Born 1931 Berlin, Germany
Died 2005 Hastings, England
Fay Godwin was a photographer best known for her poetic black-and-white interpretations of the British landscape and portraits of prominent writers. Born to British-American parents, she settled in London in the late 1950s. Her interest in photography began with taking pictures of her young sons in the 1960s. After five or so years as a portrait photographer she moved into book production. Godwin published her first landscape photography book, The Oldest Road, in 1975. She rose to prominence in the late 1980s with the exhibition and accompanying book Land (1985), becoming the first living photographer featured on ITV’s South Bank Show in 1986. President of the Ramblers’ Association (1987–90) and campaigner for open access to the countryside, an appreciation of the British landscape underpinned her environmental activism. She increasingly sought to represent activist interests; for example, the photographic book Our Forbidden Land (1990) documents environmental degradation. She collaborated with various writers during her career, including a co-authored book with Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Accolades include Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society (1992) and Honorary Doctorate of Arts at De Montfort University (2002).
Characteristic of her landscape work, none of the photographs by Fay Godwin within The Women’s Art Collection feature human figures. Yet, later in life Godwin rejected the term ‘landscape photographer’, insisting instead on ‘documentary photographer’. If this is to be the case, Black Sky at Callanish, Lewis (1980) and The Manger, the White Horse of Uffington from the Ridgeway (1981) document the mysterious traces of ancient civilisations. Callanish is an arrangement of standing stones, and the White Horse of Uffington is formed from deep trenches filled with white chalk in Oxfordshire. Both ancient monuments – Callanish dating to 2900–2600 BC and the White Horse 1380-550 BCE – are captured in ways that conceal those centuries between construction and the present.
In contrast, Four Trees, Rannoch Moor (1981) and Copper Beech, Stourhead, Wiltshire (1983) lack traces of a human past or present. Rannoch Moor in western Scotland is known for its wilderness. Its many peat deposits, bogs, lochs, and streams make it difficult to construct roads and railways. The resultant Four Trees, Rannoch Moor captures this hinterland in its dramatic isolation. The wide valley is exposed to the elements, including a brooding storm cloud in the right-hand corner. In contrast, Copper Beech, Stourhead, Wiltshire is nature enclosed – a pictorial depth created by positioning the branches at the forefront of the composition. Wavering branches hover mid-air, tickling the still water below.
These four photographs are part of the ‘Land’ (1985) series by the artist, which formed both a book and exhibition of the same name. A major award from the Arts Council in 1978 helped to support the making of this series.