Stunning Photographs Capture Natural Sculptures Before They Disappear

Artists Martin Hill and Philippa Jones travel from rain forests to Antarctica to create impossible sculptures out of their surroundings.


In one of photographer Martin Hill’s most striking images, Synergy, an archway of criss-crossed sticks rises over New Zealand’s Lake Wanaka, where Hill lives with his partner and collaborator, Philippa Jones. Forming the shape of a semi-circle, the sticks appear to be floating in thin air, though they’re actually held in place by a network of barely visible threads. Hill constructed the sculpture using the principle of “tensegrity,” a term coined by Buckminster Fuller to describe a system that uses tension to make a structure stronger the larger it is. (Fuller’s geodesic dome is the classic example of this.)


The ethereal sculpture in Synergy may be more structurally sound than it looks, but like all of the natural sculptures Hill and Jones create, it disappeared not long after the photo was taken. The theme of ephemerality is strong in their work: for over 20 years, the pair has been building intricate structures all over the world that eventually melt or deconstruct, fading back into the environment from which they came. The dozens of photos Hill has taken of their work over the past two decades document their short-lived existence.

According to Hill, the cyclical nature of their sculptures is meant to encourage viewers to think about the sustainable practices that can be gleaned from nature. “The world’s dominant model of progress is based on a faulty system design,” Hill writes in an email. “[It] will ensure civilization’s collapse unless transformed to operate cyclically like nature–producing no waste, running on renewables.”

Ice Circle

To create the sculptures, Hill and Jones have travelled everywhere from Antarctica, where they sculpted a human silhouette out of ice, to the moss-covered rain forest in Mt. Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. “Philippa and I love to go to wild natural landscapes especially in the mountains,” says Hill. “We make our sculptures where we love to be.” For their Fine Line project, an effort that began in 1995, the pair builds sculptures on mountaintops that they’ve mapped out on a line that circles the earth. Recently, they created a commissioned piece called Ice Circle on Lake Wanaka by cutting a a semi-circle out of the frozen stream. “We set it in the lake with a reflection at dusk to get the great light effect,” says Hill. “A low camera angle provided the drama.”

Predictably, the Synergy archway proved to be one of the most challenging shots to get. Inspired to create the series partially because of Fuller’s 1981 book Critical Path, Hill wanted to pay homage to the inventor and architect with a structure that employed tensegrity. It was not without a struggle: “I lost a camera when a slight wave engulfed it and it was set low on the tripod,” Hill says. But for the split second it was caught on film, the sculpture looks perfect.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.