Gunnie Moberg: A Creative Legacy

rows of corn stooks from above looking like a diagonal row of yellow dots on a green page

As part of the BBC Art That Made Us Festival Orkney Library & Archive are showing a selection of work from the Gunnie Moberg Collection. The exhibition, curated by Senior Archivist Vikki Kerr and Archivist Lucy Gibbon, centres on prints previously published in book form.

The exhibition runs from now to the 15th of April in the MacGillivray Room at Orkney Library & Archive in Kirkwall, Orkney.

Writer and friend of the artist Duncan McLean tells us how Gunnie’s photography made us see Orkney in a different way.

Gunnie Moberg: A Creative Legacy

Shortly after arriving in Orkney in 1976, Gunnie Moberg started working behind the desk at Kirkwall airport. This brought frequent opportunities to hitch a ride in the Loganair planes doing the rounds of the outer isles. The flights were a revelation for Gunnie, opening her eyes to a new way of seeing Orkney, both its natural patterns – sweeping shorelines, sandstone cliffs, whirling seabirds – and human ones – standing stones, rows of stooks, sheep dykes.

Inspired to return to a youthful interest in photography, she quickly developed both her technique and her vision. Over thirty years of work, she established a major reputation, exhibiting widely and collaborating on a series of indispensable books about Orkney and our northern neighbours Shetland and Faeroe. She also became firm friends with George Mackay Brown, Peter Maxwell Davis and many other writers and artists. She assembled an astonishing collection of portraits of visiting luminaries such as Janice Galloway, Isaac Stern, and Seamus Heaney, as well as of ordinary Orcadians going about their daily lives.

Her photos – many of them aerial shots and portraits, but also semi-abstract macros of plants in the clifftop garden she created in Ootertoon – are now held in collections such as the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Parliament. They’re also on the walls of many homes across these islands, and above all preserved here in the Library and Archive. This local appreciation is very fitting, for Gunnie played a full part in the Orkney community – despite being a thoroughly non-conformist individual.

In fact she didn’t just play a part in a pre-existing, unchanging community. Her new ways of seeing Orkney altered the way everyone living here – and many who have yet to visit – picture, and therefore think about, the islands. Notable photographers of the 19th and early- to mid-20th century such as Tom Kent and David Horne tended to view everything from six feet off the ground. Of course they did: that was their eye level, and the extent of their tripod’s extension. Only Dougie Shearer took quantities of aerial photos, but they were chiefly records of the appearance of buildings and townscapes, not particularly interesting as images in their own right.

Gunnie made us see the harmony and tension of landscape from 500 metres above, and the fractal complexity of foliage and rockpool from five centimetres away. Of her precursors, only Wilfred Marr had a comparable eye for the abstract beauty hidden within everyday Orkney. Gunnie went beyond Marr’s example to create a body of work with endless capacity to surprise, to delight, and to make us exclaim, ‘Yes! I’d never seen it like that before, but that’s exactly how it is!’

Gunnie’s legacy lives in us, and we live in her legacy.

Duncan McLean

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