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Karen McBride is a force to be reckoned with in and around Manchester, an experienced professional photographer, her forte is her usage of grainy black and white imagery, often inspired by that "touch of Elvis" in many of her photographs. Elvis being a very influential and inspiring subject since childhood. Karen's photo's have a distinctive and timeless quality, capturing the essence of their personality, a kind of honesty. 
Karen left school with no formal qualifications, but that would change later, she was always a pretty arty youngster, and upon leaving school she became embroiled in the work of lithographic printing. Later by accident she got into photography and embarked on a photography course, and she hasn't looked back since. Responsible for many iconic images, she worked with the likes of The Ting Tings for the best part of five years, is one of the few photographers given access all areas for the Scissor Sisters, who she has photographed since 2004. Becoming Robbie Williams Close Encounters tour photographer in 2006, the list goes on. She doesn't only produce live show material, she can be based in studios or on location with bands and models. Always quick to spot local talent, she has photographed many bands from Manchester, such as the Jessie Rose Trip, Paris Riots, Kid British, Jade Assembly and the Janice Graham Band. In recent months Karen shot at Manchester's Un-convention, the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Elbow's Guy Garvey, even impressing Billy Bragg with her shots of him.
I thought to compliment the interview it might be fun to work with Karen on a lil' photoshoot, to try and capture some of that McBride magic in my own work. So, catching up in one of Karen's favourite haunts we assemble at Castlefield in Manchester in the early evening. Kazza Mcb, as she is known on Facebook, can come across as quite a formidable Woman, tonight she was feeling a little tired from too many late nights partying and shooting at Splendour Festival the night before. [Karen rarely shoots at Festivals these days but she was there to shoot the mighty Blondie, Scissor Sister, Virgin Marys, and Justin Currie]. We chatted about the sad parting of Amy Winehouse and other such topics, drank a few teas and headed out into the evening sun to try and produce a couple of images we were both happy with........and the interview is here:

MEL: What first motivated you to buy a camera, how old were you and what did you take photos of initially? How long did it take before you were happy with the results?

KAREN: First of all I plead innocent to all charges.

I’ve always been motivated artistically… a camera really was an extension of that. I was really good at art as a child. I was a daydreamer. I drew pictures at school to help me get out of being bullied. I recognised as a child that family photos were really important; we were all growing up, changing, and that needed to be documented. My mum and dad were Johnny Cash fans, we grew up listening to his music, I loved the album covers, and I would spend a lot of time looking at them. We also grew up listening to Elvis.

I first got my mitts on a camera at sports day, the school thought because I was good at art I might be good at taking pictures too. Needless to say none of the pictures turned out, I’m not even sure I loaded the film correctly. [smiles]. It took quite a number of years before I took a shot that cried out loud to me. Karen that’s it, you’ve made a picture - I think you earn your pictures. All the years of not really knowing which direction to take seems to have started to pay off, it all helped to build me as a person and make me want more. We should never stop striving to be better, if we lower our standards then really what is the point. I suppose really what I shoot now found me rather than me going out looking for it.

MEL: How did you get to where you are now?

KAREN: I had a good stable job in my early 20’s a job for life, as it was known back then. But one morning I woke up, then packed up. I bought a one-way train ticket to Europe, my backpack and compact Nikon camera with me. I came back over a year later. I took lots of pictures but didn’t do any photography. I drew a lot - made lots of sketches. I thought art was my main outlet of creatively until I had a bad accident and severed the nerves in my right hand, almost severed the tendons too. As a result I can’t feel with most of my right hand, so couldn’t use a pencil or paintbrush for what seemed like a lifetime. When I came back to Manchester I got a job straight away in a printers (my old trade), I met a guy who became a life long friend, he was really into black and white photography, I thought it was quite old fashioned at the time, but went with it. We used to photograph Castlefield when it was derelict.

I went to university, I have a passion for Archaeology, after completing my degree I did a post grad project up in the Shetlands and Orkney's photographing the archaeological landscape, I won aerial archaeological landscape photographer of the year with the ‘Arial Archaeology Research Group’ -  it was a proud moment. I thought this was my calling!

I got into shooting bands through my brothers band the 22 strings. I shot black and white film. After that other bands saw the pictures and it went on from there. It took quite a number of years before I took a shot that cried out loud to me. Karen that’s it, you’ve made a picture. I think you earn your pictures all the years of too-ing and fro-ing really paid off for me, it all helped to build me as a person and make me want more. I suppose really what I shoot now found me rather than me going out looking for it.

MEL: What camera and lens do you use to date? And are you into the whole photography geekyness, buying the newest lenses, filters, and the whole caboodle? Do you have your own studio, which do you prefer the outdoors or studio shoots?

KAREN: I’m not an equipment geek, I’ve only ever bought cameras because I need them, to me it’s a bit worrying when you see other photographers and they somehow seemingly measure what you do by what you use. Didn’t Bailey use an Olympus trip for years [smiles]

I use Nikon for no other reason that the Cannon shutter button is no good for me because my right hand is numb. I can’t tell where the shutter button as it’s too smooth. My camera is a Nikon D3. My most used lens is an old 50mm 1.4 best lens I ever bought. I have an old 80-200mm 2.8 it’s all battered and bruised, it’s equipped with an Elvis sticker the one where he’s wearing the Gold Lame suit from the 50’s. It also sports Glasto mud. Sigma 24-70 2.8 this was well used on the Robbie Tour. I do however, have the most beautiful lighting Kit. The Profoto Acute B portable system. Muah

I used to have a studio, I shared it, it didn’t work out, and I won’t be doing that again. I love location work as much as I love studio both offer very different looks and opportunities. I’ve never thought about using filters with digital, I’ll give that a try.

MEL: What’s does an average day in the life of Karen McBride look like?

KAREN: My days are so varied, I’m not sure I have typical days although I always aim to get out of bed at around 8 am early for me late for some. [smiles] It’s the same if I’m out really late too, my bed time can be between 12-3 am, this is the same for each day. Obligatory shower sh*t n shave… Check emails look on facebook, go through yesterdays photo shoot. I think it’s really important to give your eyes a rest from the previous days shoot, grab a healthy lunch. If I’ve got a shoot booked then my battery charging falls into the previous days duties. I’m always looking through books and magazine either wishing ‘I’d taken that’ or saying ‘I could do that’. I suppose this quote by Avedon kinda sums up a typical day…

And if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it's as though I've neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible.” - RicHard AvEdoN, 1970

MEL: Who are your favourite photographers and why? What is your all time favourite photograph? And what for you makes a great photograph?

KAREN: I’m loving this question already… how long have we got [laughs].

I’ve got so many favourite photographers such as Jill Furmanovsky, Richard Avedon, Bailey, Irving Penn, George Hurrell, you’ve probably gathered by now I’m really inspired by vintage black and white. I love the timeless romantic quality it has.

Richard Avedon took a shot of Judy Garland in 1961, a very simple portrait but very powerful, I can almost hear her singing ‘over the rainbow’ for the millionth time, still pitch perfect. I can’t really say I have an all time favourite photograph although there are so many that stand out and have made an impact on me; there are just some where you just can’t stop looking at them. I spent many years looking at gorgeous black and whites of Elvis in the 50’s I wrote a piece for Elvis’ birthday on the Rock Archive website.

[Photo: Justin Currie by Karen Mcbride]

MEL: Where can people view your work currently – any exhibitions coming up?

KAREN: I had an exhibition at Waterstones, which will be going back up in the next two weeks, but on the 15th September I’m part of a book tour and will be doing a talk at the Deaf Institute. More details soon…..I’ve got loads of ideas of how I want to exhibit; the right space will come to me when the time is right.

MEL: Is there anything/anyone you would like to photograph which you haven’t yet had the opportunity.

KAREN: I’ve photographed the scissor sisters live for so long now, its about time I stepped up on that [smiles]. I’m currently putting a book together for them, lets see where that takes me. I’m open to suggestions; it’s not really in my nature to pursue people….. maybe I should start doing that.

MEL: Who do you see as the greatest unsigned band/singer around the North West?

KAREN: I can’t really answer that as there are so many great new bands coming through like The Jade assembly, Virgin Mary’s, Jessie Rose Trip, Paris Riots, Janice Graham Band, but they are just signed or getting signed. Manchester is packed with so much great stuff, the seams are bursting with new music. The band I want to see most get somewhere are The Ambersons.. I LOVE them and have worked with them for a looong time. I want to see everyone do well including me.

[Photo: Liam Frost by Karen McBride]

MEL: For a band, [in particular a new band wanting to get noticed] I think it’s really important that they have some great promo images to match their sound, and I gather you might feel the same?

KAREN: Yes of course… the problem is getting the band to realise that even now, and I’ve been doing it for years! It’s all too easy for bands to dismiss the importance of pictures, they should have them done if for nothing else than to have a record of where they are at now, they should get some done and not with mobile phones. Get someone in who is detached from the band that will observe and capture. I know they spend money on rehearsal space etc. recordings and so on, but a few more quid and their websites, FB pages etc will be much more appealing to record labels and fans a like.

MEL: I suspect you probably get asked this a lot as you always have your eyes and ears open to new stuff, but which new Manchester bands have caught your eye recently you’d like to shout about?

KAREN: Yes, I’m always on the lookout, most I’ve already mentioned.

[Photo: Dot Allison by Karen McBride]

MEL: When you first get asked to do a promo shoot of a band or a portrait sitting where do you start with your ideas? Do they like to meet them first and chat around what they like, are they a collaboration of ideas? And do you have allocated amount of time on the shoot?

KAREN: I used to meet bands all the time, go through ideas try and find out where they were coming from, but found that really it didn’t make too much of a difference, plus they could never really pay a decent fee, so it would end up costing me more than I was charging. Now I tend to meet them on the day, drink n chat then shoot. I will listen to their stuff though, but I find that chatting is more useful. Bands will have checked me out too, which makes us kinda half way there. The session takes as long as it takes, I’ll shoot till I feel the picture.

MEL: I know you’re a professional photographer and obviously it is your bread and butter, but is there anyone at all that you would consider wavering your fees for?

KAREN: I’m good at what I do, and need to get paid for that. I used to wave fees on occasion, but found that bands took massive advantage of that, my kind nature didn’t help me pay my bills, there are enough people out there shooting for free. I might wave a fee for George Clooney though initially [smiles].

MEL: You toured with Robbie Williams on his European tour many years ago, name a band or person you would love to do a tour with as their personal photographer?

KAREN: I’m glad you said many years ago, I’d forgotten that its 6 years now. I’d like to go on tour with Madonna but a warts and all tour no holding back, show the real her. If she turns me down Lilly Allen will do, or if I get turned down for that…..any hairy rock band who 'aint camera shy!

MEL: Do you like having your own photo taken? If you could be photographed by anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be and what location and style would you dream up?

KAREN: Nope, I’m like most people I see myself in the bathroom mirror having done my hair and makeup and think that’s what I really look like. I had a fabulous photo shoot with Jill Furmanovsky last year, I’m spoilt now.

I’d love a black and white shot close up neck n head straight on where they could see the texture in my eyes, with a key light showing my fabulous cheek bones, my skin texture. I’m starting to experiment with self-portraiture.

MEL: Have you ever considered publishing a book of your photographs? If not it is something you would consider in the future? Do you own all the copyright for your photographs? Do you ask models and bands to sign model release forms?

KAREN: Yes I have, actually on the 15th September, please come to the Deaf Institute - details to follow. I’m also part of a book called the ‘Worlds Top Celebrity And Performance Photographers’ published by Rotovison. It has some great photographers in it and some cool workshop pages. [Find it here:]

I’ve never really bothered with model releases maybe I should. It might stop me getting screwed over. Yes, I own all my work, every photographer should.

MEL: I know a big influence all through your life has been the late Elvis the pelvis, if you had one hour to shoot him, choice of location and image ect How might you go about this – describe the scene and the final photo.

KAREN: It would be shot in black and white, it’d be the mid 70’s Elvis, I love that period just before the so-called decline, so 1974/5 and it’d be a studio shoot with a purple background as that gives a really good tone in black and white film. He’d be blinged up in classic 70’s decadence, wearing one of his famous paisley patterned shirts, dark trousers and the coolest boots money could buy. Elvis had amazing dress sense he was a style onto himself. The final shot is him alone standing tall and proud showing all his texture and character from years of living. There would be no need whatsoever to try hard with him; he’d be so giving.

MEL: I attended a talk by another Mancunian photographer Kevin Cummins, and he stated that Photography was a dying profession as everybody has a camera, and it’s so much harder to get into the business and make any money today. What’s your view?

KAREN: I agree with him, it’s really hard I got turned down for a shoot because the bands friend had a camera on their phone. The art of photography is still intact, but the business is fucked. Its not just bands, its magazines grabbing rights, all these silly contracts at concerts, plus not helped at all by people giving away shoots for free. It’s seemingly all too easy to get free work and then take your copyright off you. I REFUSE to let it get to me, I’m good at what I do I can bring something to a shoot that a none experienced person can bring. 

MEL: Do you have any regrets since being in the business, any opportunity you turned down you maybe wished you had taken?

KAREN: I think we could all say we have regrets, But I don’t like to dwell on them. My life has taken a course that I’m happy with.

MEL: What do you prefer to be called a photographer, togger or snapper, or indeed anything else? (I personally dislike togger)

KAREN: Togger: is a lazy phrase, its like the person who’s’ saying it doesn’t really respect photography, same goes for snapper. I know that sometimes and in context it’s a fun phrase, but as a whole it’s all about suggesting you don’t need to be paid.. Like, “aw go one Karen take a few snaps we’ll buy you a pint”. D’ya know what I mean? Call me anything you like except togger n snapper, to be honest I’d rather be called a slapper [laughs].

MEL: Finally what qualities do you think make a great photographer?

KAREN: Keen eye, ability to stand back and look at what is going on, a sense of humour, honesty, and patience. Be brave enough to do something crazy, be in control of your vision; don’t be afraid of your camera. Don’t worry what others think.

Check out Karen's superb gallery here:

Interview by Mel 20/07/11
Photoshoot with Karen @ Castlefield, Manchester 25/07/11

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