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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The Great Wall of Aberdyfi (part 2)

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary
Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Click here for the first part of this post

It was a few minutes’ drive inland to my next location, a hilltop overlooking the Dyfi valley near Derwenlas. I knew from numerous previous visits (see this post) that it would be mid-morning before the sun would be where I wanted it. A heavy shower moved inland on my arrival, creating another fine rainbow. Light was still good half an hour later despite the sun’s relentless rising, and I got the shot I had come for; would it be suitable for a new postcard, I wondered? See the upper picture of the pair below.

A couple of days later I decided to have another go at both the Glandyfi and Derwenlas viewpoints. Still conditions were forecast overnight and hence the formation of valley fog was possible. It was a very different morning to my previous visit. At Derwenlas all was gloomy low cloud but at Glandyfi a river of fog flowed continuously down towards the sea. Over about ninety minutes I took a number of images, but it was when the “river” began thinning and receding inland that I felt the best results were obtained (see above). It was an interesting contrast to the scene two days earlier (see previous post).

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (first visit)
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (second visit)

Then it was back to the Derwenlas viewpoint. It was still like being inside a bundle of cotton wool when I arrived, but after a few minutes the cloud cleared entirely,  revealing the gorgeously-lit Dyfi valley complete with a necklace of cloud draped around the hillside above Machynlleth. If this doesn’t work as a postcard, I’ll eat my hat!

As a postscript I have just sent a cheque for £70 to the charity Rewilding Britain (click for more info). This is a donation per work sold at the Aberystwyth showing of my Bird/land exhibition.

 

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The Great Wall of Glandyfi (part 1)

Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary
Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary

En route to Machynlleth the trunk road from Aberystwyth to north Wales, along with the railway line, is squeezed between the Dyfi estuary and its wooded slopes. Until a few years ago the road was narrow and winding with the occasional gridlock occuring if two large vehicles met there. There’s no doubt that the “Glandyfi Bends” needed improvement to improve journey times. Costs were orginally estimated at £10 million, but there must have been a bottomless purse for this project; a total of £18m was apparently spent altogether. The result is a smoothly curving, two-lane carriageway with excellent visibility. So what did the Highways Authority do? Slap a 40 mph speed limit on the new section of road and extend it all the way back to the village of Eglwysfach. Improve journey times my ****!

Like all trunk road improvements in Wales it is over-designed and over-engineered. There is a one-way lay-by for motorists driving northwards; access from the north or exit to the south is forbidden. On the lay-by there is a lay-by. Would you believe it! Oh yes, there’s a picnic table on a mound. The wall alongside the main road is too high over most of its distance for car drivers or passengers to enjoy the stunning views across the estuary. But the most prominent of all is the retaining wall to hold the hillside back. This massive construction is known locally as the Great Wall of Glandyfi. It can be viewed most conveniently from the north side of the river – in fact it is very hard to miss it for miles around.

There is a silver lining for the photographer, however. There is a narrow walk-way, fenced off for safety, along the top of the wall, which gives fabulous panoramic views across the estuary to the southern hills of the Snowdonia National Park. An access gate is half-heartedly padlocked at the eastern end.  On the last day of September I headed up to Glandyfi on a morning when torrential downpours alternated with strong sunny intervals; ideal conditions for the photographer with good waterproof clothing! On arrival I prepared my gear in the van while it absolutely hammered down outside.  The downpour moved over quickly and a brilliant rainbow appeared over the estuary. I quickly accessed the walk-way, set up the tripod and began taking pictures.

Rainbows are never easy. They are almost always unpredictable and may only last a couple of minutes. It is almost always raining and this plays havoc with one’s equipment. Filters are particularly vulnerable to wetting. As I wiped raindrops from one side of my 2 stop ND grad, a fresh crop appeared on the other side. This was just silly!  Landscape photographers are sometimes advised that a polariser should be used to intensify the colours of a rainbow but I have never found this to be the case. You can easily completely remove a rainbow with a polariser but who would want to? Over a period of five minutes and despite rather feverish picture-taking, I had some rather excellent rainbow images in the can, such as the one above.

Bridge over the River Dyfi
Bridge over the River Dyfi

When planning my landscape photography destinations I always take into account the time of day of the visit and hence where the sun will be. A polariser is always most effective at right-angles to the sun, while that rare thing, a rainbow, always appears opposite the sun.  I can think of one location on the Mawddach estuary where you can use a polariser to your heart’s content but still be open to the possibility of a good rainbow image. The Great Wall of Glandyfi is another. Following the disappearance of  the rainbow I swung around by ninety degrees and captured some images of saltmarsh, the railway bridge over the Dyfi and its accompanying solitary white cottage, in brilliant sunshine. The hills of southern Snowdonia were still in deep darkness and low cloud swept their summits. I used the polariser and the 2 stop ND grad to add to the drama of the scene. I felt that the resulting image worked well in a panoramic format.

It might seem that I was lucky that morning but I had already made several frustrating visits to the area with no worthwhile results. What I was quickly able to do on September 30th was get to the best spot quickly and take advantage of great conditions when they finally did appear. I’d been up there for about two hours – how time flies sometimes – when I heard the sound of chain-saws. Down on the main road maintenance men were removing branches from the vicinity of some electric cables. It soon became apparent, though, that a man with a chainsaw was also clearing branches from the walk-way upon which I was standing, and approaching quite fast. It was time to beat a hasty retreat!

 

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