When WB Yeats sent John Synge to visit the Aran islands ("a most desolate, stony place") in 1898, his visits produced a phenomenal body of work, culminating in The Playboy of the Western World. When Gauguin visited the tiny Pacific island of Hiva Oa three years later, the resulting paintings ushered in the Synthetist style of modern art. These were just two of the myriad journeys made by creative artists into wild terrain in search of inspiration.
A century later, two photographers set out to capture the bleak beauty of the remote Scottish landscape. Olivia Arthur, a London-based Magnum photographer, and Philipp Ebeling, a photographer, publisher and owner of the Fishbar studio, went to the Sound of Harris – "sound" meaning the stretch of sea running south of the Outer Hebridean island – to catch the essence of its shaggy hills, its hardy locals, and its harsh climate. "We felt the influence of the weather, the power of the sea, and saw faces in the mountains and monster-like shapes emerge from the seaweed as the tide receded," Ms Arthur reported.
You'd think the weather itself was an artist in these photographs, or at least the spur to art. Look at the eloquent inventiveness in the caravan owner's employment of heavy rocks to stop his vehicle being blown away in storms. The bus-stop seat enclosed in windbreak glass resembles an exhibit in a vitrine. The seaweed is shaped in complex, beautiful whorls, as though by Andy Goldsworthy. The rocks have a sculpted, Easter Island quality.
The predominant note, though, is of ungovernable wildness. Male and female Hearachs, as the inhabitants are known, look dwarfed by the grassland, lost against the black, unwelcoming shore. No wonder Stanley Kubrick used Harris as the surface of Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Sound of Harris by Olivia Arthur and Philipp Ebeling is at the Leica Studio, 27 Bruton Place, London W1J 6NQ, until 10 December.
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