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.
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.
"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)
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
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.