“In a nightclub, the drama is played out before your eyes”: David Chadwick's We Were All Here, Once

Andrew Anderson
David Chadwick, We Were All Here, Once, Cornerhouse

This Cornerhouse photo show may document Manchester’s club scene, but it’s more than just a nostalgia trip.

We all recognise the ubiquitous night-out photograph: red-eyes, smudged makeup and someone busy making bunny ears in the background. At best they’re a bit of an embarrassment; at worst, a way of remembering who got off with who (or for the lesser Lotharios, which kebab was had at the end of the night). But could such pictures be social documentary or even, dare I say it, art? David Chadwick’s exhibition of nightclub photographs, We Were All Here, Once at Cornerhouse proves they can be both.

Chadwick took the pictures in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, documenting Manchester’s small but significant club scene. From disco dancers to New Romantics, he turned his lens on everyone, always looking for an inexpressible feeling of energy. “I’d see people kissing, embracing, holding hands,” says Chadwick, “It’s not like on the street, where everyone looks blank no matter what they feel inside. In a nightclub, the drama is played out before your eyes.”

The photos grab not only a moment in time but a sense of style

Using an infrared film and flash, Chadwick captured his pictures candidly, shooting without holding the camera to his eye. The photographs demonstrate his command of composition and grab not only a moment in time but also a sense of style. Whether the lonely cool of “Girl in a Discotheque” or the havoc of “Punks,” each photograph tells a unique tale. “They have a gritty, grainy quality. You feel like you’re seeing a real moment” says curator Tomas Harold.

What makes the pictures more than just an exercise in nostalgic glamour is the social change they document. Today, Manchester is awash with clubs, bars and indie alternatives: on any given night you could rave at The Warehouse Project, hang out at HomoElectric or go dancing down Deansgate. But in the ‘80s, things were more independent. “The city centre was largely derelict so people had to invent their own scene and make their own clothes,” says Chadwick. “It was street level creativity.” Harold agrees: “Back then, everyone had their own distinct look; people were more invested in their gang. We’re missing that sense of belonging today.”

Chadwick’s We Were All Here, Once evokes a time when Manchester represented Britain in decline, populated with people who had to find their own fun. That spirit might be something we’ve lost, but the story is found again in these photographs. “The pictures are a record and an emotional connection,” says Chadwick, “They deserve their moment.”

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