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Fay GodwinMaster Photographers
Your humble editor, ex-mathematician, A&R for U2, web developer to the Queen, guitarist and general geek-boy.
Other articles by Tim Parkin
Before visiting the National Media Museum to see Fay Godwin’s latest photography exhibition, I didn’t know a whole lot about her apart from the fact that she was supposedly a ‘landscape’ photographer (although much of her work appeared not to be) and that she influenced many other landscape photographers of her era.
After seeing this exhibition though, my mind has been comprehensively changed. She most definitely is a landscape photographer and in my mind it is in this ‘mode’ that she shines – one of only a few professional landscape photographers of that era. The following is an account of my research about Fay and an overview of the exhibition.
I’d like to start with a little bit of background about Fay though. Born in Berlin in 1931, Fay grew up in various countries having a British diplomat father and an American artist mother (of Scottish ancestry). They were posted to various countries and this multi-cultural, upper class, artistic environment created a passion for the contemporary arts and literature that permeated her life.
And so the exhibition! Well, like I said at the start, I wasn’t expecting a lot out of it but just looking at the first couple of pictures changed my mind. These are beautifully printed objects (which I presume are printed by Peter Catterel) and the first two, images of the Glencoe valley from the Buachaille end, have a wonderful luminosity. I went to see the Ansel Adams exhibition in Wolverhampton and I have to say I preferred the printing here.
What came across most thought was the use of sky and light in her pictures. You can tell by looking at multiple pictures that there is a consistently beautiful timing in capturing a sky that supports the rest of the picture. Even if it’s just an accenting cloud over a key feature it works well but most of the time the sky becomes a fully featured part of the final work and the sense of harmony this gives is wonderful.
This is a large exhibition, the pictures are only about 14” in size and are fairly closely spaced but this flow of images starts to give you a sense of her consistent vision at this point in her life.
There are a couple of feature stands, one showing Fay’s old Leica and Hassleblad cameras (atlhough I could see no Leica pictures in the exhibition) and the other more interesting feature is a folder of her contact prints and printing notes.
It was very interesting to see how she approached a subject, in this case the photograph of the lone tree paddling at the edge of a lake in Cumbria. She readily admits to producing a lot of film and of taking many versions of her shots but I was surprised to see how many variations she had shot of this tree. You almost could read the flow of though – one shot centering the tree, one shot with more space on the left, one with more on the right, one with space at the top, move to the right and realign the background and centre the tree, one more space left, one more space right, one with more branches at the top.
This isn’t the sort of ‘scattergun’ approach you would expect but it obviously works. Perhaps it means that she was still experimenting, working around different compositional ideas, or that if she had the time she would work a subject intensely. It also suggests that a lot of her skill was in the editing process, selecting pictures that matched the mood she saw at the time. The exhibition also has a couple of videos and a selection of books to browse through (with a full length video of her South Bank show feature in another room). The videos are enlightening and well worth a watch.
Not all of the pictures will excite the typical landscape photographer, a few take some looking at before they reveal things and some didn’t reveal anything to me at all. However, a good majority I connected with in some way, appreciating what she might have been trying to capture and enjoying the act of interpreting.
As a last observation, it is interesting that as she nears her own ‘back yard’ (the South) she stops taking pictures of the ‘wild’ and the hand of man starts being introduced and her compositions often become more ‘difficult’ to interpret. Is this the budding photojournalist asserting control? I don’t know but having commented on the direction her photography took after this book/exhibition, I should probably say that you can see a germ of those ideas towards the end of her decade in the landscape. The most successful of these to me, a pair of facing pictures in the book, are of some discarded pallets near Faversham and an abandoned Mini in a lke at Cliffe Lagoon. These pictures show a wonderful crossing over of her compositional, landscape oriented side and her photo-journalist side – pictures that make you want to look longer for their beauty and balance but that still communicate an opinion on the disfigurement she sees; almost reminding me of the way Burtynsky combines photographic vision and environmental message.
I am not criticising her later work, however this exhibition has shown me a side of Fay Godwin that I missed when looking at pictures found one by one on the Internet – I’m a landscape photophile after all.
Finally, the book “The Land” is well worth purchasing (there is a more detailed review in another article in this issue) – my copy was bought for £8 from Abe Books (http://www.abebooks.co.uk) and as far as I can tell contains all of the photographs from the exhibition and a few more. Landmarks, a retrospective of her life’s work, is a very well produced book but for the landscape photographer, hunt down a copy of the “The Land” to appreciate her skills and vision as a landscape work. Oh, and get to see the exhibition if you can – it’s really worth it if only to get a true flavour of one of Britain’s most lauded landscape photographers.
If you want to see more work from Fay Godwin’s contemporaries, try looking up Paul Hill and Raymond Moore who worked at the Photographer’s Place and also John Blakemore (who is lecturing at the re-opened Photographer’s place in March I believe). Fay achieved a lot more recognition than these photographers possibly because of her more documentary nature in later life, useful publishing and literary contacts and because she was one of the only women photographers around during the height of feminist politics in the 70’s and 80’s. It has also been said that she was influenced by Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, E. Chambre Hardman and Paul Strand.