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

Stephen McCoy

I guess there are two phases to my career as a photographer: The first phase was as an educator, teaching part time at several colleges in the north-west, ending up as a full-time programme manager at Hugh Baird college in Bootle.
During this phase I worked on several projects and in roughly chronological order (although some did overlap) they were:

Pleasureland”: photographs of Southport fair out of season shot on 5×4 in black and white.

Keep off Sexy Drugs — Steve McCoy

Housing Estates”: photographs divided into four discrete sets that showed an evolution of approach to the same subject. Set1: 35mm graphic, contrasty black and white images. Set2: 35mm grey and understated black and white. Set3: 5×4 black and white and Set4: 5×4 colour.

Stephen McCoy

Demolition Sites”: 5×4 black and white photographs of areas of ground either where buildings were being demolished or where buildings had been demolished some time in the past.

Skelmersdale”: 5×4 black and white photographs of the people and environs of Skelmersdale built as a satellite new town, twenty miles from Liverpool. The now defunct Merseyside Arts employed me as a photographer in residence and I worked there for one day a week for twelve weeks. (I continued with the project after the funding finished.)

Stephen McCoy

The Plight of the Trolley”: medium format ,semi-humorous colour photographs of abandoned shopping trolleys.

Personal Space”: 35mm black and white photographs showing the quirky nature of modern family life.

River to River” colour 5×4 photographs of the coastline from the River Ribble to the River Mersey

The above work was variously exhibited and published at The Open Eye Gallery, Impressions York, The Bluecoat, Liverpool, The Atkinson, Southport, North-West photography Group shows, British Journal of Photography, Creative Camera.

Café Royal Books have printed: Skelmersdale and Housing Estates. Pleasureland is released today.

The second phase began in 1997 when Stephanie Wynne and myself formed the collaborative partnership: McCoy Wynne. We built up a successful commercial practice and were able to leave teaching in 2005, concentrating on commissioned work but also collaborating on personal projects, a selection of which are listed below. This second phase coincided with the increased use of digital techniques: another re-invention of photography.

Quiescence”: a study of dormant spaces was our first large project exhibited in 2008 and this led to McCoy Wynne being shortlisted for The Liverpool Art Prize in 2009 for: “An Avian Presence”

Bingo and Burial”: was exhibited as part of Liverpool Look 11 photofestival and we re-photographed from the original viewpoints of my demolition site photographs taken in the 1980’s.

Gulls”: photographs of the flight patterns of birds disturbed at night within the urban environment and exhibited at The University of Liverpool and recently at The University Centre, Blackpool.

Triangulation”: a long-term project to photograph all 310 triangulation pillars which will also provide a survey of the British landscape, exhibited as part of Liverpool Look 13 photofestival.

A further ongoing project “The Urban Forest” has also been recently exhibited.

The projects listed above, although varied in subject matter, all have a grounding in notions of documentary photography. We do not tend to photograph “events” or feel we take photographs that are “reportage” or “journalistic”. At the risk of sounding pretentious we consider ourselves to be conceptual documentary photographers.

Our concerns are more long term and we like to work on projects over several years. The acceptance of the factual nature of documentary photography is ideally suited to portraying the passage of time and the revival of some of my archival projects by Café Royal Books has highlighted how photographs, which were once contemporary, have become historical documents.

It’s also worth noting that very few of the projects have people as the major subject. We are more interested in environments, landscapes and artefacts. We have never felt entirely comfortable photographing strangers and no matter how careful one is there will always be some elements of exploitation.

Stephen McCoy 2015

Images below are from titles published by Café Royal Books.