In Haunt

By Emily Oldfield


Cavernous basement clubs, gritty gigs, packed pits and the crush of the crowd – Manchester-based photographers Shari Denson and Karen McBride have encountered it all on their quest to capture the city’s underground culture at its most vibrant, with their cameras.

Although their paths (and lenses) have crossed at multiple points during their time photographing since the turn of the millennium, it is only now these two Northern, independent photographers are coming together for a rare joint retrospective of their work: ‘A Very Insecure Exhibition’.  There will be a display of work from both women, featuring a range of venues, artists and creativity from across the city, with big names and new bands all celebrated.

For one night only (tickets available here), this exhibition will take place in a Manchester City Centre location, which is staying secret until very close to the date itself – Friday 22nd February 2019. It is expected to be evocative, intense and powerful; all these being qualities already associated with the work of both women, who have featured also in HAUNT Manchester’s ‘A Selection of photographers celebrating Manchester’s underground culture’ series. On the evening of the exhibition itself, both photographers will be in-conversation with musician and Louder Than War Editor John Robb.

Shari Denson image by Stuart Hadfield

Karen McBride portrait

Shari Denson (pictured first) is known for her dramatic live music photographs, mastering the fine art of capturing a band caught in the intensity of the moment – though also skilled and insightful in terms of staged shots. For example, her photography was handpicked by Ian Brown to feature on his 2007 album ‘The World is Yours’ and artists she has covered over the years include I am Kloot, Badly Drawn Boy, Interpol, The White Stripes and James Brown, to name just a few.

Similarly, Karen McBride’s (pictured second) music photography has gained her extensive recognition; often working in black and white, with images which grip the gaze of the onlooker. From Lou Reed to Liam Gallagher, Scotty Moore to the Scissor Sisters, she has documented a great number of artists – though her love for Manchester’s more secretive venues, grassroots music and new bands still persists.

Together as ‘DENSON MCBRIDE: A Very Insecure Exhibition’ now both photographers are coming together for a celebration of their artistry as hard-working women and essential contributors to the city’s creative culture. In addition, they have also produced a double cover, soft-back book to commemorate the exhibition, including 25 of Karen's images and 25 of Shari’s.  The pre-order price is £15 (until the 6th February 2019 – with the link available here), going up to £20 thereafter. The books will be available for signing and collection at the exhibition, or can be signed and posted straight afterwards.

HAUNT Manchester spoke to Shari and Karen to find out more…

Hello Shari and Karen. Why the title ‘A Very Insecure Exhibition’ and why did you choose to exhibit together rather than individually?

Karen: “I was already in the process of planning follow up exhibition to my ‘Stripped Back’ Exhibition over four years ago. The owner of the venue I was going to do this one at mentioned that the works might not be safe and therefore insecure. My first thought was ‘brilliant…there’s my title!’: “A Very Insecure Exhibition”, although the more I thought about it, the more I felt a deeper love for it and realised the meaning to it - which will be revealed when you come to the very much classified venue.”

“Shari was going to come to the original exhibition and asked if I would like a press shot done for it... so of course I said YES!  I went to her place up on the hills and we went for a walk, I took my camera too just in case, as you never know when the mood strikes to take a picture. Anyway, we started with the giggles, and then we got chatting in between taking pictures of each other and getting blown about by the wind. I thought ‘you know what…fuck it…you’re good too, let’s exhibit together!’”

Shari: “I think Karen is best placed to talk about the title of the exhibition as it was already in place before she invited me to join her in it. I love the title and completely get it…I think everyone else will when they have seen the exhibition too!

“Karen and I have known of each other for years. We've stood in the pit shoulder to shoulder several times but had never really spoken. Both of us seem to keep ourselves to ourselves. We both admired each other's work, but traditionally photographers tend to be the lone wolf, and a bit territorial.

“When Karen approached me at the ‘Suffragette City’ exhibition (a celebration of women in and around Manchester music, presented at The Refuge) we started to talk and found that we have so very much in common, especially around our love of film photography. We were on the same wavelength, and quickly got to know much more about each other as people too. Karen was gearing up for an exhibition and I agreed to take her portrait for the press shot. After spending some time together Karen invited me to exhibit alongside her and of course, I said yes! It was obvious that our work would complement each other's, and tell a story of music photography in Manchester that hasn't as yet been told.”

The location of the exhibition is central Manchester but remaining a secret until very close to the date. Why this approach?

Karen: “Because so much information is given out so readily these days and we thought how exiting would it be if we sold tickets to an event and no one knew where it was ‘til we told them!

“We will tell eventually, but not until we have to absolutely have to! And if Shari spills too... she’d best go into to hiding, because we’ve talked about this Shari, haven’t we?”

Shari: “We loved the idea of it being a secret location because information today is so readily available to us all. It harks back to the warehouse parties of '89, when you had to follow a convoy to make it to the venue. It was exciting. We liked the notion of keeping it under wraps as long as possible, and even though I'm dying to tell you because I know you'll love it, I just can't yet, because Karen will literally kill me! So it's probably best that I leave it there, ha ha!”

Photo below by Shari Denson: I am Kloot

I am Kloot

What does it mean to each of you to photograph live music in Manchester and why do you continue to do it?

Karen: “It keeps my soul alive. There is so much evil in this world and nothing we can do about it, but what I can do is support those people who create music. We need the good too, to balance life out. That is why I continue to do it. And I’ve done it for so long now I don’t think I can live any other way.”

Shari: “The fact that I live just up the road from Manchester, in Oldham, means that I have always gone to gigs in the city. All my first gigs were in Manchester. We're very lucky to be such a centre for music that most touring bands play here, plus there's some great local talent too. With venues like The Night and Day Café hosting bands and artists such as I am Kloot and Rae Morris as well as American touring bands like Liars, Albert Hammond Jr etc. You can’t go wrong.

“I lived in Sheffield between '98 and 2008 though so I photographed a lot there and have travelled all around the country, and abroad to see and photograph bands, and I love to do that too. I don't like to class myself as being only about Manchester because I'm actually not. But I am aware that we are a bit spoilt for choice here, and I'd struggle to live somewhere where that choice wasn't available.”

What are some of the issues facing photographers in Manchester at the moment and are there things you would like to see change?

Shari: “An issue I have found is the occasional attitude that all photographers are parasites. There is often a lack of respect for us as artists...maybe because people put us in the same category as paparazzi or something like that. Well, I am not a parasite!

“In fact, my images have been reproduced in other forms, and used over and over without credit, permission or payment, and I know this is something many music photographers struggle with.

“I never want to do anyone I photograph an injustice… I show them as I see them: beautiful, triumphant, wistful, thoughtful, joyful.  If I'd been doing this for money or fame I'd have changed my style or given up years ago - but I do it because I want to create striking, evocative images of bands that I adore, and I want everyone else to adore that band too. I strive to make images that will be interesting not only in a review, but in 20 years’ time, regardless of who the subject is. Yes, sometimes the subject helps me achieve my vision for a photo; a bit like the musician's muse...we also have muses in our art. So the change I'd like to see is the attitude towards photographers like myself, Karen and several others, who are not driven by money, but by a love of art and music, and a need to create wonderful images.”

Karen: “Well… to be honest I’m not sure there are any more issues now than there have been in any other decade, and the question really depends on the level of the bands the photographers are shooting. For instance, big name bands will often want you tossing away your copyright for nothing in return. In any case, my advice is never lose your copyright.

“I would like to see photographers who have worked hard and built up their skills to get recognition and loyalty especially if they have spent time and their own money supporting a band. But this is a big subject.”

Alec Empire Live

Photo above by Karen McBride: Alec Empire

Why is covering underground and alternative culture important to you?

Karen: “Because IT IS here that it all begins.”

Shari: “I get excited about seeing a new band that are still developing, and still growing their fan-base. I love the small, dark venues full of anticipation and true music lovers. It is also lovely to feel that I can somehow be part of that band's experience by photographing them and sharing the images for others to see and take an interest in.

“I often look at friend’s posts about new, unsigned or independent bands and love what I see and hear. I like to pass it on too, in my photographs.  These are the gigs where I feel most at home. Unlike the big arena gigs, which I try to avoid at all costs nowadays, the small, underground gigs are where I feel most at home, most useful, and most excited.”

Photo below by Shari Denson: The Blinders

The Blinders

What does Manchester as a place mean to you - and is there a defining moment or feature of your time here?

Karen: “It’s my hometown so it means everything to me…I’ve travelled far and wide and I always gravitated back to my hometown. I love it in all kinds of weather too.

“I remember as child sitting on the steps at Central Library and looking up at those big white columns. Never in a million years could I have ever imagined I’d be part of such an iconic photography exhibition that is currently on display inside!”

Shari: “As a place, Manchester still has the allure of the big city for me, coming from the hills above Oldham. From being a youngster, I always wanted to shop on Oldham Street, go out in Manchester to places like Devilles, then Konspiracy and the Hacienda. I didn't much care for Oldham apart from Dreamers which was a club with the stickiest carpet you've ever trodden on. I loved it because they played New Order, The Smiths and The Stone Roses and because it was the biggest tiny dive I knew.

“Nowadays though, Manchester makes me more sad than excited, with the homelessness situation and the massive amount of development going on. I see huge gaps in wealth and health, I see venues struggling and closing, for example The Roadhouse - an absolute institution - gone. I also see a Manchester that is very proud of its musical heritage and sometimes slightly arrogant about it. There are some unbelievable bands coming from other parts of the country, and I think as a city Manchester cannot rest on its laurels. We need a shake-up!”

Photo below by Karen McBride: The Courteeners

The Courteeners

What are you looking forward to, in terms of photography, in 2019?

Shari: “Well, needless to say, I'm very excited about ‘A Very Insecure Exhibition’. This is a bit of a labour of love for Karen and myself, and it will be the biggest thing I have ever done with my photography. I'm also incredibly excited about Doves getting out and about again, I would sell my appendix (but NOT my copyright!) to make sure I get to see them and photograph them again - one of my favourite bands of all time. EVER.  2019 is looking great, and I'm glad I made it this far.”

Karen: “Everything.”

Portrait image of Shari Denson - credit: Stuart Hadfield

Portrait image of Karen McBride - credit: Karen's own

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