Squiggles & Cracks: Operator Creates Biosolids Art Photography

By taking advantage of a controlled drying process, Tommy Armstrong discovered he could create some stunning photography at his wastewater treatment plant.
Squiggles & Cracks: Operator Creates Biosolids Art Photography
Tommy Armstrong, an operator in North Carolina, creates stunning art photography from drying biosolids.

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When Tommy Armstrong stares at the cracking mud of a dewatering bed, he sees more than drying biosolids. He sees crazy lines, squiggly cracks and perhaps an alien.

But he’s not crazy. Just consider him an artist masquerading as a wastewater treatment operator.

Armstrong, who has played around with photography for years, turns the unique appearance of drying biosolids into abstract art, perhaps creating a Rorschach inkblot test for the wastewater world.

Finding inspiration
He began carrying his digital camera with him while he worked as the superintendent of water and wastewater for the Town of Erwin, North Carolina. He says it was just a way to pass the time.

“I started looking at the drying beds when we put them out,” he says. “They were cracking nicely, so I went out there and took pictures.”

The images he captured were interesting, but not quite unique enough for Armstrong. Something was still missing.

“Some of them were really cool designs,” he says. “But they were never exactly what I wanted.”

Taking inspiration from his experience with veneer furniture, Armstrong began to manipulate the images, flipping them side-by-side to create crazy patterns and symmetrical lines. With a little tinkering in Photoshop, he added color, removed blemishes and turned the sludge cracks into abstract art.

“It’s either colorized or cleaned up, but those are the cracks in the sludge,” he says. “You see pictures of mud cracks every now and again, but I was out there specifically looking at the stuff the way it cracked and thinking about what it might turn into.”

Changing times
Armstrong just recently entered his artwork in a juried art show in Raleigh. It’s the first time he’s dipped his toes into the world of professional art photography.

“My whole life I’ve been in photography,” Armstrong says. “It’s really hard to find something to take a picture of that hasn’t been done before.”

The drying beds are now gone, removed as the plant was updated. And Armstrong, who is now an operator for the North Harnett Wastewater Treatment Plant in Lillington, says he was a little sad to see them go.

“That was the beauty of it. It was a controlled mudcracking thing. It would dry at a certain rate and there was some control to it, so you could go out there two days after they started cracking, and you’d get your best photos.”

To see more of Armstrong’s prints, and for information on ordering, please visit www.brickengraver.com/biosolids-art. You can also email him at tfa@brickengraver.com

Note: All images are used with permission from Tommy Armstrong.


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