Swedish-born photographer Gunnie Moberg (1941 - 2007) documented the landscape and people of Orkney and other islands. In this article, Rebecca Marr of The Gunnie Moberg Archive reflects on the artist’s shore-based work. The text is adapted from a paper given at the Creative Orkney Conference held in September 2014 and staged by the Centre for Nordic Studies, part of the University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI). A gallery of images is at the bottom of the page.
Among Gunnie Moberg’s reportage, portraiture, landscape and archeological photography lies a significant body of work entitled ‘Stones’. Boxes of slides marked ‘Stones A’, ‘Stones B’, and the artist’s favourite ‘Stones A+’, house images that represent a deep contemplation on place, garnered as the artist explored the Orkney coastline.
The shore holds a peculiar significance for islanders. Orcadian poet, conchologist and lay preacher Robert Rendall saw the expression of life on the shore as evidence of a wonder-filled nature. Collecting shells and seaweed was his spiritual communion with his environment. In the book Orkney Shore he listed the activities that made the shore a ‘permanent feature’ of Orkney life:
Sea-fishing, taking of lobsters, gathering dulse and whelks and mussels, bait gathering for cod-fishing, carting sand and seaweed for the land, or shingle for road-making, the bleaching of flax, kelp-making, quarrying flagstone for house roofs or for paving, beach combing for driftwood …
Rendall wrote further that this connection had, “left a profound influence on the subconscious habits of Orkney people. They gravitate towards the shore, even when without any immediate object in doing so.”
The foreshore, “so dear to all supernatural beings” of Orkney’s sea folklore, as Traill Dennison noted, is not a fixed zone. It shifts and is not always visible; it is present and absent, lending itself to magical thinking. Gunnie chose this space to make a significant body of work in the 1980s. But before that, on coming to Orkney in 1976, she found herself drawn to the boundaries between islands and the sea.
Her first book Stone Built (1979) shows Orkney’s coastline from above, a result of her having made friends with the pilot of one the Islander airplanes. She described archaeological sites as looking like jewellery and noted how she tended to photograph things that she wanted to “look at a little” longer’. Some of her images record sites that no longer exist, except through her photographs; the sheep fort near Ruskholm off Westray, for example, was washed away more than two decades ago.
In discussing her early practice, Gunnie once said that she was seeking out the lines of the Orkney coast:
I always tried to take pictures that were simple and clean. From the air you lose one dimension, but in the landscape you always have three and that clutters up my pictures sometimes – it’s very hard to get a clean line.
In 'Stones' she sought to achieve her goal by adopting the same technique as her aerial work, with the result that in some of her works it can be difficult to assess whether the shot was taken from hundreds of feet up, or just a few inches away.
Gunnie achieved more than clean lines from her shore photography; she managed to draw out the character of the stones. Some of the works feel like portraiture or life studies. When looking through the images in the archive, a pattern emerges with the photographer returning to favoured stones, recording them in different lights and weathers. At one stage she even remarked that she felt she had “worn out every stone”.
Themes emerge of crosses, intersections, edges, spaces between edges, things she wanted to look at a little longer. In the repeated images of crevices, foldings, openings, you realise there is something familiar about the stones, and you wonder why you didn’t see it before.
The stones on the beach represent the body, the female body in particular; they have become flesh. Gunnie, however, was ambivalent about any conscious awareness of this. In a 1985 feature in the Glasgow Herald, a journalist asked about the resemblance to human anatomy in her work. “Everyone tells me this is so and one person even called them erotic”, said Gunnie, with what sounds like genuine puzzlement: “I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to take pictures that look human, but I suppose we are all interested in the human form”.
In the book Stone (1987), printed on a hand press in Verona in an edition of 125, Gunnie’s photographs were published alongside poems by George Mackay Brown, her friend and a subject of many of her works. The story of the book is relayed here by publisher Colin Hamilton:
“At some stage Gunnie mentioned to me that as she walked along the shore near her house with her collie, Nuff, she took photographs of the myriad pools, stones and rock formations, and the patterns made in sand by water. She showed these to George, who told her he had written a number of poems that were associated with stones…We liked the idea of bringing two of our long-standing friends together in one publication, and although the poems were not written in response to the photographs any more than the photographs illustrated the poems George and Gunnie thought it was a good idea too.”
Seascape: The camera at the shore
In the rock pool a child dips (shrilling)
Below the widest ebb it opens,
The lost sea rose.
Then, drawing rose and reef and rock pool
The west inflows….
The Atlantic pulse beats twice a day
In cold gray throes.
Sky in rock-caught crumb of earth
One sea pink shows.
Scotland, scattered saw-teeth, melts like petals
In the thin haze,
Lucent as a prism for days, this shore until
A westerly blows.
Then stone slither and shift, they rattle and cry,
They break and bruise.
Shells are scattered, Caves like organs peal
Tangles lie heaped in thousands, thrust and thrown
From the thunder and blaze!
Silence again. Along the tidemark wavelets
Work thin white lace.
Among that hoard and squander, with her lens
George Mackay Brown
Click on any of the thumbnails to see the images full size.
Rebecca Marr is a photographer and project officer with the Gunnie Moberg Archive. She lives in Stromness and her interest in the shore featured in her MA in Orkney and Shetland Studies.
The work of George Mackay Brown reproduced with permission of the literary executor.