A gritty portrait of radicals and upstarts in 1980s Hulme

A gritty portrait of radicals and upstarts in 1980s Hulme

Photographer Richard Davis revisits this electric era from his youth in new book, Hulme (Manchester).

Back in 1979, Kevin Cummins captured the nihilistic beauty of Hulme in his stark black and white photograph of Joy Division on a snowy bridge to nowhere. The iconic picture shaped British photographer Richard Davis’ sense of storytelling and style long before he ever set foot in Manchester’s most notorious neighbourhood.

Coming of age in Birmingham, Davis discovered photography after dropping out of high school at 16. Inspired by Don McCullin, Gordon Parks, and Mary Ellen Marks, Davis used his camera as a tool of resistance against the Thatcher regime during the height of her reign.

In September 1988, Davis moved north to teach photography at Manchester Polytechnic. New arrivals were warned not to venture into Hulme, a barren Brutalist landscape abandoned by the city council — so Davis set forth the very next day to see for himself. He quickly fell in with the eclectic mix of artists, musicians, radicals, and upstarts at 257 Charles Barry Crescent where he soon lived and worked.

Now Davis revisits this electric era from his youth in the new book, Hulme (Manchester) (R23). Organised as a series of battered landscapes, magnetic portraits, and graffiti scrawled tableaux, Davis’s cinematic photographs perfectly preserve the DIY ethos of the era. “We were near a city centre, given complete freedom, left to our own devices, and we didn't have to pay any rent,” says Davis, who was just 22 years old at the time.

“We’re the punk generation, the ones that refused to buckle under and accept conformity,” he continues. “Living in an area with like-minded people pushed me to get up in the morning. It was always creative and that rubbed off on me. It made me want to go out, take photos, and just do my own thing. I remember having that fucking urgency of not to waste my time. Every second counted.”

Rather than capitulate to the status quo, the Travellers, ravers, students and dropouts who called Hulme home forged a community built on creativity, collaboration, and collectivism. “We had opted out and wanted nothing to do with money and power,” Davis says. “I wasn’t making photograph for a career; I had no interest in thinking along those lines. Money was never part of the discussion. I just did what I wanted to do.”

During Davis’ time in Hulme, the city experienced a rebirth as “Madchester” as the ‘90s rolled in. With Thatcher out of power, Nelson Mandela released from prison, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new feeling of optimism emerged among the youth. At the time, photographers were few and far between, giving Davis broad access to a wide swath of musicians, artists, writers, and comedians on the scene. Whatever money Davis made, he happily reinvested in the darkroom and studio he operated out of his squat.

“I find it ironic,” he says. “At the time, we were seen as ‘the enemy within’ when we actually were the people who were creating the culture — and that’s what made Manchester a highly desirable place to live in.”

Hulme (Manchester) is out now.

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