Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Fay Godwin: A Short Summary

In many ways I have found this the most difficult of the four summaries I am writing. Godwin’s style is hard to define, she was not the progenitor of any major change in photographic practise and she does not seem to have spawned an army of Godwin-abees. And yet, her work is clearly held in very high regard.

Born in 1931, into a diplomatic family she did not settle into photography until she was in her late-thirties, and even then it was as a portrait photographer of writers. Following her recovery from a diagnosis of cancer in the mid ‘70s however her outlook changed. She is reported as telling the South Bank Show in 1986: “In a sense, all the natural things became incredibly important.”

Whatever the reason she threw herself into landscape photography with zeal and produced her first landscape book: “The Oldest Roads – An Exploration of the Ridgeway” in 1975. In the same year Bill Brandt selected some of her work for his exhibition “The Land” and her reputation as a landscape photographer of note was cemented. She has been represented as a “classical pictorialist” (Wells) and presumably as a Romantic, because she specifically repudiated that description as making her seem “slushy”.Indeed later in life she even repudiated the term “landscape photographer” preferring to be described as a documentary photographer.

In truth the two books I have read, Land and Forbidden Land, do show a clear shift in that direction. The first contains a range of images which in musical terms might be described as “easy listening” although without the pejorative overtones that has come to carry. She clearly had a natural sense for composition and was apparently prepared to display the patience required to catch the right light. The introduction, by Ian Jeffrey, talks of capturing the contrast between wilderness and habitation, but I see rather a contrast between old and modern – a sense of the time that has passed between, for example, the standing stones in the background and the hay bale in the foregound. I was especially struck by the thought that the sheep in one of her pictures could have been stood in exactly the same place thousands of years before.

Just a few years later however, her enviro-political leanings came to the fore in Forbidden Land – a photo essay making the case against some of the abuses of the UK landscape that she perceived – perhaps as a result of her time as Chair of the Ramblers Association. While I sympathise with large parts of its core message it seems to me to be somewhat overstated, with the images often straining to represent the message they’re being asked to carry.

And so, to conclude this short summary, her work is something of an enigma. The early works are classically attractive, and represent a detailed snap-shot of a Britain rapidly fading into memory. They seem to me almost carelessly well crafted – no showiness, just a clear empathy with the British landscape. By contrast the samples of her later work that I have seen appear to have lost their innocence and, despite her apparent sincerity, they appear to me to have been asked to perform a task which they were ill-equipped to deliver.

Land, Fay Godwin:
Forbidden Land, Fay Godwin
Land Matters, Liz Wells (Chap 4), Tauris 2011
Fay Godwin: Master Photographer :retrieved 10 March 2013
Fay Godwin at the National Media Museum; Margaret Drabble in The Guardian; :retrieved 10 March 2013

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