Aboveground, London is an exceptionally clean and well-groomed city, but its streets hide an dystopian-looking underworld, blocked off from the vast majority of the public for decades. There are networks of dank hidden sewers, cable conduits, road and utility tunnels, old catacombs, and abandoned train tubes. Now, a daring group of self-identified “place hackers” is using photography to bring this chthonic region to light, however forbidden their explorations may be.
Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital, a new book from art and architecture publisher Prestel, assembles material from 12 anonymous photographers infatuated with accessing underground spaces and documenting them illegally. Featured in the book are shots of the abandoned British Museum tube station, rumored to be haunted by the ghost of an Egyptian Pharoah’s daughter; the ruins of stations destroyed by WWII bombs; and deep-level shelters repurposed as sites for secure document storage.
Every single photograph in the book was “taken without permission from anyone,” writes editor Bradley Garrett, who works by day as a geography researcher at the University of Oxford. Garrett says the 12 photographers included here chose to remain anonymous for fear of a response by authorities. Another six subterranean photographers refused to include their work in the book, and after hearing it would be published, one went so far as to burn four years’ worth of her negatives, fearing arrest.
Armed with headlamps and cameras, these rogue archaeologists climbed over palisade fencing and barbed wire; lowered themselves on ropes through ventilation shafts; and popped manholes open, all to access moldy, sprawling, often pitch-black nether regions, inhabited only by vermin. “Walking miles of empty tunnels, we found it difficult to comprehend the rent per square foot we paid for our flats,” says Garrett.
There’s a political element to this verboten spelunking, a call to challenge the status quo of how the public interacts with urban infrastructure. “We stand by our belief that publicly funded architectural projects should be visible and accessible to the hard-working public whose tax revenue made them possible in the first place,” Garrett writes. “Our photography, in that respect, is doing the dual political work of making urban places more open, more free, more transparent and more accessible . . . Our cameras are the more powerful weapons in a war over freedom of information.”
Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital is available here for $26.