The outcomes of his project were compiled and published in the groundbreaking book titled "Dominant Wave Theory." This publication marked a significant milestone as one of the pioneering photographic monographs specifically focused on the subject of plastic pollution. It stood out as an early contribution to raising awareness about the detrimental effects of plastic waste on the environment. Since then, there have been subsequent photographic works that continue to emphasize and illuminate the profound impact of human activities on the marine ecosystem. These more recent projects have further contributed to the growing body of visual documentation addressing this pressing environmental concern.

Dominant Wave Theory 

Andy Hughes has devoted a significant portion of his photography career, spanning more than 30 years, creating images in and around various coastal areas. It was during the late 1980s that he learned to surf and embarked on a journey of photographing different types of discarded objects found along the intertidal zone. As a young art student, Hughes was greatly influenced and inspired by the exhibition "Rubbish and Recollections" by artist Keith Arnett, a collaboration between the Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno and the Photographers' Gallery, London. Between 1999 and 2006, Hughes focused extensively on documenting the plastic waste that accumulated on the beaches where he enjoyed riding waves.

Dominant Wave Theory

Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2004

This image defies the pursuit of the "perfect moment" and challenges the idea of a "special moment" at sunset. The upturned cigarette lighter serves as an inverted black monolith, similar to the one featured in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which explores themes of human evolution and technology. The sun is positioned perfectly at the center of the image, casting its light through a scratched and distorted plastic surface, causing the plastic to resemble distressed, bruised, and scarred human skin.

Dominant Wave Theory

Santa Monica,  Los Angeles, California, USA, 2004

'Interestingly, however, when it comes to the "message" transmitted by the "medium" of trash, not all beach rubbish is created equal. Archeological artifact aside, there is a class of beach trash that is disturbing in a way unprecedented in human experience. This is the burgeoning flood of feculence and rejectamenta produced by contemporary technology, consumerism, and demographics that generates a dread of apocalyptical proportions. The secret message of industrial, non-biodegradable garbage on the beach is that some things are for keeps, and some mistakes can never be corrected'.

Lencek, L.M (2006). 'The beach as ruin', in Hughes, A. Dominant Wave Theory. London: Booth-Clibborn. pp.144-147.

Dominant Wave Theory

El Segundo Los Angeles, California, USA, 2004

"Whilst Hughes' images of plastic depicted in heroic scale may give us some concern about waste material and its impact upon a sensitive maritime environment, there is another side to these intelligent images. Hughes presents us with not only an ecological message but a knowing heady rush through artistic strategies using the power of photography's saturated colour to highlight, frame, and play with scale, in an irreverent awareness of art historical practices".

Art Now Cornwall © Tate Gallery 2007 | © Susan Daniel-McElroy
Dominant Wave Theory

Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall, England, 2004

Dominant Wave Theory

Santa Barbara , California, USA, 2004

Dominant Wave Theory

Gwithian Beach, St Ives, Cornwall, England, 2002

Santa Monica, USA, Andy Hughes

Muscle Beach, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2004

Dominant Wave Theory Andy Hughes

Balnekeil Beach, Cape Wrath, Scotland 2002

Dominant Wave Theory Andy Hughes

Gwithian Beach, Cornwall, England, 2003

Dominant Wave Theory



Santa Barbara, Andy Hughes

Santa Barbara, California, USA, 2004

Book Review

This forward-thinking photography book features over 150 photographs by the artist Andy Hughes made on different beach locations from California to Western Cornwall. The book explores and examines the relationship of beach waste as both an object of visual enquiry and as a reference to the global environmental crisis. “Dominant wave theory”, we are told, ” is loosely based on a scientific term used in the prediction and observation of wave models”. The book sets out to parallel this idea visually through the observation of the beach as a local site for the interplay of nature and consumer culture.

Through extraordinarily focused colour photographs of found waste objects, the reader is offered tangible stilled moments of reflection on the nature of these objects and left to ponder their place in the world now that their original purpose has been washed (eroded) away. This extensive archive of images forms the core of the project with the design and development of the book by David Carson working to heighten the visual scope and pace of the work. This is apparent in the scale, ordering and pairing of the images, creating thoughtful and revealing relationships throughout the book.

The photographs are complemented by a collection of essays by five eminent writers, who are here linked through the common thread of the project but coming from a wide range of perspectives. They discuss ideas connected with the beach from eco-activism to cultural theory and marine biology; their contribution extends and puts into context ideas initiated within the photographs.



The essays open with a discussion by Dr Christopher Short, of the visual context of Hughes’s work as a contemporary art practice. The wider implications of these photographs, in terms of art history through formalism and the development of modernism in St Ives (Hughes is based in West Cornwall), are speculated upon together with tourism in this locale to draw anthropological perspectives. The political dimensions of environmental activism; the tackling of waste and changing our relationship to waste generation, are developed in writings by Chris Hines and environmental advocate Joshua Karliner. The latter in his essay discusses ecological and industrial development and counters with alternative futures. In contrast, the existence of the beach as a physical and metaphorical site are explored and linked with histories and archaeologies in the essay “The Beach as Ruin”. Here Lena Lencek makes wide-ranging connections that play histories into the present and focus Andy Hughes’s work in time: as both representative of the present while simultaneously prophetic of possible dread futures. No less prophetic is the discussion, by Dr Richard Thompson, of scientific marine data, gathered about the effects of plastic debris in the world’s oceans; the scale and persistence of which makes shocking reading.

The photographic work produced in this book creates references that allow a wide cross-comparison between the images; this is carried through into the page design of the appendix which acts as both a catalogue of all the images and locations as well as an accumulating visual glossary of beach waste. The structure of this book is striking visually, defined by the everydayness of the objects and the uniqueness of their depiction. The breadth of ambition of this book is wide and the issues that are addressed of contemporary significance. Visually it deals with these in a thought-provoking and seductive way; the essays extending these images into far-reaching debates, the whole work culminating in an important contribution to the ecological paradigm.

© Stephen Brigdale 2006

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