Stephen McCoy — Housing Estates

I began photographing the project, that I later called “Housing Estates”, in the spring of 1979 soon after starting work as a photographic technician at Southport College of Art. The Estate I began to photograph was relatively new and had been constructed on the sand-dunes around Ainsdale, Southport. My Father, who had worked his way up from a young apprentice to Managing Director in a refrigeration firm, bought a plot of land, designed and self-built a house on this estate, for his family. We lived in it from 1972.

I pre-visualised, this set of photographs, as having high contrast with dark shadows. I found the estate to be slightly surreal and wanted the photographs to reflect this. Not many people were visible until the week-end when cars were washed, lawns were cut and watered. I used 35mm, a red filter, underexposed and overdeveloped the film to make the shadows black and to emphasise the graphic shapes of the window frames, walls and painted barge-boards. 

The work was shown at Impressions gallery, York in 1980 and at The Open Eye Gallery in 1981, my second exhibition at the gallery.

In 1980 I attended a week-long workshop with Lewis Baltz at the Photographers Place, run by Paul Hill. I was aware of The New Topographics work, especially photography by Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Robert Adams and Stephen Shore. However, attending the workshop, listening to Lewis Baltz, having work critiqued and looking at his proof copy of Park City, was very influential. This workshop was a seminal moment and made me re-evaluate  my approach to the subject matter of my photographs. 

I realised that for me the subject should be paramount and that technique should allow the subject to be shown in the clearest possible way, without  stylizing the images.

It seems an obvious statement to make, but photography is bound to technique and process. Photographers have a huge choice in approach to the subject: choice of formats, cameras, colour, black and white, film or digital, re-use of old processes etc etc.

The other choices, which can be overlooked, are light and weather conditions. Usually I went out to photograph when time allowed, regardless of light or conditions. 

In early 1980, for what became the second set of Housing Estate photographs, I deliberately went to photograph in very grey, overcast light conditions, still using black and white, but with no filter and no pronounced technique. Sometimes I photographed the same areas I had photographed for the first set. 

A selection of these were shown in a variety of venues as part of The North-West Photography Group shows.

By late 1980 I had furthered the project by using 5×4 and black and white film. I had used 5×4 for a project on Southport Pleasureland out of season (published by Café Royal books as “Keep off Sexy Drugs”) started in my last year at Manchester Polytechnic in 1978 and completed and shown at The Open Eye Gallery, my first exhibition, in May 1979.

I found the seamless quality of 5×4 well suited to describing the subtleties and details of the estates. Very soon I started using colour 5×4 film because of the added information that colour provided. 

I also photographed other estates in the Southport area, but wasn’t sure (and I’m still not sure) whether these work as well. My familiarity with the Ainsdale landscape, architecture and location has maybe influenced the visual success of these pictures. 

Having a variety of approaches to the same subject became interesting. To emphasise the differences and to organise the photographs I divided the work up into “Sets”:

Set One: the 35mm, high contrast black and white, graphic photographs.

Set Two: the 35mm grey, flat, descriptive photographs.

Set Three: the 5×4 black and white and colour.

A selection from these three ‘sets’ was published by Café Royal in 2014, with a second print run in 2017.

A further development in the work started when I moved closer into the house frontages, photographing the details of decoration, house names, window details and front gardens. For this I needed greater portability and used medium format cameras. This work became Set Four, most recently published by Café Royal in July 2018.

Another set of work was ongoing during 1983 to 1985. This set dealt with the “Edges“ of the estates. Looking at where the boundaries of various estates were defined and met the countryside. Made using 5×4 and in colour and black and white these photographs became Set Five.

In 1983/1984, partly because of the ongoing Housing Estate work, I was commissioned by Merseyside Arts to photograph Skelmersdale New Town. The work was a mix of portraits and environmental photographs and the resulting exhibition was very well received. Interest in the project was revived when Café Royal published the work in 2014.

Although the work was a success I was never comfortable photographing people and an area that was suffering from social deprivation and economic problems. I felt I was an interloper exploiting the residents of Skelmersdale for my own career aspirations. I had no easy answer to this other than I felt I was making a record of a time and a place that may have some future importance. Other photographers deal with this issue and accusations of exploitation on their own terms. 

With the Housing Estate project I was not an interloper, I was documenting my home environment, photographing an area where I lived and had a relationship with. I wasn’t often questioned by the residents about my motives for photographing their homes, but was occasionally asked if I was “casing the joint” for a burglar, I did point out that if I was I wouldn’t be using a 5×4 view camera and a tripod!

As Robert Adams has said the best photography is a mix of autobiography, geography and metaphor. I’m not sure about the metaphor, perhaps metaphor should be fostered by the viewer  – I prefer the idea “that the subject is what the subject is”. However, autobiography and geography are still very strong guides for my work.

The Housing Estate photographs are calm and ordered images of maybe a bland and bourgeois environment – a view not always made visible; they are a counterpoint to the images of joblessness and social strife so often used to illustrate Merseyside in the 1980’s. But this was my daily reality and as much a testament to the era as photographs documenting poverty.

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http://mccoywynne.co.uk

Stephen McCoy — Housing Estates Set 4. 1985

Housing Estates 1979–1981 — Stephen McCoy

Sefton Samuels — Jazz Legends

Jazz Legends brings together five decades of work by leading British photographer Sefton Samuels. The collection is the result of a lifetime spent by Sefton hanging around smoke-filled jazz clubs in the north of England – capturing the biggest names as they performed. 
Caught up-close are the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Courtney Pine, Dizzy Gillespie, Ronnie Scott and Duke Ellington. The photographs are distinguished by an intimacy which captures the soul of the performances – perhaps testimony to the passion for the music from behind the camera. 
Sefton Samuels enjoyed a brief career as a jazz drummer himself before taking up photography. He has scores of images in the National Portrait Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum – and has exhibited at the Barbican, King’s Place and Proud Galleries. 
 
Hailed as  “Manchester’s finest” by Time Out, Sefton is the author of the best-selling photo book ’Northerners’. Despite the drumming career never quite taking off, Sefton remains a jazz addict.
Tim Samuels.
Sefton Samuels — Jazz Legends, is available here.
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Reagan in Dublin

Dublin at the beginning of June 1984 was warm and sunny. ‘Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back’ was playing in Dublin cinemas and ironically Ronald Reagan who named his country’s defence system after the sci-fi film was in town. He did not receive a warm welcome from his ancestral home.

The protests against his visit were country-wide and brought together a diverse alliance of people who might not normally join forces. Left groups marched alongside nuns and priests. What united them was Reagan’s foreign policies, mainly those in Central and South America.

I photographed the Dublin protests — the march of over 10,000 people to the Dáil and a picket on the US embassy — and I have two regrets about the photographs I took or rather didn’t take that day. Instead of going to the night-time vigil when thousands of people surrounded Dublin Castle where Reagan was being feted and dined by the powers-that-be, I was persuaded by my partner of that time to do a spot of baby-sitting for him. So, while protesters formed a chain around the castle, beating drums and cat-calling to the president into the night, I was sat at home. Obviously, my feminist sensibilities required some honing at that stage…

That same night something else was happening outside the US ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park. This brings me to my second regret which is deeper than the first.
A group, Women for Disarmament, had set up a camp in the Park days before just yards from the entrance to the residence. The women were part of the international anti-war movement and comprised upwards of seventy women who camped out in expectation of Reagan’s arrival. They were not breaking any laws but the police, under pressure from the US Secret Service, twice gathered them into police vans and drove them into the city. The women, of course, regrouped and returned to their camp.

I was a political snob then and I have to admit I found the WFD group irritating but nevertheless, in the days before, I, along with other women, prepared pots of stew in the Women’s Centre on Dame Street and brought them to the women in the Park. What I did not bring was my camera and so did not capture any images of their circular camp which was both good-humoured and earnest. And I bitterly regret this for these women suffered for their protest.

On the night of the Dublin Castle vigil, they painted their hands red and imprinted them on the ambassador’s gates. The Secret Service were incensed. Pressure was exerted and the local police arrived in greater numbers than before and formally arrested the protesters. The women were brutally removed. One disabled woman was dragged away by the heels.

They were imprisoned in the Bridewell Garda Station, illegally as it emerged, for between one and two nights in crowded, dirty cells. They remained there until Airforce 1 rose into the air taking the president back from whence he had come.
The empire knew how to strike back!

Rose Comiskey

Rose Comiskey — Reagan Protest Dublin 1984, available here

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Reason 3: Not Fitting In

Here’s the third post in the series of unknown length and duration, around reasons why I started publishing.

I’m not sure where to start this, so I’m going to write and see how it goes. Here are some terms, or genres I’m involved in/with. Each very different. Each a different crowd, generally. A different market, in a business sense. A different process in terms of making, and certainly different reasoning. Often, a different outlet or final place for the work to ‘be’:

Genres — Artist’s Book / Zine / Photobook

Sections — History / Culture / Photography / Gift

Reasons — Nostalgia / Collection / Archive / History / Dissemination /Presentation

Fitting in. I’ve never been a conformist. I’m not sure why. I don’t think it’s rebellion, although at times possibly it is. I think it’s more that I like to question things as they are. I’m never comfortable accepting that ideas as they are, are the best way. For example, procedure, hierarchy, method, answer…I never like to take a set of rules and agree, ‘that’s how it’s done.’ I’d rather find my way of getting it done. I don’t like the term, ‘creative’, when applied to a person, but I think artists, designers, photographers, ‘creatives’ generally, question rules. Often get accused of disobeying, quite negatively. Questioning, I think, is better.

When I’m not in the office/studio, editing, sourcing, replying to emails, packing post etc, I’m at book fairs, talking about the books and selling the books. Artist’s Book and zine fairs are the ones I started taking part in, 13 years ago. The first was Manchester Zine Fair, at what was then Urbis. Leeds, BABE in Bristol, Small Publishers, London Zine Symposium…Fairs in Lithuania, China, Korea, Japan, Australia…When I can’t go, I send a box of books. See previous post about ease of transporting.

More recently (past seven years), I’ve taken part in photobook fairs. Bristol, London, Glasgow, Paris, Rome, New York…The mindset is different. Not better or worse. Perhaps more focussed, because the subject is tighter. Photography includes photography. Photo books include photographs. ‘Artist’s books’ is perhaps a vaguer term, which is useful. Artists work in a multitude of ways so I think the term artist’s book refers more to the book as a container, the function and form of the book, as well (or can be) as the content. Photobooks can be more fetishised, more ‘collected’, more valuable and in some ways seen as more ‘prestigious’. A word I don’t like much. There are cross overs though, Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, for example. Artist’s will discuss them as artist’s books. Photographers as photobooks. There is, of course, a problem with categorising anything, but things do get categorised so I’ll go with it.

The bookshops that sell Café Royal Books vary in terms of the shelf on which the put the books. Photography is an obvious and appropriate one. History, Culture, Gift, are others — all just as appropriate. They have been exhibited, cited and discussed as examples of artist’s book, photobook, archiving, re/presenting work, zines, collections, cultural/social history…

Each term, in every case, has its own audience. The more terms one crosses, the wider the potential audience, and in this case, the more eyes that can see the images I publish. So that’s good. More people who perhaps didn’t know the photographers or their work, or a particular series of work, now do.

The main thing with all of this, is that the books (if that’s what they are…) don’t fit in. They float around a bit. Today, I have sent books to a gallery in New York. A library in San Diego. Someone in the UK, along with a note to say ‘Happy Birthday’ from the person who bought it. A biker on the Isle of Man, a playwright in London and a lawyer in the USA. The years I spent painting and exhibiting in a fairly formal way, I think has put me off sticking to one thing or place. So Café Royal Books helped me to make one thing, but be a part of several ‘networks’ (another word I don’t like.) I’m easily bored, and although ultimately I do just make one type of thing, it’s useful to be able to discuss it as several things, depending on where the books are, or where I am.

Image: One of the last paintings I made, 2005.

Reason 2: Function

Here’s part two of my series of posts explaining reasons around why I started publishing. I’m sure I’ll miss things, and these posts are here to get my thoughts in order as much as for the interest of the internet.

‘The gallery’, I wanted to avoid. I wanted something quick to make and to ‘exhibit’. Affordable, to make and to buy. Easy to transport. Something that could exist in multiple, and so be in more than one place at a time. Something that is an edition, not necessarily to limit the edition but so there is no ‘original’, and all copies have the same intrinsic value.

Prints would have done, to an extent, but within the context of my work at the time, they would have been single images on single sheets, and prints and printing are expensive. Photocopy prints aren’t expensive though, and they prevented me becoming precious as I had with the paintings that took nearly two years to make.

My influences are pretty wide and include ideas around Minimalism and Conceptualism — many of those discussed in Lucy Lippard’s Six Years, Don Celender, In Numbers exhibition, Felix Gonzales Torres, some street art, American underground/free press, Hand made signs, Modernism, 1970s teaching packs, National Trust info pamphlets, bookies’ cards from horse races, ephemera and collectibles…

The idea of photocopied prints was kind-of the antidote to the problems that painting and galleries were causing (me), and they fitted with the aesthetic, DIY-ness and spontaneity of my influences. But, they were single sheets and one image, and felt a bit light. Literally speaking, copied onto heavier stock felt like I was trying to convince people they were something they weren’t. Light in a content sense too though, just a bit of paper and a picture — a copied one.

So, I photocopied a sketchbook and stapled it together, to make a rough copy of the original. Sketchbooks are very personal things, no one ever really sees them, and certainly I’d never sell one. If you price things on time alone, then a sketchbook would run into 1000s, and even then I’d regret selling them. To me they were the place all else came from. By copying it, and making another 25 or so, I was breaking down the ‘original’ and the personal. Now I could send it to or swap with anyone, and if they didn’t want it, they could give it away. It was open. These copies spidered their way around the world very quickly. My work, overnight almost, was in 24 more countries than it have ever been.

The book (I wasn’t calling them books, still don’t really. I was calling them copies), I thought, was a useful multi-purpose container. A container to house things, a collection of drawings or photographs for example. A container to transport things, or a container to be used as an archive, to present ‘data’ of some kind. It’s an immediately functional and purposeful thing — I’ve never really been sure of the function of painting. The type of book I was / am interested in, was no bigger than the sum of its parts. IE, no grander, no more valuable, not decorative, not manufactured in a way that gives the impression it’s better than it is. Part of me ‘doesn’t see the point’ of decoration or embellishments. If something is made of the most appropriate materials and is shaped to provide its best function, I’ll take it, over the version of the same thing with a pattern, or with ears, or with a badge, or with gloss, embossing and tail bands. Plain, straightforward, simple things. Extra is unnecessary, and extra gets in the way. I see a lot of art in this way, including a lot of the paintings I used to make. If a subject or work is about ‘kitsch’, for example, then a function of that might be to demonstrate kitsch, so the form would follow, decoratively, and the decoration would be purposeful. That would be ok!

The book: It’s personal, shareable, can be read anywhere. It can be posted worldwide in a day or two, inexpensively. It can be sent direct to someone, on their terms, rather than them coming to see it, on the maker’s terms. It can still be shown in a gallery, collected by a museum, held in a library. If it’s a picture book, it’s universal. It can be a starting point — a window into a subject or thing. The content can be curated, submitted, or selected.

The way I’d usually hung things in a gallery was quite linear. The viewer would generally travel from left to right, reading the labels and sometimes looking at the work. Now I had the advantage of facing pages, turning pages, repeated images, flipped images, gatefolds, French folds, covers…All the tools I wanted and could use to lead people, create a story or narrative. The book pauses people. At least, a flick through, usually stopping as something catches their eye. There’s a physical action necessary to ‘use’ a book which I don’t think is there in a gallery. You can walk through a gallery and not see anything. The pause, on the reader’s terms, encourages seeing.

At the time, I didn’t know of any social media. MySpace had just begun. Flickr too. No Facebook, instagram, only just Gmail, so the everyday mass communication we’re now used to, wasn’t really there. Artists, illustrators, photographers were online, just about. Basic, static websites to act as a portfolio. I was starting to build myself a website, searching for how-to code HTML guides, then CSS later. Metadata come up and I realised that at that time, if you used enough keywords and meta data / website info, then those keywords would affect search results, and so expand my audience to people not necessarily looking for the thing I had to show. So the first book, of the copied sketchbook, I called, ‘Happy Birthday’. Keywords and titles included the words Happy and Birthday. At one point, quite briefly, when searching online for Happy Birthday, my site came third in the list. This was just playing, but I enjoyed the idea of subverting the internet. I also enjoyed the idea that by adding nothing new, only using what already existed, I could ‘do something’.