Where the Land Rises

Where the Land Rises

To mark the opening of the Glasgow School of Art 2015 Degree show we look at a project called 'Where the Land Rises' by one of our favourite Glasgow based photographers, Peter Holliday, who just received his degree in Communication Design from GSA this year.

"Where the Land Rises is a photographic series documenting the relationship between the landscape and people of Heimaey, the only inhabited island of Vestmannaeyjar, known in English as the Westman Islands: a volcanically active archipelago in southern Iceland."

"Isolated from the Icelandic mainland by the North Atlantic Ocean, Vestmannaeyjar is a dramatic fleet of around 15 islands. Heimaey, which literally means Home Island, is the largest of these islands with an area of approximately five square miles and home to a population of 4,300 people."

"Two cindery domes dominate the island’s horizon, sitting like residual slag heaps from a heavy industry long abandoned. These volcanoes, known as Eldfell and Helgafell, reveal the temporal nature of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Lying directly between the shifting tectonic plates of Europe and North America, the geology of the Vestmannaeyjar range is relatively new, having been formed by multiple volcanic eruptions during the past 12,000 years."

"In the early hours of 23rd January 1973 the island of Heimaey suddenly split open, sending columns of lava into the sky from a mile-long fissure. The eruption of Eldfell - as the 42 year old volcano is now known - led to the immediate evacuation of the island, destroying many homes and violently altering the geography of Heimaey. For this reason, the island is often cited as the ‘Pompeii of the North’."

"As the lava flow slowly crept towards the fishing harbour threatening to destroy the island’s economic lifeline, interventions were made to divert the drifting magma. A dam of solidified basalt was successfully created by spraying the flow with billions of litres of seawater. In early July 1973 the eruption was officially declared over and many of the inhabitants began to return, although some would never come back."

"The island had been saved but the landscape would never be the same again. In less than six months Heimaey had grown by an area of 20%. The new landscape formed by the eruption is a topography significantly influenced by mankind and the event is cited as an archetypal example of man’s ability to conquer the overwhelming power of nature."

"Where the Land Rises captures the stark coastal terrain of Vestmannaeyjar, a restless landscape forged by the intense geological violence that originates deep within our planet. Nevertheless, the landscape of Heimaey is revered by its inhabitants as a home; an island refuge in an often unforgiving environment. My portraits document some of the people who live there; the permanent occupants of a landscape exposed to ongoing forces of destruction and creation; the everyday witnesses of a terrain intricately textured by an ever-changing climate."

"By documenting the portraits and stories of several people who experienced the eruption of Eldfell, I was able to imagine a past landscape now lost beneath the lava and investigate a moment in Heimaey’s recent history when the island’s entire community came unnervingly close to losing everything."

"Where the Land Rises explores the complex interrelations between the changing environment and mankind against the unpredictable geography of Vestmannaeyjar and the surrounding extremes of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In examining this space, I present themes of isolation and man’s inherent longing for order within a fluctuating environment. By further detailing the lasting affects of the eruption of Eldfell I introduce ideas of loss, remembrance, the passing of time, and the chance for new beginnings."

"The project ultimately considers our perception of the landscapes that surround us, but more significantly, how the changing environments we inhabit shape the human condition."


"I first visited Heimaey during a trip to Iceland in the summer of 2014 and became fascinated by the island’s dramatic landscape and the stories surrounding the 1973 eruption of Eldfell. I felt compelled to investigate this event further as I was interested to learn more about the islander’s efforts to save their town and harbour from the lava flow, influencing the shape of the landscape visible on Heimaey today. I was already familiar with the theory and aesthetic of photographers associated with the New Topographics movement such as Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and Robert Adams. These photographers have long documented the intricate relationship between man and the landscape, and in particular, the way in which humans have shaped and developed the American landscape. This interested me and I felt compelled to produce a series of photographs depicting similar themes within the context of the lava cooling operations on Heimaey."

"Miraculously, nobody was killed by the eruption of Eldfell, and efforts to divert the lava flow had proved successful. The island had been reclaimed from the forces of nature but a pastoral landscape once admired by the island’s inhabitants had been lost forever under a layer of black lava and ash. As I investigated the eruption and its aftermath, I began to contemplate how it must feel to witness the geography of your homeland change so quickly and what these emotions reveal about our relationship with the landscapes we dwell in. I started to investigate the work of contemporary photographers such as Dana Lixenberg, Bryan Schutmaat, and Ville Lenkkeri, who explore isolated communities undergoing social, political, and/or geographical change. As my research developed further, I came upon The Language of Landscape by Anne Whiston Spirn and Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan. I found these texts to be invaluable sources of critical theory exploring the cultural significance of landscape and our emotional response to the changing world environment."

"I returned to Heimaey in January 2015 to begin the project and contacted several people prior to my visit who were willing to speak to me about their experience of the Eldfell eruption. When I arrived on the island, the volcano Bardarbunga in Iceland’s highland interior had been erupting for more than four months. However, one resident of Vestmannaeyjar who witnessed the eruption of Eldfell informed me that the Icelandic authorities were not worried about Bardarbunga because it was not close to any human settlement or economic centre. When I visited Heimaey again three months later in March, the Bardarbunga eruption had ceased."

"Instinctively, we tend to think of landscape as a static feature much older than mankind and something that will persist long after we are gone. But in Iceland, and on Vestmannaeyjar, it is the opposite. Today, more than four decades after the eruption, Eldfell may be still, but Heimaey continues to exist in a state of perpetual change. It was this temporal nature of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago that initially fascinated me about the landscape of Heimaey and the people who live there." 

"The majority of the images included in this project were shot on medium format negative film which prompted me to adopt a much more considered approach in my image making process. My aim was to create imagery that revealed the close human-landscape relationship of an isolated coastal community exposed to constant geophysical forces. I wanted to reflect this mood of change in my portraits, which document the witnesses of Heimaey’s ephemeral terrain, several of whom experienced the eruption of 1973. Finally, I wanted to emphasise the idea of landscape as an eternal process, an ever-changing feature of our daily lives that can change violently and suddenly due to forces out of our control."

We highly recomend you pop down to this years Glasgow School of Art degree show and see Peter's work in person. You can find his work in the GSA Reid Building between the 13th and the 20th of June, click here for more info!

To see more of Peter's work visit peterhollidayphoto.com

All quotes written by Peter Holliday

Paula Duvå

Paula Duvå

Miriam Chefrad

Miriam Chefrad