angela Wait, Keeper of Art at the Imperial War Museum, Moore began 'a process of letter writing and canvassing' that would ultimately lead him underground.
'Angela told me about the Crisis Management Centre, this closed-off environment beneath the streets of London. I can’t tell you precisely where it is because the MoD have asked me not to do that, but people can make their own assumptions.
'Angela had a contact in the MoD. We went to that person first and over a period of two years we progressed up a hierarchy of security meetings. They finally agreed to grant limited access. But I knew from previous experience that once you’re in it’s like anything else in life, if you get on with people they’ll open up more doors for you. Sure enough, that's how it turned out.
'It became a little bit like a video game, where you’re in a virtual space and you have to say the right things for another door to open before you can walk through.'
The Crisis Management Centre was built in the late 1990s under then Prime Minister Tony Blair, but it looks much older, like a typical 1970s Civil Service building - utilitarian and stark.
There is no natural light. No modernist glass walls or 21st century luxury. Some walls are unplastered, electrics and plumbing trace the walls unconcealed. The carpets are cheap and the bedrooms prison-cell drab.
Yet Moore makes it all seem impossibly beautiful. A bookshelf stacked with Clancy, Fleming and Colin Bateman, of all people. A stockpile of unused pillows. A hospital bed. A cheap Renoir print in a cheap, ersatz brass frame hung on a wall of painted breeze blocks.
You can feel the vast emptiness of the complex, imagine the day when it fills with panicked politicians, see yourself in their place via the glass frontages on each picture - a touch bordering on genius. Never has Civil Service monotony been so appealing.
'With The Last Things, because no-one has been in this environment before, it was important to me that I use available light. The pictures are all very long exposures, not that that has any particular effect to the viewer, but to me it was important because there’s something about the prints and the colour casts that aren’t really controllable. That’s quiet an interesting metaphor for what I photographed in this case.'
Throughout his time in the facility, Moore was not allowed to stray too far from his MoD guide, and in the event of publication, demands were made that those frames with door numbers or names visible be digitally altered. Yet Moore admits to being pleasantly surprised by the levels of censorship that he encountered on the project.
'When it came down to the final sign-off meeting they let me use every photograph that I wanted to use, with certain conditions upon certain photographs. That was their only censorship requirements. I think that the MoD might have overlooked some stuff with regards the greater effect of the photographs.
'One good example of censorship in this exhibition is the photograph of the projected map of Iraq. In the bottom right-hand corner there’s a map reference that they wanted me to take out. I mean, the fact that they’re actually looking at Iran leads in to all sorts of other questions and assumptions. And yet, in actual fact, with that photograph, they were very happy for me to use it.
'We know that the British Army, the west, are looking at Iran. To admit it publicly I thought would be difficult for them. But the Lieutenant Colonel who was in the sign-off meeting almost wanted me to put that in the book. That certainly wasn’t an oversight. There are some photographs that I think are potentially quite subversive.'