Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Ring o' Brodgar, Stenness

The Ring o' Brodgar is one of the four Neolithic monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney (a name adopted by UNESCO when it declared these sites as a World Heritage Site in 1999). The other three sites of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney are (1) Maeshowe (a chambered cairn, whose central chamber is aligned so that it is precisely illuminated during the winter solstice; it also contains one of the most extensive collections of Viking runic inscriptions in the world); (2) Skara Brae (a Neolithic settlement dating back to about 3100-2500 BC, and located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Orkney, Scotland); and (3) Standing Stones of Stenness (which are four megaliths not too far from the Ring o'Brodgar, the largest of which is about 19 ft tall).

The Ring o'Brodgar is 340 ft in diameter, and originally contained 60 stones, of which 27 still stand today. The stones - which range in height from about 7 feet to a maximum of a little over 15ft - are set within a circular ditch up to 10 deep, 30 ft wide and 1,200 ft in circumference that was carved out of the solid sandstone bedrock.

It is unknown when the site was built, by whom, or for what purpose (though there are many speculations of course: see, for example, this book by Christopher Knight and Alan Butler, that connects sidereal days, pendulums, the "Minoan foot" - an ancient unit of measure used for the construction of palaces in Crete c.2000 BC - and the planet Venus). Current best estimates place its origin at between 2500 BC and 2000 BC.

More details about the Ring o'Brodgar, and the other monuments making up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, can be found in this report, published by Historic Scotland.

Personal Note. My wife and I visited the Ring o'Brodgar several times during our stay in Orkney. We were both drawn to its mystery, and enchanted by its timeless aura. As I wandered around with my camera, looking for angles and compositions, dodging the inevitable tourists (such as ourselves) to get clear shots of the stones alone, I felt myself drift in and out of the time of the "here and now" into a more ancient, and ineffable, time; a time that lurks somewhere in the shadows, and is a part of the very fabric of the megaliths themselves.

Mindful observers are seduced with glimpses of a parallel world that coexists with ours, but whose essence transcends the "normal" dimensions perceivable via our physical senses alone.

The Ring o'Brodgar is - for me - a physical symbol of timelessness and transcendence. It is a place for serious contemplation and meditation. A boundary between all that has been forgotten and the just as mysterious unknown future history that is yet to be written.

Through it all - immersed in time (and succumbing to time's inexorable gift of entropy), yet strangely unaffected by it (since its secrets are too old for even time to recall their true origins) - the Ring o'Brodgar's eerie silence beckons with its magical siren call.

I've posted a gallery of shots from our Scotland trip here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Full Preview of "Elements of Order" Book

About two years ago, in Dec 2007, I was privileged to have a solo exhibit of 24 of my photos at a book store/gallery in Coral Gables, Fl (you can look up a blog entry I wrote up about it at the time here). Not too long afterwards, I self-published a book woven around the theme of the exhibit - "Natural Order" vs. "Human Generated Order" - called Elements of Order. The book includes all the photos that were exhibited, along with about twice as many additional images that fit into the same theme.

While the book itself is not new (indeed, I've published about a dozen since; they are all listed on one of the sidebars on my blog), Blurb has just introduced a new policy whereby authors now have the option of allowing previews of the entire contents of their books.

So, as an experiment, I have made the entire contents of my Elements of Order book fully accessible on-line. When you go to the link provided, just click anywhere on the image of the book's cover that appears in the top left of the page (where it says "preview book") and you will be allowed to "read" the book at leisure on your screen.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chiocchetti's and Palumbo's Gift of the Soul to Orkney

Orkney (Scotland) and war, of one kind or another, have a long intertwined history. Scapa flow, for example, which is the name of the sea that surrounds the Orkney Islands, is one of the great natural anchorages of the world, serving as a harbor for Viking ships more than 1000 years ago. More recently, it was the site of the United Kingdom's chief naval base during both WWI and WWII (the base closed in 1956).

It was in WWII, in early 1942, that over 500 Italian prisoners of war (captured in North Africa), were brought over to Orkney to help construct the Churchill Barriers (a fortication ordered built by Churchill, following a German U-boat sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in 1939, an attack that took the lives of 833 members of the Royal Oak's crew). However, since a treaty prevented prisoners of war from working on military-related projects, the Churchill Barriers became roads linking the southern islands of Orkney together (a function they still serve today). But the barriers were not the only project these Italian prisoners of war had worked on.

A small hillside on the north side of the island of Lamb Holm overlooks the most northerly of the Churchill Barriers. On it is a small and (from the outside) modest appearing chapel that is now know as the Italian Chapel. A glimpse of the soulful beauty of the chapel's inside is given by the image at the top of this blog entry (the other "side" of the chapel, the part that visitors walk through as they enter, is simply an austere vestibule; if anything, its simple unadorned appearance intensifies the grand vision that immediately grabs hold of all visitors' attention).

During the years 1942-1945, the hill was where the Italian prisoners of war lived (at Camp 60). By all accounts, however, Camp 60 was infused with an unexpected aesthetic. The prisoners built footpaths (using concrete that was readily available for the barriers), gardens, and vegetable plots. They also set to work on a place of worship, culminating - under the leadership of prisoners Chiocchetti and Palumbo (who designed the wrought iron rood screen) - in the Italian chapel. The chapel is a mini artistic-masterpiece, and stands as a living testament to the indomitable will of the human heart and soul.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Skies of Skye and Orkney

As difficult a task as it is to point to a single distinguishing feature of Scotland that stands out in my photographic eye - for so much of Scotland simply transcends an aesthetic breakdown of any kind; Scotland's beauty must be experienced and cannot be verbalized (nor, perhaps, even be photographed in a way that captures its deepest secrets) - I will start my musings on the recent trip my wife and I took to Scotland by recalling the magnificent skies of Skye and Orkney.

"The great plain of Caithness opens before our eyes. This is the northland, the land of exquisite light. Lochs and earth and sea pass away to a remote horizon where a suave line of pastel foothills cannot be anything but cloud. Here the actual picture is like a picture in a supernatural mind and comes upon the human eye with the surprise that delights and transcends memory. Gradually the stillness of the far prospect grows unearthly. Light is silence. And nothing listens where all is of eternity." - Neil Gunn, Highland River (1937)

My previous benchmark for varied dramatic skies was Hawaii, where the weather changes on a dime and the interested observer / photographer can find dozens of different "skies" in any given hour on any part of the islands. But Scotland's skies leave their Hawaiian cousins far in their wake. I have never before seen such dynamic, textured, layered, epic-scale Wagnerian colossī as the "seas of clouds" on Skye and Orkney.

The drama was often so great, and the magic light so fast moving and changing, that all I could do to keep up was to simply click away, mechanically, unable to take in all of the spectacle unfolding before me, behind me, all around me. Once, on our first day on Orkey, even before we arrived at our hotel in Kirkwell after arriving by ferry at Stromness, a spectacular sunset begged us to pull over to the side of the road, and as I was setting up my tripod to catch a sunset, a fantastic - phantasmagorical! - rainbow appeared to the east; as my attention was diverted, my wife screamed that another rainbow was forming to the south! There we both stood, slack-jawed, swaying gently in the Orkney wind, in awe of nature's beauty at its finest. I had even momentarily "forgotten" to do anything with my camera; as my conscious and unconscious minds fused into one and my attention was focused solely on the experience. Such deep ego-disappearing total immersion in the moment, as we soon learned, is the norm for being in Scotland. (It is thus easy to understand the origin of some folk tales, such as the one about Herla - the "wise King of the Britons in ancient times" - who once visited an underworld realm, where he was lavishly entertained with song and dance. But upon returning to his own world, King Herla discovered that centuries had passed!)

"From the high summit watch the dawn come up behind the Orkneys, see the mountain ranges of Sutherland the grey planetary light that reveals the earth as a ball turning slowly in the immense chasm of space, turn again to the plain of Caithness that land of exquisite light and be held by myriad lochs and dubh lochs glimmering blood red." - Neil Gunn, Highland River (1937)

As dramatic as the skies of Orkey are, Skye brings an added dimension (or two or three) to the landscape, literally. For as relatively flat as Orkey is (though it has its fair share of rolling hills and cliffs!) and is devoid of vegetation, the many rolling mountains and jagged peaks of Skye make it a veritable mini-Himalaya, along with its enormous array of beautiful lowland flowers.

I soon noticed a distinct change in my compositions. Where, in Orkney, my eye tended to mostly ignore foreground detail (for, in truth, there was little to be had except an occasional but uninteresting rock or twig) and focus on clouds and sky with a bit of a horizon, in Skye, my camera was taking in the full view from my feet to as far away as my lens could take me! Moreover, because of the lovely colors, I also found myself - very uncharacteristically - thinking and previsualizing in color! I thought back to last year's trip to Santorini, Greece, where I had a related (but very different) experience with "color versus B&W" visualization. In Santorini's case, however, my thoughts on the matter crystalized after I had returned home and was viewing my images in Lightroom. This time, in Skye, the utterly un-ignorable effervescent colors compelled me to adapt my photography from B&W to color on the spot! While this may not sound like a "big deal" to most readers, I can assure you that for one, such as myself, who is almost exclusively a B&W photographer and therefore tends strongly to view the world in B&W, the shift was very dramatic (and, in hindsight, very enjoyable). Perhaps I can use this experience as a stepping stone / learning experience to widen my photographic horizons a bit.

"My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go."
- Robert Burns, My Heart's in the Highlands