Fay Godwin (1931 – 2005)
A pioneer of black and white photography, legendary photographer Fay Godwin (17th February 1931 – 27th May 2005) was renowned for her landscapes of the British coastline and countryside. Alongside one of the leading women in photography she was a passionate walker, tirelessly campaigning for the protection of the environment. She is remembered as a strong proponent of the ‘right to roam’ – a custom which allows people to wander freely in the countryside, regardless of land ownership.
Fay was born in Berlin to a British diplomat and an American artist, her father and mother respectively. Her childhood was nomadic; she was educated in nine different schools, in countries across the world, before she eventually settled in London in 1958.
In the 1950s, after working for a travel company, Fay began a career in publishing. Now recognised as one of the foremost women in photography, she didn’t start taking photographs actively until the birth of her two sons, recording family holidays and days out during the 1960s.
Fay began to take photography more seriously in 1966, beginning her photographic career by capturing portraits of renowned writers such as Doris Lessing. Upon recommendation from poet Ted Hughes, whom she photographed in 1971, she visited the Calder Valley in Northern England and took photographs there for the next seven years. Fay and Ted eventually collaborated on Remains of Elmet (1979), a book of Fay’s photographs and Ted’s poems.
Elmet, the last Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles, is described by Guardian writer Ian Jeffrey as appearing ‘like a figure for the end of the world’ during Fay’s visit in the 1970s. Fay’s photographs resonate with a haunting atmosphere, showcasing her ability to render nuanced tonal contrast – such as in the rays of light cascading down the hills – in striking detail.
Fay’s career in photography took off in her mid-thirties; around this time, she was the co-author of landscape reportage and several travel guides. Her earlier career experiences echo in her photography; her most prevalent work comprises detailed photographic books, documenting travel through locations such as Aberdeen, Peterhead, and the Pennines.
Her list of publications is vast; her first book, The Oldest Road: An Exploration Of The Ridgeway (Wildwood House, 1975), a collaboration with writer J.R.L. Anderson, was designed by Ken Garland and Associates – a key figure in the development of graphic design since the mid-twentieth century. Ken Garland and Associates went on to design Fay’s other Wildwood books: The Drovers’ Roads Of Wales (written by Shirley Toulson, 1977) and Romney Marsh And The Royal Military Canal (written by Richard Ingrams, 1980).
Fay’s lack of formal training was no impediment to subtle mastery of her craft. In her later career she moved into colour work, following a Fellowship at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford. She also expanded into digital photography, maintaining her versatility and investigative spirit.
Fay’s legacy resides in her inspiring photography, and her fervent defence of the natural environment. Frequently using her photographs to draw attention to ecological harm, her critique Our Forbidden Land won the first Green Book of the Year Award – just one of the many accolades she received in her lifetime. Her arresting landscapes reveal her capacity for looking beyond the surface, uncovering the hidden stories weaved into the topography of familiar places.