John Davidson Shoots a Climate-Improving Algae Bioreactor for Hypergiant

Jan 2, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

"In the future, your office might have an extra appliance next to the copy machine and the refrigerator: an algae bioreactor."

Algae Bioreactor

"Designed to fit inside offices and eventually sit on rooftops throughout cities, it can capture as much carbon from the atmosphere as an acre of trees."

This description of an inspiringly cutting-edge piece of technology comes from business magazine Fast Company and does a great job of simplifying the workings of an incredibly sophisticated machine. Austinite John Davidson captured imagery of the Hypergiant-made algae bioreactor, which looks like it belongs in a Marvel villain's evil lair as opposed to an accounting firm's breakroom.

Hypergiant is an incredible Artificial Intelligence company based in Texas. I’ve worked with CEO and Founder Ben Lamm on a number of projects over the years.

Ben Lamm

He is, in many ways, an ideal client — he has clear ideas of his own, but always takes suggestions and leaves room for interpretation. The work I do for Ben and Hypergiant is truly collaborative.

John has completed a variety of assignments for the A.I. outfit, “from company branding projects to workplace lifestyle images to executive portraits,” as seen below. 

Thanks Lindsay!

Screen shot

But John had never worked on a shoot quite like this. Still, there was no way he was going to turn down a chance to collaborate with one of his top clients. 

It struck me as a great project, and I didn’t want to pass along work from one of my best clients to someone else. I felt that I knew how to do this type of shoot, at least in theory.

The photographer’s comfort with Ben helped him work through any challenges that arose. Ben also considers this latest venture his “legacy project,” so the importance of the assignment was not lost on John. In learning about what the algae bioreactor does as it relates to providing the world with breathable air, John found a way to make the machine “pop,” if you will. Below a good summation of how the machine operates: 

"The algae bioreactor is a working, scalable solution to capture and sequester carbon dioxide and release cleaner air. Algae plays a crucial role in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen in the ocean, but the challenge is replicating that for human purposes. Hypergiant estimates that this prototype device is 400 times more effective than trees at carbon sequestration. They also anticipate that these devices can be created for the home as well as at industrial levels."

Smoke show

It wasn’t all smooth sailing to get to the striking final imagery we’ve peppered throughout this piece. At first blush, John basically came face-to-face with a monolithic, nondescript hunk of metal and wasn't quite sure how to get the ball rolling.

By their very nature, Hypergiant products are challenging and it took me a while to grasp all this. Ben basically said, ‘Hey I’ve got this product I need you to photograph. It’s being assembled in a warehouse. Come down and check it out.’

BTS

When I first saw it, it wasn’t active — it was just a big box in a storage facility. Naturally, my first thoughts were, ‘what is it’? and ‘how am I supposed to make it look?’

As John mentioned, however, Ben has a clear vision for how he wants things to look. With said vision in mind, the England-born photographer rolled up his sleeves and got to work.  

Ben gave me a broad outline. He knew he wanted a dark background and smoke. In effect, the image he was after would serve as a 'grand reveal' in a dark room. The whole shoot lasted 3-4 hours, from set up to breakdown. We used 3-4 lights and moved one or two around while the camera was locked down on a tripod. The smoke was shot separately from the reactor, though at the same location on the same night.

Oooh now its open

I’ve never shot anything like this. Outside of food, I don’t really shoot anything that’s product-based. It’s one of those things where you think you know the theory, but you don’t actually find out in practical terms until you take a crack at it. I didn’t know 100% that we had it until I saw the finished work.

After three or four trips to an empty warehouse — which might as well have doubled as an oven in the midsummer Texas heat under which the shoot took place — John and his assistants had satisfactory imagery. When dealing with a piece of equipment this big and unique, there are going to be hoops to jump through at every turn.  

A key piece of equipment was a 12’ x 12’ scrim that we needed to limit reflections. I’d asked to have the bioreactor rotated because we didn’t have enough room for the scrim. When we arrived, we found that the reactor hadn’t been rotated in the direction I’d asked for, and it couldn’t be moved again. It took a little ingenuity and luck to make it work, but we got there.

The nice thing about a project like this is that John doesn’t have to know every intricacy of the bioreactor. Once he has a modicum of background information about the functionality of this or any other Hypergiant machine, he can do his thing without worrying about the deeper complexities of the technology.

Whenever I’m introduced to new technology at Hypergiant, I’m just hoping that I have some understanding of what it does, if not how it works. For example, another recent project is a helmet that seeks to aid law enforcement, firefighters, and military members.

Contraption

The helmet offers a 200-degree field of vision, thermal imaging, night vision, informational overlays, hand tracking, and gesture inputs. Do I understand what it does? Yes. Do I understand how it’s done? Not at all.

But what he and everyone else understands is that the bioreactor work is vital to the long-term health of our planet. In these troubling times, it’s good to know that intelligent people like Ben are hard at work trying to ensure that Earth can heal.  

We certainly need our greatest minds tackling this issue of climate change.

Credits:

Assistants: Eddie Kemper, Robert Bradshaw
Retouching: Will Herwig, Outpost Images

Check out more of John's work at johndavidsonphoto.com.

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