Fay Godwin, an award winning British photographer, best known for her early portrait work, sophisticated landscape images of the British countryside and collaborative works with writers, started her career relatively late at the age of 35. Having had no formal training in the medium, she began practicing by making pictures of her children. Her professional career started with taking photographs of writers for their book covers and she captured several literary figures of of the 1970s and 1980s, like Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow, Angela Carter, Margaret Drabble, Günter Grass, Ted Hughes, Clive James, Philip Larkin, Doris Lessing, Edna O’Brien, Anthony Powell, Salman Rushdie, Jean Rhys, and Tom Stoppard (wotfoto.com, 2020).
She was inspired into landscape photography through her love of the countryside combined with that of walking. Her landscapes have often been compared to that of Ansel Adams and like him, she frequently drew attention to the environmental issues through her work and was instrumental in paving way for many acts of reforms. She collaborated with poets and writers like J.R.L. Anderson, Ted Hughes, with whom she collaborated on the acclaimed 1979 book, Remains of Elmet, and Richard Ingrams. ‘Our Forbiden Land’ (1990) won her the first Green Book of the Year Award along with several other awards for her works (wotfoto.com, 2020).
“A view doesn’t make a picture. You make the picture. You have to work to make the picture if it isn’t there. Just the sheer discipline of looking at the landscape makes you begin to see things, and see how the light affects the landscape”.(Godwin)
Her landscape photographs include bleak pastoral fields of isolated British landscape as well as strikingly opposite urban landscapes. Renowned for her work as an environmentalist, her images are striking in their usage of light and the effective relationship between the foreground and the background. Her landscape images effectively questioned and examined the complex and perpetually strained relationship between man and nature (Fay Godwin Archive, 2020).
“The power of her photographs lay in her instinct for picture-making and the patience with which she waited for the exact accidents of weather and light to complete the composition, so fixing an image of a place beyond mere topography.”(British Council, 2020)
Despite Godwin’s early work being often talked about within the context of the re-emergence of landscape photography in Britain, it was her completely different perspective that set her apart from her contemporaries. While others chose to narrow in on the smaller features of a landscape like rocks, water, vegetation, Godwin’s was more illustrative and she chose to photograph the unprejudiced and the specific – like the lines within a particular stretch of land, a man-made landmark and so on. Her photographs are simple, yet with the clever usage of lines, light, direction and movement along with incorporating the effects of the weather, she had the skill to convert them into poetic frames. Her work incorporates the elements of both reality and symbolism (British Council, 2020).
They have a Wordsworthian timelessness, a sense of the Wordsworthian sublime. Her imagination, like his, was attracted by the barren, the grand and the bleak. These archetypal landscapes are probably the most enduring tributes to her great talent, and they are enduring in every sense – she catches the spirits of places that have been worn and weathered, deserted and abandoned, and yet still speak to us.(Drabble, 2011)
She was clearly affected by the destruction of the environment by humans and became increasingly concerned with the way we are treating the Earth and our abuse of it; the results of which can be seen in her impassioned works like Our Forbidden Land (1990). She also was a voice for organic food and farming methods. Even though she moved away from portraiture to landscape and became actively involved with conservation issues, the influence of her previous literary years lasted and inspired her across her lifetime.
“British photography has not had a more poetic interpreter of ancient landscape, of its lights and moods and forms, for many years.”(Fowles, 1975)
Key points and learnings from Godwin’s works-
- Great usage of depth.
- Illusion of expanse within a restricted space with effective usage of depth of field.
- Spectacular usage of light within a frame.
- Effective relationship between the foreground and background.
- Extreme patience to turn a bleak landscape into a beautiful picture when the right light hit the scene.
- Keen sense of space and topography.
- Usage of art for the purpose of awareness and conservation.