Book Review: Fay Godwin’s Land
We can look at photographs on the Internet all you like, but its far from the ‘full experience’. It’s useful and helps us to grow, but there is no substitute for a more intimate and involved experience. Ideally, we visit galleries or exhibitions and can absorb the images that are (usually) displayed at their best: at the right size, in good lighting, in a managed setting. It would be easy to dismiss books as comparable to web images and a shadow of the exhibition experience, but I have found that books often have a life of their own.
I know that my relationship with books, exhibitions and online displays of the same images often differ quite distinctly. Fay Godwin’s ‘Land’ is such a case. I am familiar with her work from fifteen years of pouring over blogs, gallery announcement, critical essays and media articles and I had settled into a position I was comfortable with. Godwin’s work, to me, was ‘OK’. I knew that she had her fans, that her work was lauded for its simplicity and silent, often barren beauty. I knew she was a pillar of British Landscape photography and that she has influenced countless fine art and landscape photographers. However, I never connected with her work until a fairly ancient copy of ‘Land’ was delivered to my door.
As you know by now, I prefer to buy used books (usually on Amazon). Beneath the often significant savings and recycling logic is a sense that whatever is contained therein has already been enjoyed by someone else and I like that. It feels like sharing a common understanding and being connected to others, whether through a library address stamped on the first few pages, or the slight nicks and abrasions that could only have come from someone leafing through the same pages. This copy was showed noticeable fading on the dust cover, some yellowing of the edges (possibly a smoker’s home), but was otherwise pristine inside. It had certainly been around for a few decades.
‘Land’ is a small to medium-sized book (25.8 x 25.6 x 1.6 cm) and does nothing to grab your attention. If anything, I would describe it as ‘terribly English’ and therefore understated. It contains a great deal of text to read about Godwin’s work, if that is your fancy – all nicely presented and well-worth reading – and then a steady succession of images. The layout is simple: space is used with effect, I don’t recall any double-page spreads and images are printed to just the right size. Image quality itself is OK, but nothing more, yet somehow this book really did work for me. I felt the same immersion as Paul Caponigro’s ‘New England Days’, which a short while after taking ownership really brought about a profound connection with the work. If anything, I would say there is something remarkably similar about the two artist’s work in these two bodies of work. Both are understated, have a certain stillness to them, but subtle rhythm and almost spiritual quality to the images. I am not talking about single images, but the affect of the series and how the books are constructed. They are not dissimilar sizes too (New England Days being a little smaller).
I enjoyed Godwin’s approach to the ordinary. Her interaction and relationship with the land (in Land!) is palpable. It feels both calm and non-judgmental, if that makes sense. It is somehow accepting, marvelling in the lack of, well, ‘marvel’, but instead picking out subtle relationships. It’s a very calming book and one that encourages silence. The word ‘meditative’ comes to mind.
If you are a landscape, fine art or ‘new colour’ photographer struggling with the ordinary, I would strongly recommend you buy both of these books. If you are passionate about traditional black and white landscapes, including ‘prettier images’, Roman Loranc’s ‘Two-Hearted Oak’ should be added to that list. Why? Well, because all three photographers deal in the ordinary, despite the nearby presence of the extraordinary. By doing so, they step into our world, introducing subtle insights, observations and ‘feelings’, which is very difficult to do with material we are so familiar with. Nothing in any of the images in any of the books I have mentioned will stun or blow you away from the point of view of ‘what they are’. No images are of ‘spectacular’ or ‘grand’ landscape. Nothing will be unfamiliar in literal terms, but you may just marvel at why you are so compelled by scenes almost all photographers stroll straight past. This is the genius of such artists and, to the conscientious photographer struggling to find his or her ‘voice’ it may even seem rather frustrating. However, there is no need to understand the mechanism, only to be open to it’s tune. I’m quite convinced that it seeps into your soul and changes your vision far more pointedly than those images that can more readily be deconstructed. After all, is this not why we love photography? From the print slowly emerging in the development tray, to the mystery of transformation; it’s all magic.
P.S. I chose this selection of spreads with a view to communicating to you how the book spoke to me. I hope I have succeeded!