Tuesday, 8 January 2013


Continuing my occasional series on photography books on my bookshelf, I have been looking this week at Elmet, a book of poems by Ted Hughes with photographs by Fay Godwin. Elmet is the name for the last independent Celtic kingdom in England which originally covered most of Yorkshire but which at the time when Hughes was writing these poems in the 1970s and 80s, he used to describe that area of inhospitable Pennine moorland where he grew up in the upper Calder valley around Halifax and Heptonstall, stretching over the Lancashire border a little way. The book, originally published as The Remains of Elmet in 1979, and later extended to the present edition, was a mutually reciprocal collaboration between the poet and the photographer. Hughes began by writing the poetry in response to some of Godwin's photographs of the area and the enterprise developed with the poetry triggering further images.

I am not normally a great fan of words accompanying photographs, somehow feeling that the photograph should be able to convey its meaning and impact without the addition of explanatory text.  In this case, however, the two go together hand in hand, Godwin's beautifully evocative black and white images being a perfect illustration for Hughes' spare, uncompromising poems.  The landscape they evoke is bleak and harsh, an expanse of brooding moorland and dark skies, occasionally lit up with piercing shafts of light. This is the landscape of Wuthering Heights and the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, whose dark satanic mills and forbidding Methodist chapels shaped the lives of its inhabitants, leaving their marks on the land. The photographs in the book range from windswept moorland with its isolated farmsteads, sheep and drystone walls to the blackened chimneys, cobbled streets and back-to-backs of the old mill towns, peopled with the occasional stalwart inhabitant. They so perfectly and utterly evoke not only a strong spirit of the place, but also the sense of a long-gone era.    

Stanbury Moor

          Wadsworth Moor

          Where the millstone of sky
          Grinds light and shadow so purple-fine

          And has ground it so long

          Grinding the skin off earth
          Earth bleeds her raw true darkness

          A land naked now as a wound
          That the sun swabs and dabs

          Where the miles of agony are numbness
          And harebell and heather a euphoria.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Crow Hill above Mytholmroyd




Hebden Bridge

Path and Reservoir above Lumbutts


Bridestones Moor

Blake Dean

          Emily Brontë

          The wind on Crow Hill was her darling.
          His fierce, high tale in her ear was her secret.
          But his kiss was fatal.

          Through her dark Paradise ran 
          The stream she loved too well
          That bit her breast.

          The shaggy sodden king of that kingdom 
          Followed through the wall
          And lay on her love-sick bed.

          The curlew trod in her womb.

          Her death is a baby-cry on the moor

          The stone swelled under her heart.

Top Withens

          From Two Photographs of Top Withens

                              ....But the tree -
          that's still there, unchanged beside its partner, 
          Where my camera held (for that moment) a ghost.

Fay Godwin's photography included both portraiture and documentary but it is for her work on the British landscape that she is most recognised - the Land trilogy - Land (1985), Our Forbidden Land (1990) and The Edge of the Land (1995).  In the foreword to Landmarks, a retrospective of her best-known work, Yorkshire poet and playwright Simon Armitage points out that her photographs illustrate 'a human desire for order and regularity, its endless urge to impose structure and pattern on a planet whose ultimate beauty is its unpredictability, its randomness, and its wild freedom.'  As such they are not merely documentary or landscape photographs but have a 'psychological and philosophical subtext' dealing as they do with environmental and political concerns.  In his excellent introductory essay to the same book, photography historian Roger Taylor describes her as a 'topographer with attitude' - someone who goes out into the the landscape to report back on what they had personally encountered. 

She was a dedicated and dogged photographer who realised the importance of the 'revealing' properties of light, often returning to the same spot many times until she got the photograph she wanted. An expert printer, her photographs display a 'mastery of the elusive grammar of greys' and are usually printed out at the (by today's standard) small size of 16"x12", and never bigger than 24"x20".  I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of her work a few years ago at the National Media Museum in Bradford and can testify to the exquisite beauty of her prints. Fay Godwin's work is restrained and modest, not blowing its own trumpet in any way. It is authentic and principled without being sanctimonious or politically correct - the type of work which nowadays too often gets ignored or overlooked.  

You can read the last interview before her death in 2005 here.  Also a good article by author Margaret Drabble about her exhibition Land Revisted at the National Media Museum in 2011

All photographs by Fay Godwin
Poems by Ted Hughes


  1. The Remains of Elmet is one of my favourite books. You missed out the one I like best though - The Word that Space Breathes.

    I think poetry and photography go well together. Have you seen the collaboration between David Hurn and John Fuller - "Writing the picture"?

  2. Hi Paul. That poem doesn't seem to be in my edition - it was in the original Remains of Elmet but not in Elmet. I can't find it on the web either.

    I don't know the book you mention - Writing the picture - but I googled it and it has good reviews so will keep my eye open for it. I am always interested in anything to do with Wales as I spent the early part of my life there.