With the publication of new collection of his Manchester photography available from Café Royal Book here, photographer Richard Davis exchanged emails with Tim London about those days...
Moving from Birmingham to Manchester at the end of the 1980s Richard Davis found a buzzing, youthful city, bubbling with street-level culture and accessible to a student with a camera, living in a squat. A neat example of how the 1970s/80s in the UK were a boom time for young people from poorer backgrounds who wanted to create. The country is still living off the dole-funded work put in by the youth of those times.
OUTSIDELEFT: Manchester and Birmingham seem to have a connection, something to do with not being London although Birmingham is somehow humble while Manchester struts. Could you have taken similar pictures in Birmingham, during the same time period?
RICHARD DAVIS: I’m extremely fond of both Birmingham and Manchester but Manchester has always edged it in terms of culture.
I've often joked that whereas Manchester turns its back on London, Birmingham quite often wants to be like London. Other huge difference is Birmingham never had a Tony Wilson character like Manchester Someone who could invest in the City and push its youngsters into creativity, to give them opportunity especially in terms of the arts. I never heard of anyone like that in Birmingham. Tony Wilson used to say Manchester Kids had the best record collections, where as my experience of Birmingham in the 1980's was the City was still stuck in its love of Heavy Rock and not too forward thinking. For me Manchester was always looking forward.
It helped as well that Manchester's City Centre was smaller and the venues closer together, more of a connection.
Birmingham was bigger and more spread out and harder to join up everyone.
During those Madchester Years I would sometimes go back to Birmingham to visit friends/family and the cities were very different. Birmingham seemed exactly like it was back in 1985/86/87 when I lived there.
Birmingham never had a Tony Wilson character
OL: The young people you capture have an energy. Has that energy been dissipated now, with screen gaze and self-awareness due to the ubiquity of cameras on mobiles?
RD: No doubt about it technology has changed many things, not always for better, we are bombarded with images & access to info now. In some ways our imaginations aren't used as much like they were last century.
Back in 89/91 there weren't many photographers in Manchester, only 4 that I can remember. Access was easy and most people responded like we weren't there, they carried on as normal which is exactly what you want as a photographer. Nowadays everyone is super conscious, people don't get lost in the moment so much, the fear of being exposed on social media at a later date has altered things, especially for the young. Thankfully we never had that.
What I loved about the Junior Evertonians was that they didn't alter their behaviour to act up towards my camera. Not sure that would happen these days.
OL: How does photography contribute to the creation of a scene? Without documentation, what would Manchester have been like?
RD: Every Scene needs some form of documentation, i'm biased yes but things move so rapidly that a scene very rarely lasts longer than 18 months at most. Madchester for a short while went on to become a global success.
Without the image makers/photographers/writers would it have spread outside of Manchester? Would we have had all the London Media coming up or all the London Music Business People frantically trying to sign any band with a Manchester Postcode? Without this no one outside of Manchester would ever have Known.
Also the momentum of that time in Manchester increased as more and more people from outside the City focused on it.
Confidence levels went up and many people, myself included, took inspiration from seeing what others were doing especially the success & before you knew it there was a scene, not just with the music....but we had all the comedians, the poets, the writers, the designers, the clothes it was on a massive scale.
I guess I was lucky in that I was connected to the Comedy Scene as well and became friends with Steve Coogan, Caroline Ahearne, Henry Normal, John Thomson etc I photographed all of Steve Coogan's early characters in my Hulme flat around early 1991 which I guess now is an important document of Steve's development into the global brand that is now Steve Coogan. I was the first person to Photograph Caroline Ahearne's early character Sister Mary Immaculate in January 1991.
It's vital documentation takes place, things don't last long and if it's not nailed down it's gone/lost forever!!
OL: Where you having fun during the period captured? Was your camera an excuse to go out or an accompaniment?
RD: 89/91 was definitely a Right Time Right Place for me. I was the right age, I was highly motivated and I was very enthusiastic. I loved photography and, thinking back, where I was lucky was... I moved into a squat in the Hulme district of Manchester. It was perfect, it was walking distance to the city centre and all its venues.
I set up a darkroom and studio and the money saved all went on photography. It became all consuming, but the more photography I did the happier I became.
Now this coincided with The Madchester Years. I was going through this UPTURN just as the city was going crazy with what it could offer. The other important thing to stress is I wasn't working for anyone, I was still a student at Manchester Polytechnic. So all I ever did was what I wanted to do, it was me making the choices. What I photographed, who and when.
Obviously I was young, I liked going out, I loved the arts/culture/cinema, I loved people. The camera didn't come out with me all the time but probably 70% of the time. What is revealing is from 1993 onwards I didn't pick up a camera again until 2000. I’d burnt out badly.
I have absolutely no regrets though. The Madchester Years were the best times of my life, I've never experienced anything remotely like those years since.