Fay Godwin walking the english landscape

From the official Fay Godwin website:

"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. Major retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London 2001, with accompanying publication, Honorary Doctotorate of Arts at De Montfort University, 2002. Died, May 2005 aged 74."

Reflected Sun

Fay Godwin taught herself photography in order to take the family snaps. She explained that her husband, Tony, simply could not master the technicalities of the camera. Fay Godwin became particularly captivated when she began to work in the darkroom. In fact, she was never particularly interested in technicalites and she admitted that her technique remained rather basic.


Her husband, Tony Godwin, worked at a senior level for Penguin books and Fay Godwin was able to get work as a professional photographer taking pictures of many authors and artists that formed part of her social circle. She went on to do portraits of almost every significant British writer, and many foreign visitors, of the 1970s and 80s. The end of her marriage with Tony Godwin, and his sudden death a few years later, were clearly traumatic for Fay Godwin, who raised her two sons, Jeremy and Nicolas, on her own.

In 1975 Fay Godwin provided many photographs for a book, The Oldest Road, written by J.R.L.Anderson. The production of the book treated her photos in a way conventional at the time -- as simple illustrations. Godwin is given only short acknowledgement in the author's introduction.

Fay Godwin: “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."

In fact, at the same time Godwin worked with the author, John Fowles on another collaboration, a book on the Isles of Scotland. She described her decision to agree to work on both projects simultaneously as naive.

Remains of Elmet

Tim Parkin is the editor of On Landscape, a magazine published on-line and on paper. He wrote an excellent account of his discoveries at a Fay Godwin retrospective exhibition...

"What came across most.. 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." (Tim Parkin)

Fay Godwin felt she could only take photos while working alone. She admitted to often being somewhat anxious, even scared sometimes, out alone in the most deserted parts of the British landscape but at the same time held to her principle of spending as much time as possible in any area she was photographing. And taking her time over the process, to observe subtle nuances, changes in light and weather.

Flooded Tree

"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 thought - 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." (Tim Parkin)

Barbury Castle Clump

In his article, Tim Parkin pays tribute to the printing of Peter Catterel, Godwin's printer in the latter part of her career. It is clear that to render the subtle tones in a photo such as the two that follow below requires a kind of skill and dedication in the darkroom. One gets an idea of the effort involved when Peter Catterel admits that he was only able to print 3 or 4 of her prints during a full working day.


For a superb article by Margaret Drabble surveying the life and work of Fay Godwin

Reedy Lock
Silver Birch

Godwin described Our Forbidden Land (1990) as the book she was most proud of. It sets out to show how much of the countryside is inaccessible to the public because it is owned privately or under military control.

In 1986/7 she was made a Fellow at the National Museum of Photography , Film & Television, Bradford and completed projects that were more urban and done in colour. She was a little disappointed that these did not receive more attention, feeling that this was because she had been pidgeon-holed at a B&W landscape photographer.

In 1987 she was elected President of the Ramblers’ Association, UK and later made life vice president. After her death, the organisation described her presidency as a time when its "long-running right-to-roam campaign was turned up to the full-strength pressure which ultimately resulted in the access provisions enshrined in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003."

Fay Godwin: “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."

Untitled from Glassworks

Although she survived the first onset of cancer, it left her weakened. Diminished energy meant that she was unable to continue with her arduous travels. She settled by the sea and continued to photograph still lifes and to develop a more experimental approach to photography. The results were published as Glassworks & Secret Lives (1998). She sold her own darkroom and was very excited by the possibilities of digital photography and Photoshop.

She died in 2005 at the age of 74. The following is from the excellent obituary from The Independent:

"Godwin was a complex, surprising and often daunting character. She battled with ill-health for much of her adult life, yet walked hundreds of miles in wild country carrying heavy photographic equipment. She was an independent woman who succeeded at a time when photography was anything but a woman's world. She expressed her anger towards the establishment at the same time as supplying a connoisseurs' market with exquisite fine prints. Many claims are made for photography as an agent of change, and most are spurious. But Fay Godwin's use of landscape photographs to change the way we look at our world was genuinely, and powerfully, radical."


By Fay Godwin

The Oldest Road: An Exploration of The Ridgeway (with J.R.L.Anderson) Wildwood House, London, 1975

Remains of Elmet (Poems by Ted Hughes) Faber, London, 1979

Wessex: A National Trust Book (Text by Patricia Beer), Hamish Hamilton, London, 1985

Land, Jonathan Cape, London, 1985

Our Forbidden Land, Jonathan Cape, London, 1990

The Edge of the Land, Jonathan Cape, London, 1995

Other relevant books

Perspectives on Landscape, ed. Bill Gaskins, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978 (including 7 photos by Fay Godwin, among 11 photographers and 11 poets)

'Truth and Landscape' in Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams, Aperture, New York, 1996

Created By
Lloyd Spencer


Copyright in all images Fay Godwin. Featured here under "fair use" terms only.

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