Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

Peter Holliday – Where the Land Rises

May 24, 2016 - Alan Knox

As my week as guest blogger comes to an end, I can’t thank Der Greif enough for allowing me to share my practice and inspirations. For my last post I’d like to present an interview with my good friend Peter Holliday whose project Where the Land Rises documents the volcanic island of Heimeay on the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the Icelandic coast. The landscape of Heimeay was forever altered by the violent birth of a volcano, Eldfell on the morning of January 23rd 1973, threatening to obliterate this peaceful community as rivers of lava flowed where a pastoral landscape had stood for millennia. Holliday presents a vision of an island in which the eruption of 1973 still echoes in the snow, mountains and minds of the inhabitants for whom this landmark of Earth’s ongoing geological formation is simply called home. AK: What is photography to you? PH: A way to explore and analyse the world I see around me, as well as an investigation of space. AK: Can you tell me about the history of Heimeay? PH: The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago has been formed during multiple volcano eruptions starting around 12,000 years ago. Heimaey is the largest and only inhabited island with a population that has always heavily relied on the island's fishing industry as a source of income. In 1973, this industry and the community's existence was threatened by the eruption of Eldfell which destroyed a third of the town and transformed the landscape forever. AK: Your images often speak to archetypal signifiers of the feeling of the sublime: jagged cliffs, seemingly infinite ocean, foreboding skies. I'm reminded of Edmund Burke's definition of the sublime as a thrilling rush caused by proximity to a terrifying object which poses no threat from a safe distance. Did the grand tradition of the sublime influence how you framed life on Heimeay in the context of the ever present volcano? PH: Perhaps indirectly but it was never a conscious decision. I wanted to investigate how the eruption, a sudden geological trauma to the symbolic order of existence, had affected the collective psyche of the island's inhabitants. Martin Heidegger and his insight into what it means to dwell within a landscape had a significant effect on how I thought about the project as it developed. He has a very interesting essay called 'Building, Dwelling, Thinking' in which he emphasises how we become immersed by the spaces in which we dwell, and this existential sense of place comes to define our lives and how we perceive the circumambient world that exists around us. However, there will always be a certain kind of tension that persists between our need to dwell and the contingent nature of the world we dwell in. Heidegger essentially argues that we discover ourselves in an environment that completes us for what we are. AK: In what ways did you sense the eruption has altered the collective psyche of the island? PH: Many of Heimaey's inhabitants have come to appreciate the 'new' landscape of black lava left behind by the eruption. Others believe the most beautiful part of the island was destroyed. They all understand that nature can sometimes be extremely violent, but they have also found unity in their triumph over the eruption of Eldfell and the reclamation of their home island from the contingent forces of nature.  Almost everyone I spoke to, if not all, were happy to talk to me about their experiences of their home island. I discovered that they are a very strong community, who are proud of their home and Heimaey's history. They feel close to nature and believe that that's an important thing, even although the environment that surrounds them can sometimes be violent. AK: You mentioned Heidegger, which other writers , philosophers and photographers have influenced your work? PH: I am very interested by how Heidegger considers the existential role that landscape has to play in the totality of human experience and illustrates how one cannot exist without the other. I find these ideas very relevant to my practise. I am also very much inspired by the landscape writing of Anne Whiston Spirn and Frank Gohlke. Photographically, I really enjoy looking at the work of Stephen Shore, Bryan Schutmaat, Dana Lixenberg, Ville Lenkeri, and Edward Burtynsky, to name a few. AK: What projects are you working on currently? PH: I am currently working on a series called The Southern Kingdom, a body of work about the landscape and identity of the Scottish Isles, a region which historically was under the control of Norway for over four centuries. During a time when notions of 'Scottishness' are continually being questioned, I am interested in investigating how this Scandinavian connection manifests itself today within the local culture and place names, as well as within the broader story of my home nation.