The isles of Orkney comprise a wind-blown and largely treeless archipelago that lies just off the northern tip of Scotland. The fertile fields of Orkney proved an excellent place to grow cereals, and with the arrival of agriculture in 4000 B.C., this secure and abundant source of food attracted and supported large numbers of people from the surrounding regions.
The earliest known large settlement, built about 3200 B.C., served as a ritualistic center for all of the islands and parts of the Scottish mainland. Not long after, megalithic monument building began. Innovative and collaborative, teams of laborers were organized to drag massive slabs of rock over long distances to create rings of standing stones. Periods passed, but subsequent settlers and invaders (the Picts, the Vikings, the Norse, and the Scots) continued to use stone in the construction of their tombs, churches, houses, and fences.
I knew little of Orkney’s history when I visited the islands with four photographer friends. As the only portrait photographer in the group, it took me a while before I responded photographically to the sparsely inhabited landscape. During our cool and rainy three-week stay, we visited ancient megalithic monuments, Neolithic villages, Viking tombs, Christian churches, farmhouses, and even whiskey distilleries and WW2 battle sites.
At the time, I simply responded to the scenes that interested me—sturdy fences built by hand of local rock; quiet and mysterious circles of standing stones; the dark, smoky, and overly-warm interiors of farmhouses; cows in the green pastures; austere churches; and the personal artifacts of local farmers.
Back home, I was able to put my experience in context. To me, Orkney represents an unbroken continuum of 5,000 years of local human history, written on the landscape in stone. The Orcadians of today and their unassuming, humble farmhouses are the descendants of a culture that was anything but. I came to understand that when I was photographing that ancient cultural landscape, I was still doing some portraiture, but my subjects were now implied rather than physically present. And that, I believe, was the beginning of my transition to landscape photography.
Published in LensWork Issue No. 127 Nov -Dec 2016