Photographer Fay Godwin, one of the UK's best known landscape photographers died last week in Hastings, East Sussex, after a short illness. She was 74 and one of her last interviews was with David Corfield...published below in full.
Interview: David Corfield Photographs: Fay Godwin
She received critical acclaim for a book of black and white landscapes published twenty years ago but now, in poor health, she no longer roams the land she loves. Whatever happened to Fay Godwin? David Corfield finds out...
As she sits overlooking the beach near her home, Fay Godwin’s eyes sadden. The 73-year old photographer is not in the best of health these days, and while mentally she’s still as sharp as the photographs that made her famous, her ailing heart leaves her with little energy for taking photographs.
Godwin is a straight talker, refreshingly so. She reminds me of my friend Don McCullin; his face is creased by life’s injustices and Godwin has a similar look, only her issues are closer to hand. She can be outspoken at times, particularly on subjects that are dear to her: like man’s intolerable exploitation of the land, for instance. More on that later…
But after dispensing with a few choice words on humble journos (for not turning up to see her latest exhibition of digital work), she relents a little, and explains what’s kept her away from the hills these last few years.
“The NHS. They ruined my life by using some drugs with adverse affects that wrecked my heart. The result is that I haven’t the energy to walk very far.”
Godwin has long been associated with clunking medium-format cameras and leggy tripods. She refuses to endorse any particular system (although I know full well she was a fan of a certain Swedish manufacturer). But in conversation she lets it slip that she has recently bought a Minolta DiMage digital compact and has become hooked on her new-found medium.
“I had been working in colour for ten years or so and looked at digital and liked the possibilities it gave me. So I went out and bought this little 5-MegaPixel camera that I like because I don’t have to carry any heavy bags around.
“I’ve sold all my darkroom stuff, which was quite a wrench seeing as it’s been part of my life for the best part of thirty years, and now I print my pictures in Photoshop. It’s impressed me.”
Now before you raise an eyebrow in abject horror at the notion of Godwin butchering all her classic monochrome landscapes with badly cut out fairies and God-knows what else cavorting around in a Photoshopped maelstrom, think again. For someone with no training in photography, she’s not done badly in a career spanning over thirty years, and anyone out there refusing to learn new techniques, have a word with Mrs G, who is still as thirsty for knowledge now as she was when starting out in photography all those years ago. We turn the clock back and her eyes glint at the recollections.
“I started life as an amateur photographer in the 1960s, using my camera to photograph my family on days out and holidays. I enjoyed using a camera, and thought that I could do something more with it. To turn photography into a paying hobby, you could say. It was 1966 by the time I started taking pictures seriously and books, newspapers and magazines of the time were full of great pictures that helped to inspire me.”
I ask Godwin about her relationship with the land, and what inspired her to start documenting it seriously.
“I had no aspirations to become a landscape photographer at all. In fact it was portraiture that was my beginning, I suppose. I have always been a very keen walker, though, and I often took a camera with me on my walks. But I was, and still am, an avid reader and so when I first started I chose to photograph many of the great writers in this country to try and earn a living.
“One of my earliest jobs was to photograph Ted Hughes, in 1971. I photographed him for a publisher and it all started from there. He suggested I photograph a specific area in the Calder valley, which I did for the next seven years, without seeing him again. He then asked me if I was ready to go ahead as co-author for our book of poems and photographs, Remains of Elmet.
“Hughes was from Yorkshire , and so my brief was to get up to the Pennines and photograph what I saw fitting and appropriate for his book. The whole project took lots of planning – as does all my work, and we worked reciprocally. He wrote poems to go with my pictures, which in turn gave me new ideas for pictures.
“I am interested in our relationship with the land and that region, at the time with its cotton mills and smallholdings scraping a living against the odds, particularly caught my eye.”
Godwin’s eye for detail is typical of all great landscapers. She has the patience of a saint when out in the field, so to speak, and never once settles for second best when recording the subtleties of land and light. Her finest hour came in 1985, when the first of her Land trilogies was published. Regarded by many as the finest study of British landscape ever published, it set new standards in British landscape photography and made Godwin a darling of the Arts Council. But it came with problems.
“The success of the project was gratifying, but what many people didn’t know was the effort it took to get the book published in the first place as few believed in the viability of the project. But in the end it went down very well. I even had a South bank Show programme done on me, the first to feature a photographer.”
Godwin’s black and white landscapes were, and indeed still are, haunting and brooding in the main. Printed dark and with lots of contrast, she has practically never once cropped her negatives, choosing to construct her images purely through the groundglass screen of her Hasselblad.
Influenced by Bill Brandt and Paul Strand, she looks for the narrative in her landscapes, choosing to record man’s relationship with the environment. She’s made it her niche.
“I’ve always been interested in our relationship with the land. There is so much of great beauty and historical interest, but when I look at the British Isles I am also angered and saddened by the relentless butchering of our heritage by money-grabbing corporations.
“After Land I wanted to continue exploring the theme but I needed a new challenge so turned to colour. I explored Bradford and produced a series of urban landscapes that I liked, but because Land had made such an impact on the general public my colour work wasn’t reviewed. Maybe black and white is the best medium for landscapes, I don’t know. I’m not faithful to one particular medium, and it’s what I try to teach to people who work with me.”
Godwin enjoys challenging perceptions, and finds working with other photographers on workshops a stimulating experience. “I hardly teach,” she tells me. “It’s more like a gathering of minds looking at one subject and learning from each other. I enjoy the process.
“I don’t get wrapped up in technique and the like. I have a simple rule and that is to spend as much time in the location as possible. You can’t expect to take a definitive image in half an hour. It takes days, often years. And in fact I don’t believe there is such a thing as a definitive picture of something. The land is a living, breathing thing and light changes its character every second of every day. That’s why I love it so much.”
Doctor’s orders has meant that Godwin has had to scale down her activities. “It’s a blow,” she reflects, “but I simply don’t have the energy for it any more. I’ve been working with the land for most of my life; walking it and photographing it. And I love it to bits.”
Fay Godwin Biography
• 1931 Born Berlin , Germany . Father a British diplomat, mother an American artist. Educated at various schools all over the world.
• 1958 Settled down to live in London .
• 1966 Became interested in photography through photographing her young children. No training.
• 1975 Publication of first co-author book, The Oldest Road, with writer J.R.L. Anderson. Exhibitions from the series toured nationally.
• 1978 Recipient of major award from Arts Council of Great Britain to continue landscape work in British Isles , much of which is included in Land.
• 1984 Start of British Councils overseas tour of Landscape Photographs.
• 1985 Publication of Land. Major exhibition of Land at the Serpentine Gallery, London .
• 1986 South Bank Show – their first full-length documentary to feature a photographer.
• 1986/7 Fellow at the National Museum of Photography , Film & Television, Bradford .
• 1987/90 President of the Ramblers’ Association, UK . Then life vice president.
• 1990 Awarded Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society.
• 1990 six week lecture and workshop tour of New Zealand .
• 1992 Awarded Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland .
• 1995 Award from Northern Arts for the Year of the Visual Arts, and from the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation to work on the contribution of small farmers to the character of the Cumbrian landscape.
• 2001 Major retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London , with accompanying publication, Landmarks, published by Dewi Lewis.
• 2002 Honorary Doctorate of Arts at De Montfort University, Leicester.
Buy the book! Landmarks Photographs by Fay Godwin
Landmarks is a glorious celebration of the work of Fay Godwin, one of the UK ’s most respected and influential photographers. Drawing on the whole body of her photographic practice of the last thirty years, it includes literary portraits, humorous snapshots, and rural and urban landscapes, as well as the intimate series of colour images, Glassworks, that marks the most recent evolution of her work. Poet Simon Armitage introduces the book, and an essay by photographic historian Roger Taylor explores and illuminates both Godwin’s career and her approach to photography.
95 duotone/55 colour photographs
240mm x 230mm
Godwin appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme in 2002. Here’s what she chose as her eight favourite pieces of music.
1. Suite for Cello, op 72
CD Title: Britten: Cello Sonata Op 65, etc
Band: S1 T 5
Rec No: KTC 2006/A
2. Rock Around The Clock
Performer: Bill Haley and His Comets
Composer: DeKnight, Freedman
Publisher: Music For Pleasure
CD Title: Rock & Roll Greatest, Vol 1
Label: Music for Pleasure
Rec No: CD MFP 5744
3. At the Balalaika
Performer: Ilona Massey
CD Title: Original Recording from the film Balalaika recorded in 1939
Rec No: 6004
4. Don’t Fence Me In
Performer: Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters and Vic Schoen’s Orchestra
CD Title: Hits of 44
Rec No: CD AJA 5169
5. Cello Suite No 6 in D major
Performer: Paul Tortelier
Publisher: EMI Pathe Marconi SA
CD Title: Bach: Les 6 Suites Pour Violoncelle
Band: CD2 T16
Rec No: 769432/33 2
6. An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise Performer: The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Composer: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Publisher: Unicorn Records
CD Title: Peter Maxwell Davies: Seven Songs Home etc
Rec No: DKPCD 9070
7. String Quartet No 13 in B flat
Performer: The Lindsay String Quartet
CD Title: Beethoven: String Quartet No 13
Rec No: CD DCA 602
8. John Brown’s Body
Performer: The Wayfarers Trio
Composer: Cheatwood, Taylor and Williams
CD Title: Songs of the Blue and Grey
Band: Side 1 T1
Rec No: MMC 14088
If Godwin could take just one record it would be the String Quartet No 13 in B flat by Beethoven.
Her book, apart from The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, would be The Rattlebag, an anthology of poems by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.
Her luxury would be egg tempera paints, brushes, and boards to paint on.
When Godwin sold her darkroom recently, it was the end of an era. A reluctant parting, here is the list of equipment that was sold, described in her own words.
• De Vere 504 Cathomag (cold cathode) enlarger
(cathode tubes and servicing still available from Lightwave in Westerham)
• Condenser head, with condensers for 5 x 4, med. format, and 35 mm
• 3 Rodenstock Lenses: 50mm, 105mm, 150mm with two lens carriers
• 6 negative carriers, 35mm to 5 x 4
• Rayco heavy duty stabiliser
• 2 Rayco timers, 1/10th second
• 20 x 16 enlarging easel – mint
• Nova Promaster archival print washer for twelve 16 x 12 prints, used once
• 4 tall Brookes/Kindermann stainless steel dev. tanks taking four med format or seven 35mm spirals each
• Twelve med format stainless steel spirals
• Sixteen 35mm stainless steel spirals
• 2 Jobo negative developing tanks
• 1 Polaroid developing bucket
• Ten assorted 16 x 12 developing dishes
• Multigrade filters