Arts and Culture

‘My best photo is my next photo’: Richard Davis on 35 years of documenting culture in Manchester

The 58-year-old photographer discusses his journey of photographing life in Manchester since the 1980s.

Richard Davis is on the second floor of the Salutation Pub – a building which dates from 1840, but is surrounded by the modern architecture of Manchester Metropolitan University. He is about to deliver a talk on culture in Manchester, but is already involved in a passionate conversation about Hulme with an ex-resident.

Born in 1965, Davis is known for his photos of famous music bands, such as Nirvana, and stars of the Madchester scene, as well as early portraits of comedians Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne. But his influence goes beyond this.

Steve Coogan in Hulme, Otterburn Close in 1991 © Richard Davis

Coming to Manchester to study photography at Manchester Polytechnic in 1988, the 22-year-old Davis instantly fell in love with the city. He grew up in Birmingham, passionate about Manchester’s music, and had long fantasised about moving there.

“I knew I was coming to a city with a lot of history and culture”, he says.

“I knew there were places to go and things to see. I wanted new experiences in a moving city, not just any normal city. As soon as I arrived, I wanted to spend most of my time here.”

He became completely immersed in the city’s culture, spending “every minute of every day on photography”, documenting bands, poets, comedians, and everyday life.

“It just went mad. For about three or four years, it was non-stop. In some ways, photography became a purpose in my life. It kept me off going down a negative path, and I’m forever grateful for that.”

Hulme Crescents, 1989 © Richard Davis

Living in the Crescents, the huge brutalist 1972 building in Hulme, Davis was engrossed in the neighbourhood and its inhabitants, especially the squatters. Since then, Hulme has become an inseparable part of the photographer’s identity, and its trace is apparent in his works. 

“I was 23 when I moved to Hulme. I lived in one of the Crescents. It was my home, my base, and it was a perfect set-up for a dark room and a studio. Hulme was a major part of what I could do and what I did.

“And I had no idea at the time that it was all going to be knocked down. I wish I did. Because if I had known, I would have taken more photos of the buildings.

“I wasn’t thinking like that. I was living day to day and had so many things with people, bands, comedians, and poets, as well as navigating life in Hulme.”

Dave Gorman, Castlefield, Manchester 1990 © Richard Davis

As a portrait photographer, Davis has met and documented hundreds of Manchester’s cultural icons. These include bands such as New Order, poets like John Cooper Clarke and Mike Garry, authors including Sarah Champion and Lemn Sissay, and comedians such as Steve Coogan and Dave Gorman.

“A lot of people who I’ve photographed in the past are no longer around”, he says. “At times, you can get quite sad, at times I feel like I’m a grim reaper. A lot of people who I photographed 35 years ago, I am photographing now.

“That’s the beauty of photographing over 40 years – because life changes. Life doesn’t stand still, and photography is an ageing process.”

Kiss AMC, 257 Charles Barry Crescent, Hulme, Manchester 1990 © Richard Davis

Looking back at Davis’s career, there’s a kind of diversity in the subjects he has documented. People with different social backgrounds, beliefs, and ethnicities, each with a distinct story.

“It’s more important nowadays to photograph as many diverse people as I can, especially because of what has changed in the last five years with Brexit and the politics of this country. Now, look at this country and how it has become more insular.

“I grew up in multicultural Birmingham and then moved into multicultural Manchester and Hulme and Moss Side. I’ve always hung around with diverse people and loved it. I don’t demand to look at people’s passports if I want to be someone’s friend. 

“I’m European; I’m not British. I want to look at the world, and I want to live in an environment that is welcoming for anybody across the globe. I think, as a photographer, I’m in a position now to highlight the good and the bad.

“I find this country appalling at the moment, and anything I can do to highlight that, I will damn well do.”

Richard Davis, Manchester 2022

After four decades of photography, Davis is still passionate about experiencing new things. For him, today’s Manchester is as fabulous as the Manchester of the 80s, with so much to explore. Looking into his eyes, you can still see the 22-year-old photographer who is about to start his “mad” journey again in Manchester.

“I always think my best photo is my next photo. I don’t want to be complacent. I don’t want to settle for the works I did 30 years ago, because I love photography.

“I am never happy with what I‘ve done. I can do better. I need to do better, and I strive to do better, and that keeps me going.”

All images courtesy of Richard Davis

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