Unintended Beauty – Photographs by Alastair Philip Wiper | Essay by Marigold Warner | LensCulture

When Alastair Philip Wiper first picked up a camera in 2007, he never thought it would lead him to photographing the world’s largest nuclear research facility, a medicinal cannabis farm, and a sausage factory. In fact, he never thought he would end up as a photographer at all. Wiper was six years out of a degree in philosophy and politics when he began making images. After stints of cheffing and travelling the world, he eventually settled in Copenhagen and got a job as a graphic designer for a clothing brand. They needed a photographer to shoot some lookbooks, so he volunteered.

Aurora Nordic medicinal cannabis greenhouse, Denmark. Mads Pedersen, a third-generation tomato grower, is the owner of Scandinavia’s largest tomato-growing empire, Alfred Pedersen & Sons. Around 2015 Mads realized that his infrastructure and know-how could be applied to growing medicinal cannabis. Mads began building a 60,000-square-meter facility, the largest in Europe. © Alastair Wiper

Wiper gradually became obsessed with photography, buying second-hand cameras and building a darkroom in his home. “I knew I wanted to make a living out of photography, but fashion photography didn’t interest me and portrait or street photography wasn’t going to make me any money,” he says. One day, he stumbled across the work of industrial photographers Wolfgang Sievers and Maurice Broomfield. Both photographers worked during the mid-1900s, capturing post-war industrial landscapes with geometric precision and illuminating human stories against a backdrop of an increasingly mechanized world.

“The Octopus,” a machine that propels plastic pellets around the factory, Playmobil, Malta. The German Playmobil company produces all its figures on the Mediterranean island of Malta, and has done since 1976. Over 3 billion have so far been made in the factory there. Today, 1,300 people work in Malta’s second-largest factory, with 270 injection-molding machines creating up to 100 million figures a year. © Alastair Wiper

This discovery indelibly shaped the direction of Wiper’s commercial and personal practice. “Before that, I didn’t have a specific interest in industry, engineering or science, but as soon as I began shooting these kinds of places I became completely fascinated,” he says. “I thought I could travel and get access to places people don’t get to see. Then companies would hire me to photograph their factories, and I’d have creative freedom to make artwork out of it.”

It sounds ambitious, but it worked. Since the early 2010s, Wiper has worked on commission for clients like Google, Wired, New Scientist and Bloomberg, photographing factories, research facilities and grand feats of engineering all over the world. This all feeds into his long-term personal body of work, in which he seeks to capture the “accidental aesthetics of industry and science.”

Maersk Triple E container ship under construction, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME), South Korea. When it was built the Maersk Triple E was the largest container ship in the world, with a capacity of 18,000 containers: enough space to transport 864 million bananas. © Alastair Wiper

In 2020, Wiper published Unintended Beauty. The photobook features around 100 locations around the world, from a shipyard in South Korea and a textile mill in the UK, to an American dildo factory. Across these diverse businesses, the photographer captures a beauty within the ugliness of these sublime structures, constructing images that are unexpectedly satisfying and seductive. “I have a childlike way of looking at things,” he explains. “Instead of being like, ‘I know what that is’ or ‘I know what that does,’ my reaction is ‘what the hell is that, it looks like a monster!’ My imagination runs wild, and that’s the fun part.”

Odeillo Solar Furnace, France. The sun’s energy is reflected via a series of 9,600 mirrors and concentrated on one very small point to create extremely high temperatures. Built in 1970, it is still used by space agencies like NASA and the ESA to research the effects of extremely high temperatures on certain materials for nuclear reactors and space vehicle re-entry. © Alastair Wiper

In the context of today’s consumerist society, it’s difficult not to view these images through a critical lens. “In the beginning it was definitely a celebration,” Wiper reflects. “I still think these places are totally incredible and amazing, but I’ve also become more aware of overproduction. My work isn’t a criticism, but I do want people to think about where stuff comes from and how it’s made.”

Wiper invites an open interpretation of his photography, but his intention is not to ignite moral or ethical debate. And, as the book’s title suggests, whether a viewer considers these spaces beautiful is up to them. “Maybe it’s not all beautiful, and not everybody will see it as beautiful,” he says. Indeed, not all of us can see the way he does, and that’s what makes these photographs so compelling. In translating how he sees, Wiper shows us the imaginary potential of photography—to challenge our visual perspective and question the infrastructures that govern our lives.

Editor’s Note: Alastair Wiper’s “Unintended Beauty” was a Juror’s Pick winner of LensCulture’s Art Photography Awards 2024. Discover all of the winners and finalists for even more inspiration.

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