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January 08 2011

Fay Godwin's wilderness years

Throughout her long career, Fay Godwin – with her portraits of authors, bleak landscapes and scenes of urban dereliction – was the most poetic of photographers, writes Margaret Drabble

Fay Godwin is very much a writer's photographer, in more senses than one. Poets and novelists are drawn to her work, and she worked closely with several. She is remembered now as a landscape photographer – a career celebrated in a new exhibition of her work, Land Revisited, at the National Media Museum in Bradford – but her connections with writers go back a long way, to the days when she was the wife of the influential and dynamic bookseller-turned-publisher, Tony Godwin. They married in 1961, and I met them both in the 1960s when Tony was publishing my work, first with Penguin and then with Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

They were a memorable couple – small, slight, wiry, somewhat elfin, and charged with energy. In those early years Fay took some remarkable portraits of authors, including John Fowles, Angela Carter and Ted Hughes, but she was later to say that had she not been a young mother with two small children she would have preferred an adventurous life of photojournalism to bread-and-butter commercial portraiture. Domestic responsibilities and conflicts constrained her, as they did so many women of that period, and she appeared to adapt to her role. But her life was to change dramatically. In 1969, her marriage broke up very suddenly, and in 1973 Tony, equally abruptly and unexpectedly, departed to work in New York, where he died three years later of asthma-related heart failure at the age of 56.

Fay was now on her own, and able to develop and explore a new dimension of her art. From an urban life as a 60s north London wife, mother and hostess, she set out on a long journey into the wilder landscapes of Britain, sometimes in company, sometimes alone, often on foot, and built up over time a body of work that reflects a deep sense of place and the poetry of place. In 1970 she met Ted Hughes, with whom she formed a creative partnership which was to result in his lament for the Calder Valley, Remains of Elmet (1979). Perhaps the best known of her collaborations, this volume was very much poem-led. She responded strongly to his vision of the ruined mills, the "melting corpses of farms", the Satanic majesty, the sluttish subsidy sheep, the black chimneys, the cemeteries, the millstone grit, the willow herb. It was through Hughes, she said, that she got to know England.

Her roots were not English. She was born in Berlin, the daughter of a British diplomat father and an American artist mother of Scottish ancestry, and her childhood was peripatetic. She had learned to enjoy walking as a girl in Austria, and joined the Ramblers' Association in England in the mid-1950s (she was to become its president in 1987). Liberated by divorce from some of her domestic and social duties, and with growing children, she now began to walk again more seriously, discovering the history of Britain, its prehistoric megaliths, its Roman and medieval roads, its field systems, its crofts and kilns. She developed a keen sense of space and topography, patiently waiting for the light or the sky to respond to her needs, learning to battle for permissions to enter forbidden or forbidding terrain. There is a deep loneliness in some of her images, a sense of desolation, some of which may well have been acquired during her apprenticeship with Hughes. She turned away from portrait photography with a vengeance.

There are no people in most of her landscapes (and none in this exhibition), only the traces of people, the remains of people. She documented ancient trades – the drovers' roads, the whisky roads of Scotland, the oil riggers of Shetland, the shepherds of the Lake District – but her landscapes are marked by emptiness. Simon Armitage commented that her portraits of sheep-farmers bear witness to a sense of "collective good" and "commonwealth", but this sense of the human is unusual in her work.

One of her early major collaborative publications was Islands, a portrait of the Scillies with a text by John Fowles, published in 1978. Fowles had been much impressed by her 1975 work (with JRL Anderson) on the Ridgeway, and his long essay rambles quirkily and knowledgeably through the history and mythology of the islands, giving the highest of praise to Godwin's art, diligence and physical endurance: "British photography has not had a more poetic interpreter of ancient landscape, of its lights and moods and forms, for many years." This volume, unlike the Hughes collaboration, is image-led: Fowles as author extemporises on the images Godwin brought to him, while admiring from a distance her "formidable walks in pursuit of remote subjects".

This was a period in which topographical work was beginning to enjoy a new vogue, foreshadowing the environmentally aware "nature writing" of the last decades by authors such as Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin. Richard Long was creating walking sculptures and earth sculptures, and Andy Goldsworthy was beginning to try his hand at working in ice, stone, river and leaf. WG Hoskins's landmark The Making of the English Landscape, first published in 1955, reached a much larger audience in 1976-8 through his television documentaries. Topography was part of the zeitgeist.

The subject of my own landscape book, A Writer's Britain, first published in 1979, was suggested to me by the distinguished Polish-born photographer Jorge Lewinski, who had independently been taking photographs of writers' houses – Abbotsford, Knole, Haworth – and needed some extended captions and text to go with them. I happily agreed, but soon found that the houses in themselves were not nearly as interesting to me as the landscapes that had formed the imaginations of poets and novelists – Egdon Heath, Gordale Scar, Tintern Abbey, the Potteries – and I found myself writing what was in effect a history of the way writers have shaped our vision of the land. Lewinski went along with this change of direction. He did the driving and saw the places, while I, more house and family bound, sat at home and read the books.

Godwin also worked on text and author-led publications, notably on a 1983 volume called The Saxon Shoreway which follows the indefatigable and map-loving Alan Sillitoe as he takes a nine-day walk munching on rye bread and Polish sausage round the Kent shore from Gravesend to Rye. Some of these images are to be seen in Bradford now.

Godwin pursued her own pathways, building up an international reputation for her art and her polemics. She was much helped by the freedom bestowed by a major Arts Council bursary awarded in 1978. The images in her 1985 exhibition and the accompanying book, Land, were largely the result of this public encouragement and support, and many of these appear in the Bradford retrospective. She was able to travel to the Scottish Isles and to Sutherland, the land of her mother's ancestors, and her photographs of lochs and glens and standing stones with solitary sheep are hauntingly memorable.

They have a Wordsworthian timelessness, a sense of the Wordsworthian sublime. Her imagination, like his, was attracted by the barren, the grand and the bleak. These archetypal landscapes are probably the most enduring tributes to her great talent, and they are enduring in every sense – she catches the spirits of places that have been worn and weathered, deserted and abandoned, and yet still speak to us.

Godwin also benefited, in 1987, from a fellowship in Bradford, at what was then known as the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. This connection seems to have sent her work in a slightly different direction, away from the remoteness of wilderness and towards urban and suburban landscape and post-industrial dereliction – subjects which had long preoccupied her, but to which she now returned, experimenting with colour as well as working in her customary black and white. These Yorkshire images bring to mind the work of another lone woman landscape artist, Prunella Clough, whose paintings also dwell on the offbeat view, the telegraph pole, the cement block, the fence, the broken wiring, the litter and the plastic bag.

Godwin became increasingly concerned with our connection with the earth and our assaults on it, by the way we mess up our rivers and canals, our shores and embankments. From the 70s onwards, she had been recording subjects such as rotting cars lying in lagoons, a hawk hovering threateningly over a bunker on Dover cliffs, sheep lining up to stare over a military canal, shacks and caravans littering the countryside, pill boxes marching along the beach, Keep Out and Private and No Fishing notices thwarting the rambler. Godwin had been captured by the visual impact of these messages, but she was also concerned and outraged.

She was a pioneer of organic food and farming, distressed by the impact on land and landscape of fertilisers and factory farming, and persuaded that her recovery in the 1970s from what she described as "advanced cancer" had been aided by her naturopath doctor's advice to commit herself to an organic diet. (It has to be said that, to some, her advocacy of raw turnip was challenging.) Our Forbidden Land (1990) is an impassioned attack on the destruction of the countryside. The text is strongly argued, and the photographic documentary of what the Ministry of Defence, bad planning, guard dogs, greed and neglect are doing to Britain is eloquent. The volume is illustrated with poems from Ted Hughes and Adrian Mitchell, Frances Horovitz and Thomas Hardy, James Fenton and Seamus Heaney. Nearly all her work has poetic reference; she also worked with the poet Patricia Beer on the National Trust book Wessex, from which Bradford is showing a few images. Her early experiences of the literary world inspired her all her life. She had moved far beyond the publicity shots of literary figures with which she had begun her professional photographic career. And she did manage through her involvement with the Ramblers and other environmental organisations to satisfy some of that early desire to become a campaigning photojournalist. She succeeded in shaping her own future.

Prunella Clough's later work sailed off towards abstraction, and so in some ways did Godwin's. Fowles had remarked that she managed "to lend a paradoxical air of the abstract" to many of the shots of the Scillies, and in her last years she photographed objects found on the beach and worked on studies of foliage. But a certain grand austerity remained central to her vision. She did not take pretty pastoral pictures.

Since her death in 2005, photographers have been finding their access to both public and private land more and more problematic, more expensive, and legally restricted. In Our Forbidden Land she wrote about the dilemma of access to Stonehenge, a site mass marketed by English Heritage which charges substantial sums to everybody, from individual artists to wealthy advertising companies. She foresaw a time when "the only photographs we are likely to see of the inner circles of Stonehenge will be those approved by English Heritage, generally by their anonymous public relations photographers". Our common land would be the copyright of others. We are fortunate that she made her journeys round the British Isles when she did, before even more of our landscape was fenced off or built up. Philip Larkin, in a poem titled "Going, going", oddly enough commissioned by the then Department of the Environment, gloomily concluded that

. . . before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe . . .

It hasn't happened yet, but, as Godwin and Larkin warn us, it may.

Fay Godwin: Land Revisited is at the National Media Museum, Bradford, until 27 March. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 21 2010

I'll be watching you

Blake Morrison looks at the history of voyeurism, from Actaeon to paparazzi hounding the Princess of Wales. A new exhibition shows how technology has given us fresh ways of satisfying our desire for a secret glimpse

As Actaeon was the first to discover, snooping is a serious offence. In Ovid's version of the legend, Diana is bathing in a spring of clear water with her nymphs when Actaeon comes upon her at the end of a day's hunting. He doesn't intend to pry, but he can't help staring, and she's outraged by the intrusion on her privacy. As Ted Hughes retells it, Diana "Raged for a weapon – for her arrows / To drive through his body. / No weapon was to hand – only water. / So she scooped up a handful and dashed it / Into his astonished eyes, as she shouted: / 'Now, if you can, tell how you saw me naked.' / That was all she said, but as she said it / Out of his forehead burst a rack of antlers . . ." Transformed into a stag, Actaeon is hunted down and torn to pieces by his own hounds.

The man who spied on Lady Godiva, and who gave the term Peeping Tom to the language, was punished by being struck blind. As for the Elders who gawped at Susanna bathing, then tried to blackmail her, they were put to death. The paparazzi who spied on Diana's namesake, the Princess of Wales, got off more lightly. But in the aftermath of her death they were accused of brutally hunting her down: insidious stalkers who'd destroyed their innocent prey. It was said in their defence that the princess, unlike her predecessor, hadn't minded being looked at – that she enjoyed bathing in the limelight. But there was blood on their hands nonetheless.

All art involves looking. But some looks are more invasive than others. Where's the line to be drawn? What's allowable and what's exploitative? Is it OK to portray people without them knowing? These questions come up in regard to life writing and documentary films. But it's with photography that they're most contentious, and a major new exhibition at the Tate, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, raises them in relation to images of sex, war and celebrity from the past 150 years.

Modern technology has made voyeurism more sophisticated, through zoom lenses, camera phones and CCTV. But as the curator of the Tate show, Sandra Phillips, argues, the desire to peek into the lives of others is basic to the human species. The pioneers of photography recognised that, using the camera to gain access behind closed doors. Some of their subjects were complicit. In the 1860s, the countess of Castiglione, mistress of Napoleon III, revelled in performing for a professional photographer. But by the end of the century, the fashion was for something less contrived. "Taken Unawares: Snapshots of Celebrated People" was a page in the tabloid Penny Pictorial. Readers welcomed it as proof that the rich and powerful are no different from the rest of us; the rich and powerful disliked it for the same reason.

To take a shot in secret was no easy thing in those days. But from the start photographers proved resourceful. Early portable cameras – known as "detectives" – were disguised as books and parcels, or hidden in canes, umbrellas and shoes. More practical was the vest pocket camera, with a shutter release cable dangling down the sleeve into the hand. Later came false lenses and right-angle viewfinders, with the camera pointing in one direction while the shot was taken in another. Walker Evans used this ploy in the 1930s, while photographing the poor in New Orleans and Mississippi; so did Helen Levitt, on the streets of Harlem. Later, the two of them prowled the New York subway, with Evans's camera concealed inside his overcoat. Uneasy about his sneakthief methods, Evans waited 25 years before publishing the results: "The rude and impudent invasion", had, he hoped, "been carefully softened and partially mitigated by a planned passage of time".

Some photographers justified their furtiveness as a ploy to secure an un-self-conscious pose or as an exercise in social reform. Jacob Riis's photos of the New York underclass in How the Other Half Lives (1890) were intended to highlight hardship and injustice. Lewis Hine tricked his way into mines and factories in order to expose the scandal of child labour. Tom Howard secreted a camera in his trouser leg in order to photograph the electrocution of the murderer Ruth Snyder. Another American, Paul Strand, took photos in the Bowery: his famous portrait of a blind woman – with a number pinned to her dress and a sign denoting her disability hanging from her neck – inspired Evans to take up photography as a career.

Strand's photo is disturbing because it highlights the helplessness of photographic subjects, who can't see what the camera is seeing (and in this case can't see at all). Those accustomed to public scrutiny are more streetwise and can spot a lens almost by instinct. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, caught canoodling in swimsuits by Marcello Geppetti in 1962, may not have cared that they were being filmed; by then their affair was in the open. And Margaret Thatcher (ousted from office) and Paris Hilton (on her way to face drug charges) were too distraught to worry about hiding their tears when snapped in the back of their cars. But even celebs sometimes crack when their privacy is intruded on – in the Tate show there's a photo of Anita Ekberg's husband Anthony Steel angrily pursuing paparazzi down the street.

Rather than lurking out of sight, some photographers remind us of their presence. When Gary Winogrand snapped a snogging couple in New York in 1969, he was echoing Robert Doisneau's famous shot of a "spontaneous" lovers' kiss in Paris in 1950. But there's an onlooker in the image as well, a girl staring at the camera as if to challenge its presumption; the woman being kissed is staring, too; everyone knows what's going on (whereas Doisneau's couple are professional models pretending not to know). An earlier New York photographer, Weegee, is more surreptitious; his shot of lovers kissing at the movies in 1940 is taken from above. He's as remote as God or Google Earth, and they've no idea they're in the frame.

With pornography, most subjects knowingly perform private acts for public consumption. But an imbalance of power remains. If the models hadn't fallen on hard times, or weren't addicted to hard drugs, would they be willing to expose themselves? Degas both painted and photographed working women as they dried themselves after taking a bath. His models were seamstresses and ballet dancers as well as prostitutes, but all were conscious of their inferior social status; portraying them nude was his droit de seigneur. To judge by the Tate show, most early porn is peekaboo stuff of this kind – the thrill of the illicit. One model stares boldly back while touching herself; others are masked, half-clothed or reflected in mirrors. Either way, the viewer is a guilty voyeur.

A more recent trend has been to show voyeurism in action, with those watching, rather than those watched, the centre of attention. Kohei Yoshiyuki has a series of photos taken in Tokyo parks with infra-red sensitive film and filtered flashbulbs that show spectators sneaking up on couples while they have sex under cover of darkness. In similar vein, Susan Meiselas examines the faces of men leering at a stripper in a bar. These photos echo pictures of Susanna and the Elders, as painted by Rubens, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Van Dyck and Gentileschi – a story of innocence falling victim to unscrupulous male desire. They point a moral, but they titillate as well.

With violence, as with sex, viewers don't always respond as the artist intends. Just as erotica can fail to arouse desire, so images of death and mayhem can fail to incite revulsion. Included in Exposed are photos of a burial party in the American civil war, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and assorted lynchings, firing squads, murders, electrocutions, suicide leaps, self‑immolations and mass graves. With war photos (whether Robert Capa's of a soldier falling in the Spanish civil war, or Eddie Adams's of a Viet Cong officer being shot in the head) there's often a suspicion of something being set up or over-elaborately composed. As Susan Sontag puts it: "People want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity." By this measure, Weegee emerges as the major figure of his day, because his photos of New York murders and tenement fires are so brutally frank – artful only in their literalism. Weegee grasped that to move the viewer the photographer must himself remain unmoved. For 10 years he took shots of murder and suicide victims, often arriving at the scene before the police did and noting details with icy clarity (when a woman jumps from a window and lands on the street, he reported, there won't be a mark on her face but usually one of her shoes comes off).

With murder victims and the war dead, permissibility is a sensitive issue: these people haven't consented to be shown as corpses. Press and broadcasting editors may decide that such photos deserve to be shown because they expose the realities of crime or battle and are therefore in the public interest. Photos from the Vietnam war – of the My Lai massacre, for instance – undoubtedly influenced anti-war sentiment. But as Sontag points out in her eloquent essay Regarding the Pain of Others, while images of distress "may spur people to feel they ought to 'care' more", they may also feel "that suffering and misfortune are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed". The image of an Iraqi soldier, hideously disfigured after burning to death in a truck, caused a strong reaction when published in the Guardian in 1991, and prompted a long poem from Tony Harrison. But it didn't prevent the 2003 invasion. And it's only enemy soldiers (safely foreign, with families too far away to know or object) who are depicted so starkly; to show the corpses of British troops in current conflict would be deemed disrespectful and in shockingly bad taste.

The camera can't change the world, but there's an idea that it can protect us – hence surveillance, which promises to watch over us, and watch out for us, rather than merely watch. The idea of surveillance has already produced a sizeable body of literature, film and music – Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Hitchcock's Rear Window, Coppola's The Conversation, Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, even the Police song "Every Breath You Take" ("I'll be watching you") – and it's central to photography, too. Some of the first photos were police photos. And it wasn't just convicted criminals whose mugshots were placed on file but anyone who might pose a threat – anarchists, suffragettes, anti-war demonstrators, foreign spies whispering in the street.

The extent to which the state is watching us today would shock even Orwell. And while some photographers have hijacked advances in technology for their own kind of snooping (such as Alair Gomes, training telephoto lenses on muscled young men on the beach, or Merry Alpern taking a videocam into a women's dressing room), others have used old-fashioned landscape shots to depict the insidious spread of surveillance cameras in our suburbs and streets. To the photographer, CCTV is an affront, because it records at random, without human agency; it doesn't know it's bearing witness. And yet, as Sandra Phillips says, certain photos taken for security reasons – aerial reconnaissance shots of missile sites, for example, or the green glow of buildings seen through night-vision goggles – have a strange abstract-expressionist beauty.

Modern surveillance techniques look like the stuff of science fiction. But there's nothing new about the desire to watch someone without them knowing – and nothing unnatural about them being furious if they find out. If Actaeon happened on Diana today, he'd use his camera phone. But if he tried to post the photos on the internet, she'd have her lawyers rip him apart.

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is at Tate Modern, London, from 28 May to 3 October. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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