GUNNIE MOBERG (1941 – 2007)
‘Gunnie Moberg’s photographs of Orkney, her adopted home, defined
the people and the landscape of those islands in a way that has never
been equalled.’ (Obituary, The Times, 9 November 2007)
The following text is taken from the valuation report for Orkney Libray and Archive by Lindsey S. Stewart for Bernard Quaritch Ltd.
Gun Margoth (Gunnie) Moberg was born into an artistic, middle-class family in Gothenburg, Sweden, left school at 16 and worked briefly in a portrait photographer’s studio. Having already visited Edinburgh in 1958, she made her way to Scotland, where she studied at Edinburgh College of Art. She was to meet her soul mate and future husband, artist and bookseller, Tam MacPhail, in an Edinburgh bookshop in 1960. He, too, was an émigré – a Californian art student seeking an alternative to the American dream. They married in Edinburgh in 1961. It was while living in Rose Street, Edinburgh that she and Tam met Kulgin Duval, a bookseller whose shop was nearby. With his partner, Colin Hamilton, he was later to commission the bookStone, from Gunnie and her close friend, the acclaimed Orkney writer, George Mackay Brown.
Gunnie Moberg first visited Orkney with a Danish friend [Sigrid Appleby] in 1973, a visit that was to result in a warmly received exhibition of her batik work. The islands had worked their own magic and in 1976, Gunnie, Tam and their four sons moved from their Argyll base, eventually finding a home in Stromness. It was here that Gunnie was to make her name, not only as a photographer, but also as an artist, gardener and pivotal figure in the flourishing artistic community of the Islands.
By all accounts Gunnie was a beautiful and warm human being who drew people from all backgrounds and with varied interests. People were at ease in her company and she was to enable connections between others that lasted throughout their lifetimes. Through her deep friendship with George Mackay Brown, who was known for his reticence and dislike of travel outside Orkney, she was able to photograph him on numerous occasions. She accompanied him to Shetland with booksellers and publishers Kulgin Duval and Colin Haig Hamilton in 1988. In 1989 she persuaded him to visit England for the first time,when he made his only trip to Oxford and London – in her company – and was interviewed by Sue McGregor for BBC radio 4’s Conversation Piece.
Her first job in Orkney was a desk job at the local airline, Loganair. She was to befriend their head pilot, Capt. Andy Alsop, who flew the regular inter-island flights. Accompanying him, the views of Orkney from the air inspired her to photograph again. In 1976 she took a photograph of a US Navy Tomcat plane that had ditched off the coast of Orkney from the deck of the USS John F. Kennedy. Her photograph was published in The Orcadian, whose editor, Gerry Meyer, encouraged her to send it further afield and to ask a good price. She did and experienced her first commercial success as a photographer. She was to continue working as a photojournalist, having her photographs published widely in the Scottish press for any Orkney-related events.
During her photographic career she worked primarily in Orkney, but also in Shetland and the Faroe Islands, making aerial and landscape photographs as well as portraits of celebrities and locals alongside her photojournalism. Through these pictures, which span a period of over 20 years, she gradually built an unpretentious but compelling body of work that not only represents the social history of Orkney during the last quarter of the 20th century, but also often transcends this documentary role. Before long she was being commissioned to contribute photographs to books, which en masse, display something of the versatility of her work. Her photographs sit as comfortably next to a poem by George Mackay Brown in a finely printed privatepress publication as they do in a popular guide to Orkney.
Her close friendship with Brown was to result in books in which her photographs accompany his writing. Their work appears together in six books of which Stone (Kulgin and Duval, 1987) and Orkney Pictures and Poems (Colin Baxter, 1996) are close collaborations. Significantly, for the latter she asked Brown to write short captions for the photographs. An easel was set up in his sitting room for about six months, duringwhich time he and Gunnie looked at displays of her pictures together. Much to her surprise and joy, instead of writing captions, George wrote 48 remarkable poems to accompany her photographs.
She contributed to exhibitions all over Scotland and had two solo shows at The Pier Arts Centre: a retrospective in 1996 and another titled ‘Three Island Groups: Orkney,Shetland and the Faroe Islands” in 2008. She had planned this exhibition, which opened first in Denmark. In 2003 Gunnie Moberg was one of twenty prominentScottish artists commissioned to produce work for display in the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. For this she contributed a series of eleven colour photographs of subjects from Orkney and Shetland. In 2005 she was the stills photographer for a BBC Scotland film ‘An Orkney Friendship’ in the series ‘Artworks Scotland’ that explored the influence of George Mackay Brown on the work of composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
In recent years, Gunnie became a passionate gardener, by her own admission, obsessive. Her enthusiasm for photographic assignments lessened in parallel with her desire to stay at home and nurture her garden. One friend, the photographer Fay Godwin, hinted that she might combine these two interests and one of her last series of (semi-abstract) photographs experiments with the subtleties of colour and motion of the flowers from the exquisite garden she had crafted on the Orkney coastline. Quite different from her earlier work these reveal a tantalising glimpse of a new approach to her photography and a further move away from photojournalism.
In response to her death in 2007 her friends and family organised ‘Gunnie Day’ – a celebration of her life and work, hosted by the Pier Arts Centre, where people were invited to see her exhibition and ‘bring or send a memento… for inclusion in a special display that will reflect the quiet and profound influence that Gunnie could bring to friendship, conversation and to the act and art of seeing.’ It is a testament to her contribution to Orkney life that this day was in fact to be extended for three weeks.