'These Places Have a Presence of Their Own'

'These Places Have a Presence of Their Own'

Photographer Vedder seeks to capture ‘ethereal’ Ireland on film

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The megalithic monuments left by the pre-Celtic people of Ireland are among the world's most ancient: Newgrange, a passage tomb in County Meath dating to 3000 BC, is older than the Pyramids.

Stephen Vedder
The Celts who came later believed these burial chambers to be the houses of the gods. After Ireland converted to Christianity, these places were still popularly held to be home to earth spirits, the fairies and leprechauns of enduring legend.

Stephen Vedder, assistant director for photography production at the Center for Media and Instructional Technology, spent four weeks in 1988 and 1989 biking through Ireland with a Nikon camera capturing pictures of the megaliths and "fairy hills" that dot the countryside.

Ten digital prints of his photos currently are on display in the Burns Library's Fine Prints Room. "'Ethereal' is the word to describe the images," Vedder said. "These places have a presence of their own."

"A classic portal dolmen; one of the most dramatic and recognized features of Ireland’s past. Unfortunately, soon after I photographed it I saw it reproduced everywhere from travels ads to perfume bottles. This took a little wind out of my sails, particularly as I had waited so patiently for the cows to move to get this shot. I learned to accept cows as an element of nature, like the cold or the rain. Sheep will scatter pretty easily. Cows hold their ground."
The photographer, in a recent interview, described his quest to capture on film ancient sites that in some cases are not even listed on maps.

"A lot of these are 'found' shots, and there are some things, like this dolman, an ancient burial chamber, I was looking for," Vedder said.

"The funny thing about the Irish is they have these in their backyards, but they don't mean a lot to them. Finally, one would say, 'Oh, you're looking for the old pile of rocks in the cow pasture.' The spectacular is mundane to them.

"There is a connection to fairies, of sorts. These are burial chambers made by pre-Celtic peoples. The Celts said the Tuatha de Danann lived in them. They believed the gods inhabited them, in particular, Newgrange. In Celtic myth, they were the houses of the gods, the Tuatha de Danann.

"This wedge-shaped gallery grave turned out to be one of the more frustrating dolmens I photographed. First, all the Irish I asked to help me find it kept insisting I was wasting my time. It took me all afternoon to finally locate it and, in keeping with my battle with the elements, it was (of course) raining. At first, I found the term ‘soft rain’ of the Irish quaint, until I found that after hours in it you end up just as wet as you would in a torrential downpour."
"With the onset of Christianity, you couldn't have two rivals for people's affections. So the gods were diminished, made smaller in stature. They became fairies. There are many 'fairy hills.'

"These places are so powerful, if you consider their history, their stature - when you consider the manpower that went into them, thousands of man-hours in an agricultural society. The enigma: Why did they do it?

"The burial chamber would have a room of light, a solarium. Newgrange is positioned so that every winter solstice, on Dec. 21, light comes through a window and illuminates the entire chamber. It's positioned to allow light to enter for one day - the day the sun comes back to the earth.

"There is a passageway, cruciform in shape, in the interior [of the mound]. At the arms are basins, cups. The basin I see as a woman symbol. You could look at the mound as being almost a constructed womb, of sorts.

"If the people thought of the earth as a mother goddess, and the light or sky as a male god, there is a rebirth or regeneration alluded to in the light coming into the chamber."

Vedder used infrared film, sensitive to light beyond the readily visible spectrum.

"You can't always predict what you're going to get. I wanted to be surprised. The infrared film offered a way to film something not immediately visible to the human eye.

"Many of the images were 'found' ones, taken en route to another site this is one of the only images that does not include a specific stone structure of any kind. The larger monuments I photographed projected their own atmosphere. This wood surrounded me with its atmosphere. I thought that Finn and his band of men (the Fianna) might feel very much at home here."
"I didn't want to just document these places. I wanted to document how they felt."


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