Something of value.

During a thirty year career photographing the landscape and more than a decade ago adding wildlife to my repertoire, I’ve also been maintaining a bit of a sideline.

Dead seabirds (mostly common scoter), Freshwater East, Pembrokeshire. February 1996. I spent a couple of days in Pembrokeshire after the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground. Some of the photographs appeared on TV at the time.

While out in the landscape I’ve sometimes come across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes which tell us more about our relationship with the landscape than most of my (or anybody’s) actual “traditional” landscapes do. As an early example, in the early days of Fuji Velvia (the late 1980’s) , I remember taking a picture of a pile of bright blue plastic pipes close to a reservoir in the wilds of the Ceredigion uplands; it’s probably still in a filing cabinet somewhere. At first I called these images “human landscapes” although I don’t feel that that description now does them all justice. Many are informed by my environmental concerns in a broad sense and some actually say more about us than the landscape. Some ask more questions than give answers.

Near Bangor, Gwynedd. July 2019. An exception to the rule: having seen this phone mast from the driver’s seat of my van, I revisited it some months later and searched out the best spot to photograph it from.

Throughout my life in photography I’ve been a big fan of the brilliant Joe Cornish and his contemporaries as well as the almost unique world-view of the late Fay Godwin; both have their place in the world of outdoor photography. Fay Godwin, it seems to me, began her photographic career specialising in traditional black-and-white landscapes. But as her consciousness developed about the damage we are inflicting on nature, so her images became more closely aligned to her environmental concerns. She disliked the description of “landscape photographer” that people gave her, despite the fact that she worked mainly in the landscape; she preferred the term “documentary”. I understand exactly what she meant; it’s unfortunate that in the photographic world the term landscape means only one sort of landscape.

Near Trefenter, Ceredigion. March 2021

Going back to my own human landscapes, I’ve often been able to sneak them into my books and exhibitions while no-one was looking! I can imagine that many viewers’ reactions would be along the lines of “But Wales is such a beautiful country, why photograph that?” It has long been an ambition of mine to put them all together and exhibit them. Over the years it’s been known variously as my ” Black and White Project”, my “Retrospective of Sorts” and my “Homage to Fay Godwin”. As a prelude to this (I hope), at the end of last year, I put together a one-off photobook of more than fifty of them.

Pembroke castle and Oil Refinery, December 2009

How this eventually came about is worth a mention. I’d been putting it off for years. I had had some very dispiriting criticism of the project from a photographer in the Joe Cornish tradition who I had previously admired tremendously. I whittled the selection down to about a hundred, including plenty of new work but some already published in colour. I converted them all to black-and-white, and had some cheap test prints made, but still couldn’t put them together. Then while browsing on the internet one day I saw a promotion from an online company offering £100 off one of their top-of -the-range photobooks. I responded immediately and was sent a coupon valid for 30 days. This was the impetus I needed, and within a couple of weeks I had the finished product on my desk. Compiling it was the most fun in photography I had had for years! The quality of the book was excellent except for one thing; it had been designed online and the mid-grey front cover with white and black lettering looked fine on-screen. But in reality my name in black was almost invisible against the grey unless you saw it at a certain angle to the light. I pointed this out to the printers and they offered me a full credit for the cost, amounting to £118.23p, most of which I hadn’t paid in the first place!

Tywyn, Gwynedd. (June 2010). Taken while researching locations for Wales at Waters Edge

The content of the book, when I saw it, was really quite an eye-opener. I realised most of images had been seen almost out of the corner of my eye, while I was actually intent on taking other photographs. Mostly other landscapes, sometimes wildlife and surprisingly often while I was driving from A to B and just saw something. Many of them are at places where I stopped, took a picture and moved on. I know I will never be back there again. I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who sees a fantastic landscape from the driver’s seat of a car, stops, walks back and the finds the potentially world-beating image has completely disappeared. My snapshots are quite different to traditional landscapes, however, where the quality of the light is critical and a significant amount of pre-planning is usually required. In many cases individual images have limited value on their own but in the company of a few dozen others, the photographer’s vision becomes more clear.

Near LLanwchllyn, Gwynedd. September 2008. This could be described in terms of the media, or the message, or both. Not everyone gets both………

The good luck didn’t stop at the refund for the cost of printing the book, either. The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth has quite a large collection of my colour work already. Just after Christmas I was strolling along the sea-front in Aberystwyth when I met its curator of photography, Will Troughton. After a bit of a general chat he asked me if I was working on anything at the moment. My usual response these days to that question is “well, er, no …….. not really…….” but fortunately I remembered to mention the retrospective/Godwin/b&w project. He expressed an interest and I arranged to meet him, book in hand. A couple of days after seeing it he phoned to say that he had “found some money” and would like to buy a selection of prints. The importance of the sale is not so much in the cash, but rather the recognition that I still produce photographic work of some value.

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Fay Godwin revisited

The Dee Bridge, Flintshire (from Wales at Waters Edge)
The Dee Bridge, Flintshire (from Wales at Waters Edge)

Saturday the 18th saw the opening of a new exhibition at MOMA Machynlleth of the late Fay Godwin’s black-and-white landscape photographs. It includes a selection of original prints from the National Library of Wales’s collection linked to “The Drover’s Roads of Wales”. This was a bit of a classic from the 1980’s and one of Fay’s first forays into the world of books, and one which helped to make her name. There can be little argument that she was at that time a landscape photographer but she later came to deny this, and claim instead that she was a documentary photographer. But in my opinion this was a moot point. She worked for most of her career in the landscape and that’s good enough for me. What set her apart from most others in the same field was her knowledge of the issues around the landscape and the way she incorporated them into her photographs. While many landscape images, then and now, are stunningly beautiful they actually say very little about their subject matter. It could be said that Fay Godwin’s images, on the contrary, were landscapes with content.

Alongside these prints was another group chosen by invited photographers (including such names as Paul Hill, John Davies and John Blakemore), and others, who were inspired by Fay’s work or who had other connections with her. These were printed by Peter Cattrell, Fay’s own printer and they look absolutely sparkling. Each was asked to select one of Fay’s images and write an extended caption for it and I’m glad to say that I was one of those invited. My choice, and the caption I wrote for it is below. The image appeared on the rear cover of the third of Fay’s “landscape trilogy” – The Edge of the Land (published in 1995). With its rather enigmatic composition I assumed it was from relatively late in her career, but I have recently learned that it dated from the early 1970’s and was included in her retrospective Landmarks as a “snapshot”.

Ramsgate, Kent by Fay Godwin. Fay Godwin’s work has been a visual soundtrack for most of my photographic life. I roamed wild landscapes with my camera from the 1980’s onwards and sometimes came across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes. The photographs I took of them became my “human landscapes”. It was certainly reassuring to know that Fay Godwin had already ploughed the same furrow that I was following. Whether mine work as well in colour as hers did in black-and-white, I don’t know: perhaps not. Fay Godwin’s photographic journey in the landscape began by making images to illustrate guidebooks (e.g. “The Drovers Roads of Wales”) and ended with very personal statements about her own place within it. “Ramsgate, Kent” appeared in the “Edge of the Land”, the last of her landscape book trilogy. Its meaning was probably clearer to her than it is to the viewer. But I like the way that each individual element in the picture has absolutely its own place in the image; rather like chess pieces on a board. And I have an interest in verbal messages displayed in the countryside. They tell us a lot about what we are like as a species.
Ramsgate, Kent by Fay Godwin.

Fay Godwin’s work has been a visual soundtrack for most of my photographic life. I roamed wild landscapes with my camera from the 1980’s onwards and sometimes came across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes. The photographs I took of them became my “human landscapes”.  It was certainly reassuring to know that Fay Godwin had already ploughed the same furrow that I was following. Whether mine work as well in colour as hers did in black-and-white, I don’t know: perhaps not.
Fay Godwin’s photographic journey in the landscape began by making images to illustrate guidebooks (e.g. “The Drovers Roads of Wales”) and ended with very personal statements about her own place within it. “Ramsgate, Kent” appeared in the “Edge of the Land”, the last of her landscape book trilogy. Its meaning was probably clearer to her than it is to the viewer. But I like the way that each individual element in the picture has absolutely its own place in the image; rather like chess pieces on a board. And I have an interest in verbal messages displayed in the countryside. They tell us a lot about what we are like as a species.

Alongside these two strands is a separate exhibition at The Penrallt Gallery and Bookshop, a few doors up the road from MOMA. Invited photographers were asked to choose one image of their own which they felt was particularly inspired by Fay Godwin’s work. My own choice is at the top of this post and I wonder if anyone can see the parallels between it and “Ramsgate, Kent” reproduced above? While in many ways there is no similarity at all for me it is the chess board analogy I mentioned in the extended caption that applies in both examples.

The Penrallt Gallery/Bookshop was opened a few years ago by Geoff Young and Diane Bailey, both of whom, in previous lives, taught photography. They have an excellent selection of books, particularly on the arts, photography and the environment – just my sort of place, as you can imagine! It is just one of those places which is very difficult to leave without having bought something. They also show the work of  upcoming photographers and hold a regular series of talks and readings with photographers and authors, plus various writing workshops. The Fay Godwin exhibition at MOMA and the spinoff at Penrallt were organised and curated by Geoff and Diane and a brilliant job they have done of it. It deserves a far wider audience than it is likely to get in a small town in mid-Wales.

On March 11th and linked to the exhibitions is a conference on Fay Godwin’s photography (with guest speakers) and including a preview of a new film about her life : “Don’t Fence Me In”. I’m really looking forward to it. For details click on the link below ;

http://moma.machynlleth.org.uk/?page_id=810

Both exhibitions run until April 1st. For details on how to visit MOMA Machynlleth, click on the link below.

http://moma.machynlleth.org.uk/?page_id=75

For more information about the Penrallt Gallery/Bookshop, click on the link below.

http://www.penralltgallerybookshop.co.uk/

 

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