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  • Drowning in plastic – a fine art photographer's bid to save our seas, Jürgen Muller

  • Plastic garbage in the sea, Plastikmüll im Meer, plastic in the ocean
    ‘Plastic Ocean’, by fine-art photographer Jürgen Muller. Image © Jürgen Muller


    Spend a few minutes chatting with German native, Jürgen Müller, and you’ll get a sense of what’s behind his success as a professional photographer with over 25 years’ experience. Apart from his dedicated pursuit for perfection in his work, his relentless capacity for ideas could be the contributing factor. With ‘Plastic Ocean’, he shares the events that lead to its creation, demonstrating how his qualities, driven by a good cause, come into play.


    A few weeks ago, while looking for a photography subject in Sylt, an island in the North Sea, I came across what is known to be the only German oyster farm in existence. This caught my curiosity and I arranged for an interview with a number of experts who worked there.


    During one of my interviews with the oyster farmers, I asked why they chose to breed oysters in only one particular area of Sylt? They explained that it was due to the water quality. They went on to say that previously, Sylt was known for its good water quality, but this had now changed – in fact, only very few places worldwide is known to have good water quality. At the time, I was not fully aware of how bad this situation actually was.


    Understanding pollution


    The pollution of plastic sewage is a well-known topic; actually understanding the extent of this harm though, as I would soon find out, was another matter. For instance, I had not known that for decades now, there has been a stream of garbage flowing in the North Pacific, which is now as large as Central Europe. For the oyster farmers, a particular pollutant found in this massive flow of garbage is of a main concern.


    Microplastic is the formation of tiny particles of plastic, formed when plastic substances are shredded and crushed by the force of the waves and the weather. Mistaking them for plankton, microplastic is consumed by marine animals. As a result, plastic enters the food chain, contaminating both marine wildlife and human beings.


    As I understand it, the harm this causes the human body is yet unknown. When it comes to decomposition, it takes up to 400 years and in some case up to 1000+ years for plastic to decompose! As oysters and mussels mainly filter large amounts of water to consume plankton, these animals are particularly vulnerable – as we all are. To me, this was catastrophic. The ominous threat of microplastic seemed terrible to me in that it seemed everywhere, yet invisible – like a creeping poisoning!


    Plastic ocean: from a feeling to an idea


    While walking down the beach with my Nikon D800E to take the mandatory scenic photographs, I remember taking in the wonderful nature around me: the dramatic cloudy sky, force of the waves and the taste of salt on my lips. I could help but feel overwhelmed by it all. It was inconceivable to me how we, as humans, were destroying something as wondrous and mighty as Mother Nature.


    It struck me then, how, one day, the west beach of Sylt, one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, could be entirely drowned in plastic. I could see it with my own eyes. I decided then, to create exactly this same picture that I envisioned. I could use crushed plastic bags, assemble them to form the sea, and frame it against a dramatic sky photo when post processing!


    The creative process: the tools


    Back in Hamburg, I immediately started collecting blue and white plastic bags. It wasn’t long until I ran into my first obstacle: how would I crush plastic bags?


    I found the solution by chance, during a visit to a friend’s company. There, I came across the Gastroback Mixer, a particularly powerful mixer, which could crush items such as iPads easily. I thought such a machine could just be the thing for crushing my plastic bags. Luckily enough, I could borrow the machine. I took it to my studio and surely enough, it worked, crushing the plastic bags into small pieces, at different degrees of gradation – unfortunately, my studio was not spared during  this process.


    Next, I got a large table out and spread the crushed plastic bags over a 2 x 3 meter table. I distributed the blue and white plastic bits so as to give the impression of waves, making sure to lift the material in the front area, to create the impression of swelling waves.


    The creative process: composition & lighting


    I then took great pains to look through the beach shots from my archive. The emotional part of the image I was composing, I knew, would be the sky and the sea, so I looked for one that had the kind of dramatic, stormy sky which would create the kind of mood I wanted to achieve.


    Stormy sky selection for ‘Plast Ocean’ Jürgen Muller
    Stormy sky selection for ‘Plastic Ocean’ Jürgen Muller. Photo © Jürgen Muller


    To align with the natural light source in the photo that I’d selected, I positioned a backlight, a Hensel Studioblitz with normal reflector, at the left, rear in my studio. I adjusted the light to make it fall across the sea of plastic  I’d assembled in exact alignment of the sun’s position in the photo I’d selected.


    Save our seas, behind the shot, plastic ocean
    The set up: behind the shot for ‘Plastic Ocean’


    I knew the merging of the lights from the foreground and background was particularly important phase for this shoot. Since there was only one source of light, the diffused sun, I only used one lamp on the set and lightened it slightly from the right and left with large Styrofoam plates.


    I photographed my plastic sea with my working horse: the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8 mm and the Nikon D800E. I used the 24-70 mm 2.8 mm to infinitely adjust perspective and angle of view. Because of the excellent quality of the lens in combination with the D800 E, I could print the picture large-scale for exhibitions.


    The creative process: fine tuning & precision


    It took me a total of two days of editing the whole montage, trying to achieve exactly what I envisioned. The green plastic particles that were scattered on the table needed to ‘loosen’ the sea surface somewhat. The blurred white plastic parts in the foreground needed to look like the surf of a wave.
    The depth of field extended from the blur in the foreground to the sharp horizon. Perspectives of the foreground, or plastic sea, and the cloudy sky needed to match and the sharpness expansion from the foreground needed to transition seamlessly into the cloudy background.


    I set the horizon approximately in golden section of the image. To support the impression of depth, I added two additional seagulls: a larger and a smaller one. In the end, I was satisfied with the result. The final picture was shown in an exhibition at the Epson Gallery on the occasion of the environmental photo festival in Zingst, Germany.


    This is not the end of it though. In the near future I plan to create further motifs on this topic and I’m currently researching the next topic that concerns me: raw material scarcity and environmental issues.

    Curious to see the result of Jürgen Muller’s work on this subject? Visit his website here or stay tuned for more!