The photography of Dr Beatrice Garvie (1872-1956) has come to my attention solely through the ongoing meticulous work of artist and researcher Fiona Sanderson. Sanderson had come across Garvie’s photographs through her own connection to North Ronaldsay, Orkney. As part of her time on the island as the community doctor in the 1930s and 40s, Garvie had photographed Sanderson’s grandmother ‘Jenny South Ness’. Sanderson has, over several years, presented her ongoing research as part of a number of events including ‘Holm Sound’ (Episode 7: BLØM, 2022); and XPoNorth’s podcast series ‘Unforgotten Highland Women’ (2022). As an artist involved in a ‘Culture Collective’ project in North Ronaldsay, Sanderson has also introduced Dr Garvie and her work to North Ronaldsay schoolchildren. As part of her research, Sanderson has contacted Garvie’s family, and, through her own connections with North Ronaldsay, the families of those in the photographs. This has allowed Sanderson to work collaboratively to name and caption, when not noted in Garvie’s own captions. Sanderson also recognises the ethical issue of use of the photographs in further public platforms such as exhibitions and events, asking permission as some may not wish to have photographs of family members shown. This research approach is also echoed in Shona Main’s work with Jenny Gilbertson’s early films in Shetland, asking communities to name those beyond the central islanders involved.
Like Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004), who lived with the MacRae sisters in North Glendale, South Uist for five years in the early 1930s’, Dr Garvie also lived in the community she was photographing for 15 years from the 1930s to ‘40s. As can be noted through the work of Shetland filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson who also, latterly as a teacher, lived and worked in the community she had documented, this sustained period of immersion allowed for a full understanding and recording of the changing seasons and their impact on the island. For Gilbertson, ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ (1931) was filmed over the period of a year, showing seasonal farming and fishing cycles. Seasons can also be perceived in Garvie’s work through the types of farm labour she photographed. The weather is also apparent, for example, in one sequence of unloading the boat ‘The Earl Sigurd’, with snow lying on the pier in the foreground. As Sanderson points out, Garvie as a doctor is likely to be the only woman photographer to have taken photographs of the babies and children she brought into the world, there is a sense of time passing in her photographs of the children beginning to grow up, from babies into toddlers. Dr Kenneth Robertson, a physician in South Uist from 1956-1981, is a later example of a doctor in Scotland photographing the community they served.
Garvie captured communal work in North Ronaldsay, from re-roofing the baker’s shop, to repairing the unique wall that encircles the high shore line around the island, keeping the seaweed-eating sheep on the foreshore. Her photographs really have a unique sense of ‘place’, with the lighthouse, as a main landmark, often discernible in photographs where she has focussed on farm work, such as of a woman scything. There are several sequences of activities relating to ‘tangle work’, such as men and women piling up kelp in heaps; and then placing these in ‘kilns’ on the shore to set light to. A handwritten description on the back of one of the photographs reads:
‘Tangle stacks. Tangle is collected from the beach during winter… left on this ridge of stones above the beach – about July is forked into circular shallow pits… and burned, becoming lumps of dark grey material. This is shipped to Grangemouth Chemical Works.’
As I have noted before, some of the male photographers of this period were keen to perpetuate the idea of island Scotland as a romantic and remote location, however Garvie’s description firmly links the labour of the islanders to Scottish industry, on this occasion, in Grangemouth. As we see later, the boat and the plane, also recorded in Garvie’s photography, link up North Ronaldsay to Orkney mainland and mainland Scotland. Jenny Gilbertson’s film ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ also shows modernity and tradition living side by side in this period.
One of the key aspects of Garvie’s style is her ability to catch ‘movement’. Her photography often captures a ‘live’ rather than staged, activity. She has made no effort to edit or to ask for the action to be repeated or frozen, for the benefit of the camera. The hands of those working the land are often a blur. In one photograph, she captures a man throwing a rope to the incoming boat. His body is in a diagonal, with the black of the boat’s hull providing a backdrop for the water droplets cascading from the rope to be seen against. As well as the movement of the subject, when seeing an activity in photographic sequence, such as the tangle work, Garvie’s own movement as a photographer becomes apparent. She ranges round the point of focus, photographing up close, then moving behind to photograph the same activity at a distance. Sanderson is currently working with Garvie’s relatives to identify the type of camera she used. From the low angle of the camera looking up, as was synonymous with the period, it looks likely that that camera was held at waist height.
A second aspect to note in Garvie’s style as a photographer is that her compositions often revolve around strong shapes. This may be the distinct curve of a furrow connecting up to horses and plough in the foreground, or placing the large stone circle of a shallow pit on the shore as the immediate focus in the photograph, with the islanders burning kelp in another pit, in the far distance. This sense of shape also comes into her pictures of children. In one, a triangular composition is dominant; a large triangular wooden frame is echoed by the triangle of a mother’s body (who is sitting perched within it), which in turn frames the baby, dressed in white, that she holds in her lap. These shapes and her liking for the abstract is also followed through with unusual cropping in her framing of the subject. A young boy on top of a gate post is framed from just below his shoulders down. This, and Garvie’s innate understanding of perspective, sets the triangle created by his legs echoed by the chimneyed end of a cottage in the distance. In looking at Garvie’s photography as a whole, in the 500-strong collection of photographs, these are not unintended compositions but a preference for strong and unusual compositions.
This is carried through to Dr Garvie’s aerial work. Orkney Archive holds the Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007) collection where, in Moberg’s work such as ‘Stone Built’ (1979, Stromness Books & Prints), Moberg took photographs from an airplane of Orkney’s archaeological sites and stone structures, including the ‘seaward wall’ of North Ronaldsay. It is pleasing to think that in the same archive, Dr Garvie is a forerunner to Moberg. Garvie photographed aspects of an aerodrome being built on North Ronaldsay and the excitement of island events such as the first Royal Mail flight in 1939 linking up the UK to North Ronaldsay. Again drawn to abstract shapes, Garvie also photographed North Ronaldsay, Kirkwall and Caithness by air, the shape of the white wing sometimes visually echoing that of an island peninsula. In compositions that focus soley on dark and alternating light strips of fields with the dots of the haystacks, her aerial work is at its most sublime.
Just as the women photographers Violet Banks and Margaret Fay Shaw kept their work in photograph albums, the holdings at Orkney Library & Archive show that Dr Garvie kept the majority of her work in albums too. However, whereas Banks’ albums were only found through the sale of the dresser that they were kept in, Sanderson discovered that the accession of the albums had begun following the death of Dr Garvie, with North Ronaldsay islanders asking Garvie’s relatives for the return of the photograph albums. Their importance as an archive of a generation of islanders, to their families, is a key part of these works.
The forthcoming exhibition ‘Glean: Early 20th Century Women Filmmakers and Photographers in Scotland’, at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, (12 Nov 2022-12 March 2023) will feature the work of fourteen women. A selection from Dr Garvie’s work will add important co-ordinates, those of North Ronaldsay and Orkney, to the breadth of locations these fourteen women worked in. Furthermore, Dr Garvie’s work brings with it a distinct style and approach to recording a Scottish community over a prolonged period of time in the 1930s and 40’s. Sanderson will be developing an event as part of this exhibition programme.
With thanks to Fiona Sanderson, and to Lucy Gibbon and Colin Rendall at Orkney Library & Archive.