This is a presentation of a paper on the Shore photography of Gunnie Moberg given at the Creative Orkney Conference held in September 2014. The conference was staged by the Centre for Nordic Studies, part of the University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI).
Orkney Shore – the intertidal photography of Gunnie Moberg
Rebecca Marr 2014
Robert Rendall, poet, conchologist and lay preacher, saw the expression of life on the shore – evidence of a wonder-filled nature and a resource to sustain life. In his book Orkney Shore he list activities that made the shore a ‘permanent feature’ in 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..(1973:86)’.
This connection to the shore has, Rendall feels, ‘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 (1973:86)’.
Life and connection to life is then represented for Rendall by the shore, a space he calls ‘the margin of the deep’ (1957). Of the sea he writes, ‘Its continual motion, its potential of storm and tempest, its remoteness and mystery, its primeval birth, all combine to cast an awe upon our spirits and to soothe the inborn restlessness. There is healing in the sea for mind and body (1973:150). His natural history endeavours of collecting shells and seaweed were his spiritual communion with the shore.
Loren Eiseley in The Unexpected Universe feels that the shore calls up a deep echo from the past saying: ‘Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war (1972:51)’.
Eiseley’s analogy of the displaced person is useful if we consider the shore as a border between two realms, the land and the sea.
This liminal zone becomes an even more important space if we include the third realm, the sky. Discussing the potential significance of the shore, archaeologist Knut Helskog draws in the cosmology of the arctic people, where three interdependent realms exist:
‘The life and the boundaries of the three natural zones and the three cosmological worlds meet at the shore. In this sense the shore is a contact zone between the worlds of the universe and could thereby contain an especially strong place for ritual communication (Helskog 1999:77)’.
It is in this zone that Gunnie Moberg photographed. The foreshore, ‘so dear to all supernatural beings (Dennison 1995:31)’ 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 Moberg chose this space to make a significant body of work in the 1980s. But before that , on coming to Orkney in 1976, Gunnie found herself drawn to the shore, the edge, the boundaries between islands and the sea that surrounds them. In her first book Stone built published in 1979, the Orkney coastline was photographed from above.
Making friends with pilot Andy Alsop, Gunnie took to the air making remarkable images of Orkney from an Islander plane. She described the archaeological sites as looking like jewellery below.
She once said ‘I photograph things I want to look at a little longer’. Some of these images are now things we can no longer see except through these photographs. This sheep fort near Ruskholm off Westray, for example, has been washed away.
In her aerial photographs Gunnie was seeking out the lines of the Orkney coast. She told Pamela Beasant in an interview for Northwords magazine in 2004:
‘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 (B 2004:20)’.
She achieved clean lines and simplicity in her shore work by adopting the same technique as her aerial work, looking from above. In some of her photography it can be difficult and to assess whether you are hundred of feet up or a few inches. Above some wet paw prints are our only clue as to the distance between the lens and the surface.
Gunnie Moberg seemed to be able to draw out more than clean lines from her shore work, she managed to draw out the character of the stones. Her chosen shoreline for this body of work was the coast between Ness and Warebeth.
Along the Warebeth shore she became familiar with the stones. Some of the work feels like portraiture or life studies. Looking through the images in the archive a story unfolds of Gunnie returning to favoured stones making images of them in different lights and weathers. She remarked, noted Alistair Peebles, that she felt she had ‘worn out every stone’ (Peebles 1996:11).
Themes emerge of crosses,
spaces between edges, things she wants to look at a little longer.
This work is celebrated in the book Stone printed on a hand press in Verona in an edition of 125. The book of Gunnie’s photographs and George Mackay Brown’s poems was published by Kulgin Duval and Colin Hamilton in 1987. The story of the book is relayed here by 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 (Hamilton 2006)’.
Seen above is the portfolio edition of the photographs and below is one of the edition of ten bindings by Faith Shannon. One of the cloth bound copies of the book can be enjoyed in the Orkney Room at the library in Kirkwall.
In this next section phrases and words by George Mackay Brown lifted from the book Stone are presented along with a sequence of Gunnie Moberg’s meditations on the shore. The images are culled from hundreds from which Gunnie and her publishers, Colin & Kulgin, selected the final nine for the book.
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
from the 1987 book Stone.
The work of George Mackay Brown reproduced with permission of the literary executor.
Beasant, P. (2004) ‘Writer Artist Interview’. Northwords 19–22
Brown, G.M. (1987) Stone. Limited signed ed. K.D.Duval & C. Hamilton
Dennison, W.T. (1995) Orkney Folklore and Sea Legends. Kirkwall: The Orkney Press Ltd
Eiseley, L.C. (1972) The Unexpected Universe. San Diego: Harcourt Publishers Ltd
Hamilton, C. (2006) Stone, Ten Bindings Exhibition Catalogue. Kulgin Duval & Colin Hamilton. available from
Helskog, K. (1999) ‘The Shore Connection. Cognitive Landscape and Communication with Rock Carvings in Northernmost Europe’. Norwegian Archaeological Review 32 (2), 73–94
Moberg, G. (1979) Stone Built: Orkney Photographs. Stromness Books & Prints
Peebles, A. (1996) ‘From the Air’. Orkney Arts Society 10–13
Rendall, R. (1957) ‘In The Ebb’ Shore Poems, and Other Verse. Orkney: The Kirkwall Press
Rendall, R. (1973) Orkney Shore. Orkney: The Kirkwall Press