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Featured artist: Karen McBride - Rock Photographer with the X-Factor

Going to see unsigned bands in small basement venues can be a strange experience from an outsider's point of view. You go down the stairs and enter a small smoke-filled space full of kids, with loud recorded music blaring from the speakers. The band go on stage and blast your ears out with the jangling sound of electric guitars, feedback, drums and mains hum.

The vocalist screams into the microphone, convulsing, jabbing at his guitar, doing the splits, grinning at the bass player, then he screams some more. No one has ever heard of the band - apart from their dedicated group of followers, all of whom are convinced they will soon get a record deal and be famous. After an hour or so, the band finish their performance, flee the stage, the loud recorded music resumes and everyone heads for the bar.

For people above a certain age, this might seem like an eardrum-mangling, almost nightmarish way of spending an hour, but for the fans, these have been magical moments - even more so for the performers and most of all the lead singer. That interaction, that drama, the expression of creativity, that letting off of steam, that X-Factor, means everything.

Most music photographers concentrate mainly on famous acts. Only a small and dedicated group of photographers takes the trouble to photograph unsigned or little known bands, and Manchester-based photographer Karen McBride is one of them. She has photographed some famous artists too, but most of her attention is devoted to the raw, unprocessed talent of local rock groups.

She has been to scores of concerts and, positioned at the front, or possibly to the side, she captures the drama, the raw energy and the magic of these little known artists.

It's amazing the things these photographs reveal - things which normally pass in a split -second and are forgotten, perhaps apart from a fleeting memory - I have an image in my mind of Howard Devoto and his band Magazine playing at the Russell Club Hulme in 1979 - Devoto is flopped poseurishly to one side of the microphone, gripping it tightly, his acidic features poised into an expression of malevolence. I can describe what I saw, but I can't show it to you because I wasn't taking photos at the time.

Karen McBride is able to capture these amazing moments today, and she has built up a large catalogue of photographs of local bands.

This is not a celebrity photographer feeding the egos of prima donna rock artists, in fact the converse is true. Her photography gives encouragement to these young and often insecure musicians, encouraging them to continue and pursue their ambitions further.

She explains: "Pete of The Flow was driving home from work and saw his poster with my photograph of him. He rang me to say he'd nearly crashed because his mate pointed out the poster to him, and he had been inspired so much that it got him back in the recording studio. Up to that point he'd been feeling a bit low. What pleased me was that the photo was enough to get him back doing his stuff again."

But the photographs are also valuable as works of art in their own right, and would look very nice hanging on your living room wall.

The photo of Jezz of The Doves for instance is superbly composed, with am amazing rim light effect, which can be seen other photos by Karen McBride. There is an amazing use of lighting, and as in other photos, the subject is placed off-centre.

The photo of Pete of The Flow captures a surreal moment during a performance, as the singer looks to one side through bedraggled hair, eyes wide open. It's like a moment of revelation depicted in a religious painting.

These photos don't just happen by chance, and they are not selected from shots taken randomly. Karen McBride uses her intuitive knowledge of photo technique to achieve these images, each of which is carefully framed and shot with impeccable attention to timing and lighting. She uses a Nikon F-100 35mm camera loaded with Ilford Delta 3200 ASA black and white film. She doesn't use flash and she always gets in close to the performers.

Sounds easy - so easy anyone could do it - but they can't. As an experiment I tried using an identical camera, film and settings, and wasn't able to achieve similar photos to Karen's. Like a some of the singers and artists she photographs, there's an X-Factor at play, and she's got it!

If you're in a band, or you're a solo artist, and would like to see yourself portrayed in a way you never imagined, then contact Karen via her website:

You'll find many examples of her amazing photographs. Also go to manchestermusic.co.uk , watch out for exhibitions, and look in the music press, where her photographs are finding increasing use.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2003-10-14

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