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

The Scottish Post Office 1985 — David Williams

This selection of images is from the body of work commissioned by the Scottish Post Office in 1985 to celebrate the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the GPO. I adopted a humanistic approach to the project, seeking to portray the dedication of a range of the organisation’s employees as well as highlighting the importance of the Post Office to both urban and rural communities in Scotland. I had always been a great admirer of John Grierson’s film Night Mail (1936) and was proud to be commissioned in a similar manner to produce a piece of work based on the activities of the Post Office. 

The images were made mainly in Edinburgh and various locations in the West of Scotland. Throughout my travels, I encountered extraordinary kindness on the part of the employees and have very fond memories of the time I spent with them. I was deeply impressed by their commitment to their work and how such commitment contributed to the wellbeing of the wider community. No matter how remote the location, or inhospitable the weather conditions, one always had the sense that ‘the mail would get through’.

The project was never disseminated as planned and indeed never fully completed. The Scottish Post Office view was that the images were too ‘down-market’ for public consumption given the host of political pressures (related to possible privatisation) it was under at the time. My feeling was that as a commissioned artist as opposed to a commercial practitioner, I reserved the right to produce work which functioned outwith the immediate promotional concerns of the organisation. We agreed to differ and parted company just as I was about to embark on making portraits of employees in more managerial roles. Nevertheless, hopefully I still managed to produce an engaging body of work, supportive of what was a deeply impressive national institution. 

David Williams is Reader of Photography at Edinburgh College of Art.

All images and text © David Williams.

Talking Picture no. 39: Florence Alma Snoad by Daniel Meadows

Talking Picture no. 39: Florence Alma Snoad by Daniel Meadows 

This week’s movie from Daniel Meadows is the 39th of 40. That means next week is the last…Then I suggest a day watching the lot and a trip to the Library of Birmingham to see the work it relates to, and all that surrounds it.

As Daniel posted on Facebook, “If there is one person’s story that sums up the meaning of my bus adventure, this is it. Florence Alma Snoad is number 39 of the 40 movies I made to celebrate the acquisition of my archive by the Library of Birmingham. We are nearing the end.”

Talking Picture no. 31: The Smoking Room by Daniel Meadows

The latest of Daniel’s movie releases. Prestwich Hospital in Manchester and the then new, Clayton Ward. Great narration on this movie, a personal favourite!

On Thursday I will realise a book to accompany this movie, Clayton Ward 1978. This book is the final title in Daniel’s Eight Stories series, which we’ve worked on over the past year.

The Daniel Meadows archive is at the Library of Birmingham,  ref. MS 2765

Talking Picture no. 31: The Smoking Room by Daniel Meadows

Pictures from No Man’s Land — David Williams

St Margaret’s School for Girls, Edinburgh 1984

In 1984 I undertook a six-month Artist-in-Residence commission at St Margaret’s School for Girls, Edinburgh. The commission was instigated by the school in collaboration with the Scottish Arts Council. 

Pictures from No Man’s Land, my first major project after having taken up photography in 1980, proved to be a pivotal experience for me and seems all the more so in retrospect. In the 30 years which have elapsed since its completion much has changed, both in the world of photography and the world at large. The school itself is now closed and single-sex private schools are less common in the UK. 

As Artist-in-Residence, my remit was to make work based on the school and to teach photography to a wide range of pupils within the school’s art department. Looking back, it was one the most challenging and intensive undertakings of my career, due in part to my lack of experience. I had to learn an enormous amount technically and in the area of social engagement as the project proceeded.  

In making the work, it was never my intention to comment on the pros and cons, political or otherwise, of the form of education represented by St Margaret’s. Rather, I sought to allude to the universal process whereby children grow into adolescents. The concomitant, inexorable shift from innocence to self-consciousness is referred to throughout, often by way of formal portraiture. The school and its inhabitants can be seen as a vehicle for the expression of this central theme rather than the subjects of overt socio-political commentary.

Overall, Pictures from No Man’s Land achieved considerable exposure, being widely exhibited and published although the accompanying book is now somewhat of a rarity. In some ways, again partly due to lack of experience, I was surprised at the attention it received. However, I was delighted when in 1989 it won the BBC Scotland 150 Years of Photography Award and equally so when Norman Parkinson described it as,  ‘…one of the most absorbing and informative visual records of the late 20th century’ (the List Magazine, issue 11, 1986).

David Williams is Reader of Photography at Edinburgh College of Art.