Alastair Philip Wiper
The photographer and author of The Art Of Impossible: The Bang & Olufsen Design Story tells us about his fascination with heavy industry, shooting CERN's Large Hadron Collider and scouring the B&O archives for product prototypes.
How did you become a photographer?
I come from a town called Guildford about 50km south of London and after studying philosophy and politics at university in the UK I travelled a bit. I met a Danish girl while working as a ski-bum in France – I followed her to Denmark and haven’t looked back since. That was in 2004, I broke up with the girl after a few years, found another Danish girl and now I’ve got the kids and the house and the whole package. I was a cook when I came here, but I became interested in graphic design, taught myself some stuff and ended up working for designer and artist Henrik Vibskov. I worked for him for eight years, and during that time I picked up a camera and started playing. Before I knew it I was the photographer as well as the graphic designer.
You photograph a lot of different subjects: industrial, scientific, and architectural projects. What do you find interesting about them?
I love going behind the scenes and seeing things that other people don’t get to see – I feel extremely lucky to be able to do that. I am particularly attracted to the industrial and scientific work because I get to explore the insane solutions that human beings come up with in order to solve problems – whether it’s building huge infrastructures to provide cities with power, or whole continents with pork – or building massive machines that can analyse the smallest particles in the universe to try and understand what life is all about.
The architectural stuff I do tends to be a bit more quirky, but I still take exactly the same approach towards the subject matter. I am not a conventional architecture photographer and am more interested in finding the work of eccentric, nearly-forgotten architects that were doing things out of the box, showing their work in new ways. Like the work of Jacques Labro in Avoriaz (the skiing resort where I met the Danish girl, incidentally), or César Manrique in Lanzarote.
A few years ago I also started to write – I felt that it gave my images some extra context. I want people get a feeling for what I experienced when I visited the places, and give some information that I think makes the pictures more interesting.
How did you start out shooting these subjects?
About five years ago I came across a couple of photographers who worked for “big industry” in the 1950s and 60s – Wolfgang Sievers and Maurice Broomfield. They were photographing big oil refineries and manufacturing plants at a time when the companies that owned them were proud of them instead of ashamed, as they tend to be today. I was totally amazed, it was like a lightbulb moment where I knew that was what I wanted to photograph from now on. So I started researching like crazy, and trying to talk my way in anywhere I could in order to build a portfolio – over the last few years a lot of my time has been spent learning how to get ahold of the right person and how to convince them to let me in to their facility.
Do the subjects just land at your feet or do you have to go out of your way to gain access?
These days I'm lucky enough to get commercial and editorial work that I find very interesting, but I still spend a lot of time researching places to visit for personal projects. It can take a lot of work to get into some places – sometimes I reach a wall where I get the wrong person to deal with who just doesn’t understand what I am trying to do, or why it could also be an interesting project for them. But like I said, I have got quite good at it over the years.
One of the easiest places I got access to was a place I thought would be the hardest: the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. When I was just starting I planned a trip there to take their regular tourist visit, but I also sent an email to the press office asking if there was anything I could see that the other tourists don’t get to see, anything at all. To my surprise they replied saying I could have an afternoon being shown around on my own. That afternoon my guide was one of the engineers who had worked on the LHC for about 30 years. We stayed in contact and I have been back again twice – the last time CERN commissioned me to photograph the facilities, which is pretty much a dream job for me.
What’s your favourite out of your projects?
One that really stands out was photographing the building of the Maersk Triple E in South Korea - the biggest container ship in the world – for Wired Magazine. That was just epic, seeing these huge blocks of ships being lifted around and put together like bits of Lego. I also love the series I did about the Danish Crown slaughterhouse in Horsens, one of the biggest slaughterhouses in the world: visually it was incredible to see all this pink flesh in a very systemised infrastructure, and there is a dark humour I like about it. As someone who is very into food there’s a very interesting debate to be had about the way we consume this kind of food. I have actually sold quite a few prints from that series in a very large size and I get quite a kick out of thinking someone has that hanging above their fireplace – or bed.
And of course making The Art of Impossible book!
How did The Art of Impossible come about?
I remember Bang & Olufsen from my childhood – my grandad had a B&O TV – and it has always been on my radar as a really interesting company. When I moved to Denmark I became even more aware of it and it was obviously exactly the kind of company I would like the chance to explore. Through a friend I arranged a meeting with someone very senior in the company and pitched them the idea of doing this book. To my surprise they went for it, and went for it all the way – I was really allowed to make the book that I wanted, with very little interference.
The company has so much history, with so many iconic products – I wanted to show all of that but in a way which hadn’t been seen before, and different from the glossy marketing. We got a good publisher on board, Thames & Hudson, and I set about exploring the facilities in Struer: scouring the basements for old prototypes, walking around the factory and watching products being tested in the R&D department. There are very few images of actual products in the book, you can see them in other places – I was interested in the things you don’t get to see in other places, I wanted it to be fun to look through and make people smile. The last thing I wanted to make was a boring design book.
What was a personal highlight of The Art of Impossible project?
There is a 30m long wall in the canteen of Factory 4 in Struer that has the photo of everyone that has worked for B&O for a period of 25 years or more. It is known as the “Wall of Fame” and there are 1,231 pictures on that wall. It’s pretty awe inspiring to think there are that many people that have worked there for so long, and the wall was one of the inspirations for the book – so we reproduced the whole wall in the book, taking up 14 pages. I thought that either B&O or the publisher would think it was overkill to take up so much space with the wall, but everyone was totally for it - there might be more “epic” images in the book, but if there is one part that really makes me smile it is that section (and seeing the style of haircuts and glasses change over 70 years is pretty fun).