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Haunting Black and White Photos Document Abandoned Nuclear Missile Bases

Photographer Brett Leigh Dicks explores the crumbling ruins of Cold War-era armaments.

Curious about the relics of America and Soviet Russia’s nuclear weapon build-up, photographer Brett Leigh Dicks traveled to various nuclear ballistic missile bases both in the United States and Europe. Armed with his trusty Hasselblad 500C camera, Dicks took photographs of the ruined missile sites for his series Opposing Forces, as much for a close-up look at apocalyptic ideology as to document how humans leave ruins behind.

Opposing Forces has its origins in a discussion Dicks had with friend Joey Burns of the Tucson-based band Calexico, who told him that the song “Sonic Wind” was inspired by an old Titan II ICBM base in Green Valley, just south of Tucson. Feeling the old Cold War uneasiness return, Dick started researching the Titan II ICBM base, which is now a museum. Dicks explored the entire complex from top to bottom.

An abandoned U.S. missile base

“There's nothing quite like standing at the bottom of an eight level silo with a 103-foot, 340,000 pound Titan II missile hovering above you,” Dicks tells The Creators Project. “Exploring that facility got me wondering about what happened to all the other decommissioned bases, both here in the US and abroad.”

Dicks began researching the various missile programs of both the US and USSR, narrowing them down to former Titan II bases in the United States and the R-12 Dvina bases in Eastern Europe. To find the locations, Dicks used Google Maps, Google Earth, and Wikimapia, because nuclear bases are usually omitted from physical maps. After analyzing the imagery and finding a missile installation, Dicks made his own map with markers, directions, and distances.

An abandoned Soviet missile base

While Opposing Forces is predominantly centered on facilities around Tucson, Dicks has also photographed former bases in Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington. In Europe, he photographed former USSR installations in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine.

Dicks says that gaining access to installations in Eastern Europe was pretty straightforward, as the majority of locations can be found crumbling in forests, while others are on private land. Some hand gestures and sound effects simulating a rocket launch usually got Dicks and his camera to the locations.

An abandoned U.S. missile base

“A few places were sketchy, though,” he says. “One old site was obviously being used as some sort of drug lab, while I was denied access to another by a Kalashnikov-toting individual who conveyed, while pointing the gun at me, that the place was closed for the day. All the while behind him, some of his buddies were dividing up the contents of a truck and loading them into a number of different vans.”

Many of the US bases are now privately owned. This demanded that Dicks identify landholders, then reach out to them for permission to photograph the sites.

An abandoned Soviet missile base

“Exploring those weren't without their challenges,” says Dicks. “The US Air Force sealed off the underground launch control centers by pouring concrete down the access shaft. The owner of one facility had spent twenty years excavating concrete to the point where you could to squeeze through a tiny chiseled tunnel into the control center.”

“Another owner had completely cleared the concrete from his access portal and lowered down an industrial scissor lift,” he adds. “He was in the process of refitting the command center and had laid down new carpet and wanted me to take off my shoes while exploring.”

Dicks used two lenses, a standard and a wide angle, to give the photographs in Opposing Forces the sense of being there. He used black and white film because he likes the emotive aesthetic and sense of timelessness.

An abandoned U.S. missile base

“One of the things that fascinated me most about the bases was how the people who manned them had carved their presence into the place,” says Dicks. “The Soviet bases had military themed artwork painted on the interior walls—images of missiles, troops and insignias—while outside you would find mosaics or statues of Lenin.”

“Within the American bases it was common for servicemen to paint the blast doors,” he adds. “One missile site I photographed has an image of a missile on a domino accompanied by the words, ‘World wide delivery in 30 minutes or less... or your next one is free,’ on its door.”

An abandoned Soviet missile base

Dicks also saw a painting of a penny with an ICBM coming out of the coin’s depiction of the Lincoln Memorial. Other relics still remain in some of the derelict Titan II facilities, like bedding in the crew quarter, safety check manuals, and computer frameworks and control desks. “Standing there staring at the console I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have received the order to turn the keys,” says Dicks.

Dicks sees these abandoned missile installations as monuments to the evolution of the human species. What had been built to deliver a nuclear warhead on an ICBM were eventually dismantled as the USSR collapsed and treaties were signed.

An abandoned U.S. missile base

“While the missiles were taken away and destroyed, the scars from that era remain,” says Dicks. “I have always been fascinated by the spectral evidence of past societies or ideologies and found these relics very poignant in that regard.”

“There are a lot of things in our world we should pay more attention to and think a lot more about,” he muses. “Like our ability as a species to both create and destroy on an epic scale.”

Click here to see more of Brett Leigh Dicks’ work.

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