The Copenhagen-based artist visited the spectacular Orkney location to learn not only about the unique process and history behind the brand, but also the people who craft it and the influence of the islands’ harsh environment.
Solkær, who is best known for his striking portraits of musicians and has photographed Oasis, Arcade Fire, Adele and R.E.M, is a regular contributor to international magazines including Q Magazine, Rolling Stone and GQ and has had many solo exhibitions around the world.
His latest project saw him documenting the working life on Orkney at Highland Park’s Kirkwall distillery using signature style of dramatic lighting and subtle sense of humour.
The islands around where the distillery is based are renowned for their extreme landscapes, prehistoric remains and rich inheritance of Viking folklore.
Having once been part of Norway, Orkney became the headquarters for Norwegian and Danish Vikings in the 8th and 9th century and are a key focus for Visit Scotland’s 2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.
Highland Park is one of the oldest brands of single malt Scotch whisky in the world founded by Magnus Eunson in 1798. Today the distillery produces premium quality single malt whisky using the same unchanged and traditional methods they’ve used for over 200 years.
During his visits, Søren had the opportunity to meet the team of just over twenty Orcadians who work at the distillery, and photograph each of them during various stages of the whisky making process.
"I spoke to every one of the workers while I was there. I’m very happy about that. Initially they were a bit quiet, but they all opened up over time. I really look forward to going back - they have a great sense of humour. One of them told me he’d never had so many photos taken of him - even on his own wedding day.
"The workers weren’t used to cameras, but also had strong personalities and were in their real environment, which makes it easier for me to tell stories with my pictures. Maybe initially they found all the attention a bit weird, but seeing how hard I was working, taking photos from morning to evening, carrying heavy equipment around with my assistant - they could also see that I was there to do a job. I think that kind of earned their respect.
"They were quite interested to see the photos, they found it quite curious that we were taking such interest in what they were doing because for them it’s what they’ve been doing for the last 25 years! Everyone’s been there for a long time - gaining expertise, getting to know exactly how the peat smells, becoming very specialised at what they do. It’s a place where if you get a job, that’s where you stay. That in itself is pretty rare."
The series of photos that Søren took of the distillery and the Orcadian landscapes will be released in 2017 as part of an ongoing partnership with the Scotch whisky brand.
Søren found Orkney itself to be an exciting subject to work around, he said: "From up in the sky you get these amazing aerial views of the ruins and Viking settlements. You see these beautiful shapes, laid out a bit like jewellery.
"The landscape is extremely dramatic, so for a photographer, it’s an amazing place.
"We moved around quite a bit, mostly around Kirkwall but also with some road trips to Viking settlements, the coastal cliffs and the moors where Highland Park cut their peat – key to the whisky’s unique flavour. I was trying to be very observant and capture certain moods as the skies changed.
"I work almost like how you’d create a movie. I use a digital camera and a lot of artificial lights which gives a certain signature style, or a visual language."
The photographer was particularly surprised by how traditional the working processes inside the distillery are, he added: "Everything is done by hand. It’s very old school. I’d been told it was a very traditional process, but I don’t think I realised to what extent. You have to go inside, to the office, before you see a single computer. I’ve never seen a production process this large where so much of the work is still manual. A lot of Highland Park’s processes could easily have been taken over by more modern day, and far cheaper, technologies, but they have stayed traditional.
"They insist on that as they believe it’s part of the soul of the product. I found that really fascinating - how true they are to the heritage. Nowadays a lot of people are returning to old fashioned aesthetics and appreciating the craft and manual skills involved. Traditional crafts have become ‘trendy’ again - but Highland Park have just stuck to what they’ve been doing all along."