“I focus on landscapes that have been heavily transformed by human intervention and document the marks that we have left on the earth’s surface in order to meet our daily needs,” says Munich-based photographer Tom Hegen of the environmental agenda behind his incredible abstract landscapes. Tom has been creating aerial photographs for the past four years, scaling the skies with a self-built quadrocopter (or drone) but also using hot air balloons, helicopters and planes.
The drive behind Tom’s work, and his upcoming book Habitat is his interest in the concept of the Anthropocene, the term scientists use to describe the current geological age – one where humans have affected the planet’s biological and atmospheric processes on a global scale for the first time in history. Our impact can be seen in the form of climate change, the ozone hole over the Antarctic, rapidly rising sea levels or in changes caused by river shifts or the degradation of raw materials.
“I explore the idea of the Anthropocene in an effort to understand the dimensions of man’s intervention in natural spaces and to direct attention toward how humans can take responsibility,” Tom explains. “Aerial photography is a compelling way to document those interventions because it basically makes the scale of human force on earth visible. I am also fascinated by the abstraction that comes with the change of perspective – seeing something familiar from a new vantage point that you are not used to.”
His latest project, The Salt Series, looks at the process behind the extraction of salt, one of the oldest forms of human landscaping that dates back more than 6,000 years. “Salt is a raw material that is now part of our everyday lives, but we rarely ask where it actually comes from and how it is being produced,” says Tom. “The Salt Series explores artificial landscapes where nature is channelled, regulated and controlled.”
Flooding artificially created ponds with salt water from the ocean, workers then skim off the salt concentration left behind when the water from the brine evaporates through sun and wind. What’s so staggering about the series is the huge array of colours that occur in the production of salt, from bright tangerine to mint to flamingo pink. This diverse palette is due to microorganisms living in the ponds, which change each pond’s shade depending on the salt density of their environment. “Microscopic algae, also known as the Dunaliella, are eaten by tiny shrimp. As the water becomes too salty, the shrimps disappear, causing the algae to proliferate and the colour of the ponds to intensify,” explains Tom. “I was then really amazed by the vibrant hues, textures and abstract shapes I observed. The size and landscape of those salt gardens is just overwhelming. They reach far into the horizon and cover areas of many square kilometres.”
In terms of process, Tom spends far more time researching concepts and the scouting locations than on the photographic technique itself. During production he stays as close to the site as possible, camping in his car so that he can maximise optimum weather conditions. “Usually I take my photos during the golden hour, when the shadows are really soft,” says Tom. “Overcast days can also be quite interesting as the clouds work then like a huge softbox to the ground.”
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