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.