Peter Cox has photographed most of the world’s stunning landscapes but for him none can match the drama and grandeur of the Skelligs in Kerry.
“I’ve travelled all over the world, I’ve photographed in Greenland, Antarctica, Iceland. The Skelligs is probably my favourite place to photograph — it is a place that is very special to me personally, but also photographically,” he says.
Cox became a professional landscape photographer after leaving his career as a computer systems engineer in the US and moving back to Ireland. The native Dubliner is based in Ballingeary in west Cork and has a gallery in Killarney; his previous books, The Irish Light and Atlantic Light have sold almost 20,000 copies.
In his third book, The Skelligs: Islands on the Edge of the World, he turns his lens on the rocky outcrops off the coast of Kerry’s Iveragh peninsula, which have cast a spell on visitors down through the ages, from the monks who originally settled there between the 6th and 8th centuries to the makers of the Star Wars films who showcased their beauty to the world in the 21st century.
“I love wild and remote places and inaccessible places, and the Skelligs are certainly all of those things. It’s a combination of the physical beauty of them because they are just so dramatic and jagged, and the human side of it. I’m not at all a religious person but what the monks did was absolutely incredible, just to think about the life they must have led there. And there’s the lighthouses, and the building of those and that story as well,” says Cox.
The images in the book were taken over the course of almost a decade, and include rare photos of the islands at night, for which Cox was granted special permission to stay on Skellig Michael overnight. The Iveragh peninsula is home to the only Gold Tier Dark Sky Reserve in the Northern Hemisphere, with the lack of light pollution allowing for a special stargazing experience.
“Being out there at night and seeing the seeing the sky, very much as the monks would have seen them, and photographing them was quite a special thing. I was very fortunate in that the night that I was out there was very clear, it was really quite incredible,” says Cox.
When it comes to tips for aspiring or amateur photographers, Cox stresses that composition is key and the most high-tech equipment will be practically useless if you don’t know what you are doing with it.
“Cameras these days, even mobile phones, are at the point where you can get very high-quality images. Just a standard professional camera of whatever brand will do the job and you just have to know how to use it properly. Having a little bit of knowledge about how it works — and it doesn't take a lot — and just taking a little bit more care when you’re taking the photographs, you can get much better results. That’s independent of the camera completely. A mobile phone image thoughtfully taken and well-composed will be far better than a carelessly taken picture with a state-of-the-art camera.”
The first appearance of the Skelligs at the end of Stars Wars: The Force Awakens was a goosebumps moment for many. Ironically, for all the millions spent on digital effects and CGI (including morphing the famous native puffins into the specially created Porgs) when it came to the islands themselves, they were more or less shown in their original glory.
“It’s always spectacular when you see a place you are familiar with portrayed in a big-budget production,” says Cox.
It is this otherworldliness that Cox aims to capture in his book, especially as the islands are so hard to access for most people, even more so this year when they were closed due to the pandemic.
“The subtitle of the book is ‘islands on the edge of the world’ because for the monks, it literally was — there was nothing beyond that, you know, ‘here be dragons’. In this book, I really try to communicate what it would have felt like to be a monk on that island — to transmit some of the magic, awe and wonder that is there that can’t be viewed by most people. I feel this book is just scratching the surface of what’s there. I look forward to continuing to work with them.”
- The Skelligs: Islands on the Edge of the World is out now, available in bookshops, the Peter Cox gallery in Killarney and www.petercox.ie