Gunnie Moberg

Artist photographer of the Northern Isles who collaborated with George Mackay Brown


Gun Margoth Moberg, photographer and artist: born Göteborg, Sweden 8 May 1941; married 1961 Tam MacPhail (four sons); died Stromness, Orkney 31 October 2007.

Gunnie Moberg was a photographer of down-to-earth authenticity. Her work began in photojournalism, almost by accident, but extended to book projects, notably with the poet George Mackay Brown, who became a good friend, and exhibitions not only in Scotland but also in her native Scandinavia. She was photographer-in-residence for the St Magnus Festival in Orkney from its beginnings in 1977 and close to its founders Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Archie Bevan. She made the Northern Isles pictorially her own in a trio of guides with the Norwegian writer Liv Kjørsvik Schei.

And, when George Mackay Brown visited England for the only time in his life, it was at Moberg's firm but kindly instigation. She stood him outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and photographed him clutching his carrier bag from Argo's Bakery in Stromness.

Gunnie Moberg was striking in appearance, beautiful in person and voice and manner, and a woman of determination. If she never quite realised her ambition to paint as well as she would have liked – as well as her mother had painted – nothing would have deterred her from continuing to try, nor for that matter from continuing to extend the ground around her Orkney home that she wished to tame into garden.

She was full of energy – walking, walking everywhere she could, almost always alone when photographing in the landscape, seeking persistently just the right expression of light, line and colour. She and her husband, the bookseller Tam MacPhail, never deviated from the challenge to be true to themselves, even, early on, in the most difficult financial circumstances.

George Mackay Brown said hers was "the kind of temperament on whom fortune smiles". "That's the way it is with Gunnie," he wrote in his diary after she persuaded him to visit Shetland in 1988. "People tend towards the brightness of her nature."

People would beat a path to her door, as in years past they'd arrive in Orkney seeking Brown himself. In both cases the first stop was often the bookshop that MacPhail has run for nearly 30 years: Stromness Books and Prints. "Gunnie has a life," he would say. "I have a bookshop." Essentially of course they had each other – and their boys (four boys in six years), and their grandchildren; but their relationship and marriage was the core of their lives for well over 40 years.

They met in Edinburgh in 1960. MacPhail, from California, had arrived in Liverpool earlier that year, and made his way to Edinburgh to meet some friends. Having hitched through Mexico to Boston and Miami, he had been working on a yacht in the Bahamas. He found a job, and often enough a bed, in Jim Haines's bookshop: "One day this amazing girl came in, long blonde hair piled up on her head, high heels and a smart suit." Moberg's introduction to Edinburgh had occurred in 1958, when she came to work at the nearby Kingston Clinic as an au pair. Subsequently, she worked briefly for a portrait photographer at home in Sweden before enrolling to study pottery at Edinburgh College of Art. She studied for a while with Katie Horseman.

Before long, in late 1960, they moved together into a flat in Rose Street, a few doors down, as it happened, from the bookdealer Kulgin Duval – who would later, with his partner Colin Hamilton, commission the book Stone (1987) from Brown and Moberg.

Moberg and MacPhail were married in the Unitarian Church at the West End of Princes Street in January 1961. The minister told them that, in addition to his fee of £5, it would cost £5 for the organist and £5 to heat the church. "So we gave him £10," says MacPhail, "and froze through the ceremony."

They continued to tough it out, moving a few times in Edinburgh and then, from 1964, to an isolated cottage, "cold but good", in Argyll, in the west of Scotland, for seven years. MacPhail exhibited, including with Richard Demarco, and Moberg became known in Edinburgh for her exhibitions of batik, much of it making use of designs based on rubbings from Celtic stones. Her ability to focus with intensity on whatever she was doing lasted all her life. In recent years the crocheted hats she made by the hundred for her friend Ingrid Tait's company, Tait and Style, made her famous in Japan. She was making them even before she got out of bed in the morning. Back in Argyll in the Sixties, she was also working in the art therapy department of a nearby hospital, and "making things all the time: jewellery, batik, weaving".

It was a hand-to-mouth existence that continued until they packed up and, in 1976, headed north to Orkney. Earlier they had almost packed up and gone south to Cambridge, where MacPhail was to have apprenticed himself to a blacksmith, but the deal fell through suddenly – almost too late for them to put out the bonfire they'd made of what had briefly seemed to be surplus belongings.

Moberg had been to Orkney for a holiday the year before with an Edinburgh friend, Sigrid Mavor, and had met some people who would later become part of their lives, including Gerry Meyer, then Editor of The Orcadian, and his wife Nora, Elizabeth and Archie Bevan, and George Mackay Brown.

Having been helped by Laura Grimond, wife of the local MP Jo Grimond, to find accommodation, they moved around between summer caravan and winter lets until the house they had bought in Stromness was re-roofed. When Peter Maxwell Davies heard about the cost involved, he wrote out a cheque for a loan of the amount there and then. Their friendship remained a strong one. Moberg photographed "Max" often, and in recent years, she spent a good deal of time helping organise Max's garden at his and his partner Colin Parkinson's new home on the island of Sanday.

Orkney is a group of nearly 70 islands, Sanday being one of the northern set. Twenty or so of the islands are populated, and they are connected by ferry and light aircraft. Moberg had taken a job at the desk of the local airline, Loganair, shortly after arriving in the islands, and the pilots were always happy to take her up for a spin. She saw that here in the treeless landscape were great subjects for aerial photography – shorelines, archaeological remains, drystone walls, wartime buildings – and with a rediscovered interest in the medium, and ample opportunities, she was able to assemble a group of photographs that would became Stone Built, published by Stromness Books and Prints in 1979.

By this time, MacPhail worked in that bookshop (he would later come to own it), having been saved from further embarrassment over his suitability for employment at the boatyard by the offer of work from the proprietor, John L. Broom: librarian for town and school and old friend of George Mackay Brown, keen amateur actor, inveterate letter-writer and sometime chronicler of the Rose Street poets' scene of the 1960s.

Moberg's first real break as a photographer had come quickly, not long before, when a US warplane, a Tomcat, crashed in the sea nearby. Moberg persuaded a pilot to take her up to look for the wreckage, which they found and photographed, and, helped by Gerry Meyer, she was soon earning substantial sums of money, both for those photographs and for the new work that began to come her way from the national press.

"She worked really hard at her photography," recalls MacPhail, "and realised there was more to it than journalism, much more, but she never went about things in a pretentious or precious way, she was always just herself."

She began to receive invitations to contribute photographs to books such as those by Liv Schei (The Shetland Story, 1988; The Faroe Islands, 1991; and The Islands of Orkney, 2000) and George Mackay Brown (The Loom of Light, 1986; A Celebration for Magnus, 1987; Portrait of Orkney, 1988; and, posthumously, his poems illustrating her pictures, Orkney: pictures & poems, 1996). She also contributed to exhibitions, many of them through the Pier Arts Centre, which opened in Stromness in 1979; her first group exhibition took place there in 1980, a retrospective in 1996. Last year she published a book of photographs, Orkney, with Birlinn and what she intended to be her final photographic exhibition, a large show of around 60 works entitled "Three Island Groups: Orkney, Shetland and the Faroe Islands", began its tour in Denmark, at the new North Atlantic House in Copenhagen.

In 2003, Moberg was one of 20 prominent contemporary Scottish artists, along with John Bellany, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi and the Boyle Family, commissioned to produce work for permanent installation in the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. She selected 11 prints of Orkney and Shetland – intended, she said, as "simple statements of place, closely observed details that would be immediately recognisable to a Shetlander or Orcadian".

Simplicity was what Moberg aimed for in her picture-taking: of form, subject matter, composition. Her feeling for nature, for birds and animals (especially her ravens and their half-Saluki, half-Hoy Collie Nulf) as well as for people led her always towards expressions of hospitality and celebration. This is clear in her publications and her exhibitions, but privately also in the stack of "House-books", records of every visitor to the house outside Stromness to which they moved in 1991, and where Moberg will shortly, as her husband says, "come home to the garden".

The best kind of simplicity, Gunnie Moberg told me last year, would be not to be taking pictures at all. "It's not that the pictures are getting worse," she said one day as she spoke about the endless process in photography of discarding the stuff that doesn't make the grade, that seems to grow and grow in quantity as time goes on, "but that your idea of what a picture should be changes all the time."

Alistair Peebles

Gunnie Moberg was an artist among photographers, writes James Fergusson. Of all the books of George Mackay Brown, perhaps the most austerely handsome is Stone, printed by Gabriella and Martina Mardersteig at the Officina Bodoni and illustrated – with photographs of serene, sensual elegance – by Gunnie Moberg.

"We liked the idea of bringing two of our longest-standing friends together in one publication," wrote its co-publisher Colin Hamilton last year in an introduction to a remarkable exhibition of 10 different bindings for the book by Faith Shannon shown at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh.

Brown's 16 poems, crisp, Delphic, are complemented by the nine soft, almost abstract studies in Orkney shore geology selected from the thousand-odd photographs supplied by Moberg. Kulgin Duval, Hamilton and the Mardersteigs contrived a printing technique (applying a special coating to their hand-made paper) that elevates the images into something other than photographs; they are prints of an almost indeterminate medium, of extraordinary power and grace.

Gunnie Moberg had the artist's eye for the small detail, never better evidenced than in the low house under the Black Craig that she shared with the shy, satirical Tam MacPhail, who runs the best small bookshop in Scotland. The garden, open to the prevailing winds and overlooking the baleful Sound of Hoy, is a masterpiece of intelligence and green-fingered subtlety, a sort of learned opportunism, and adorned and fortified by drystone walls built with her own hands. The house itself, light and open-plan, bears on every wall the marks of her taste and direction – paintings by her mother, paintings by herself, prints and linocuts by friends.

Of all the thousands of photographs taken by her over the years, however, she only hung one. Shot in Shetland at midnight in June, it is a backlit portrait of a cow called Astrid.

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