Shari Denson

Badly Drawn Boy, 20 years (minus one day) apart

In 2002 I was film and photography student at Sheffield Hallam Uni. I was given a photography assignment and decided I would save time by taking photos at gigs I was going to, rather than spending time searching for or setting up shots.  I’d taken point and shoot cameras to gigs from being young, but rarely came away with anything decent. So I decided to ask for some photopasses to build a portfolio. Sheffield has fewer band photographers than Manchester or London so there’s more opportunity for a student to get a photopass – I was lucky to get a few passes for Gomez, Richard Ashcroft, and some local bands but my images seemed very grey and flat. I was using a film that had been suggested to me – Ilford Delta 3200 – as it was a fast film that didn’t need much light. I was becoming despondent, thinking this was something I shouldn’t pursue.

I had a photopass for Badly Drawn Boy at the Octagon on 27/11/02 – and when I went to buy film, the Ilford Delta had sold out. The guy in the shop said why don’t you use the Fuji Neopan 1600? I said I need to shoot at iso 3200 though, because of the low light. He said you can push process it. I said come again? He said you can push process it. I said what’s that? He said you tell your camera you have a 3200 film in there, and it will be underexposed, but you keep the film in the developer for longer when processing it and hey presto – you get a really nice grain and contrast. Ooh I like the sound of that I said, and off I went.

So on 27th November 2002 I saw Damon Gough aka Badly Drawn Boy for the first time. He had just released ‘Have you Fed the Fish?’ – the follow-up album to his Mercury Prize-winning  ‘The Hour of Bewilderbeast’. Wow, such a special, special album. Damon restored my faith in singer-songwriters and proved that an Adidas-wearing, beer-drinking Mancunian could, even in the 21st Century, write, play and produce a folk/alt-folk album that could have a profound effect on me, and make me want to play it over and over and over again. It had almost a home-made feel and with tracks such as Stone on the Water and The Shining having him hailed as a modern-day Nick Drake, he had what seemed an almost impossible task to follow it up. I’d already bought Have You Fed The Fish? and knew it had a different feel – the fragility and home-made feel was slightly less, but the authenticity and the quality of the songs was still there in spades. It was almost like Damon was tapping into our relationships, addressing all of that just under the surface, mundane crap that we carry, that we struggle with and that actually brings us joy, and with Have You Fed the Fish we could dance to it, rock out to it, sing at the top of our voices to it – it was like an absolute celebration of so many uncelebratable things. I remember being actually blown away by him. I think I was expecting a very quiet, gentle, shy man who only opened his mouth to sing. I was not at all ready for the chat and the jokes, even though I’d heard a wry humour in some of his lyrics.  He had everyone in stitches between songs, and exuded confidence. He had a full band with him, including Andy Rourke on bass. He seemed in very good spirits, playing to the camera and to the crowd.  What a great gig.

Later, I processed the negatives in my under-stairs cubbyhole. I push-processed the film, nervous about what was going to happen. The negatives looked interesting, but very thin, and really I wouldn’t know just how the images were until I printed a contact sheet in the darkroom. I picked 3 images that looked good to me and decided to print them up at A4 size – they’re in the gallery below. These images were the very first ones that gave me hope that I could produce some decent images at gigs. These are the ones that stopped me from throwing the towel in, and gave me the confidence to carry on. From then on, I would use Fuji Neopan 1600 film wherever possible, and push process it whenever needed. I’d found my film, and my processing technique that, although not very fashionable at the time, would become my favourite style for years to come, and is still a style I love to repeat often. I started photographing lots of gigs, especially at The Leadmill and The Octagon and Foundry, and really found my passion for it.

The year after, I was listening to Have You Fed the Fish, and became aware of someone else singing along to ‘Using our Feet’ – needless to say me and this person started talking, fell in love and, 2 years later, at a Badly Drawn Boy and Ian Brown gig at The Eden Project, he proposed to me whilst Damon sang ‘Magic in the Air’ – and exactly 40 weeks later our daughter was born. We never made it down the aisle but why let that get in the way of a romantic story? When I briefly met Damon at The Whiskey Sessions, 8 years ago, I recounted this story to him and he kind of nodded and said oh that’s cool (or something) but probably had no idea what he should do with this information. He was gracious though – as he also was when I had an exhibition of my work, in Manchester in 2019 along with Karen McBride. Damon was invited and came along – probably out of being interested in what others are doing, and to show support. He showed the humility that so many people lack, which probably explains how he so easily taps into our psyche with his music.  Anyway, I introduced him to my daughter – said daughter who probably wouldn’t exist without his music – and let’s just say it was a slightly awkward moment. I mean she should really be calling him Uncle Damon in my eyes but I guess that’s just me wanting to knit every aspect of my life together. Always looking for linkage.

So, fast forward another few years and we arrive at last night. I don’t go to The Leadmill often anymore. After moving back home to Oldham, I photograph more gigs in Manchester but last night seemed a great opportunity to see Badly Drawn Boy back in Sheffield where I first saw him, albeit at a different venue. The Leadmill is, in fact, my favourite venue in the country. It’s where I honed my skills as a photographer, seeing band after band there for quite a few years, and I’m pretty sentimental about the memories I have from that place. I have a piece of the old dancefloor hung on my stairs wall.  So to go last night with a close friend who has been a constant with me throughout the ups and downs of the last 20 years, and who I share so many amazing memories with including Badly Drawn Boy gigs (and many many others) – was really poignant for us both. I’m still shooting digital for the moment so decided to shoot in colour last night – it just seemed more appropriate somehow. I’ve popped a couple of the photos in the gallery below. Quite different to the first ones I took of him, and I get scared to move away from my favourite style, wondering will my images have anything about them that makes them mine? But, as I get older, I realise it’s about what suits the artist, on the night

Damon can command the attention of a venue, just him and his guitar. He still sounds unreal – he changes his songs up and plays around with them onstage so every gig is different. Last night was no exception and Damon sounded great – his songs just evoke all these feelings, and it’s just understood that most people in the room have that same stack of experiences that have been soundtracked by Badly Drawn Boy.


I finally got home after being almost rained off the road across Saddleworth Moor, and felt weird –  I was on my own at home – both my daughters had gone out to a club in Manchester – I texted them to check they were ok, but got no response. I had to trust that they were just having a great time, and that they were looking after each other. Sure enough when I woke up this morning there were signs that they had returned. So much has changed in life, my daughters are grown women – and all that crazy stuff in between. But my love for music, certain artists, albums, never changes.

I realised it was after midnight, so now 27th November 2022, which made it 20 years to the very day that I first saw Damon. That makes me so happy, I decided to write a blog about it all.

“And songs…are never quite the answer, just a soundtrack to a life…”  (Badly Drawn Boy. ‘You Were Right’ 2002)


Rituals, drugs, and the darkroom

Hmmmm… sometimes I wonder why I go months and months without picking up my camera. Usually I start wondering this when I’ve had a stint of photographing and feel rejuvenated, invigorated, and happy. I think ‘why have I gone so long without doing this?’ It’s like self-neglect.
I wonder what it is about photography that really makes me feel well.

Is it the getting out of self for a while? Focussing on others, on shadows and light, on colour, on composition, seeing beauty? Possibly.

Is it the comfort of being around like minded, creative folk who inspire me, and the social aspect of going to a gig or a shoot? Also possibly.

Is it the satisfaction of producing an image that, if it were someone else’s, I’d wish I’d taken it? Probably.

Is it the hiding myself away during the post-production phase, choosing the image(s) I want to work with, getting the contrast etc just right?
Very probably.

Or is it a mix of all these things?

I wonder why after 10 years of shooting digital and editing images in photoshop I am still pining for film.  What is it about film that makes it so much more alluring to me?

Is it the grain? The lovely soft round grain of film as opposed to the square and very unsexy pixel. Especially when shooting in low light at a gig, this is when grain vs pixel becomes quite important because the lower the light, the faster the film (iso) needs to be, and therefore the more prominent the grain/pixels. So yes, the grain factor is up there.

Is it the tactile feel of the film as opposed to – well – nothingness? Erm, yeah!

Is it the fact that with film you have to choose your moments much more carefully, not wasting shots, making you really look for those moments and positions to make that frame count? And the just not being completely sure of what you got until you’ve got home and processed that film? I think so. Something about film photography builds your confidence because you really have to trust your process. You learn to read lighting and use it in way that I have never really felt with digital. Film is so unforgiving. Digital seems to want to forgive where I don’t want it to.

For a photographer like me who has never spent more that £150 on a lens, and doesn’t ever use auto-focus, you get to build a relationship with your camera and favourite film. It took me a little while to find my ‘must have’ film, after trying others and feeling, well, deflated with fast films such as Ilford Delta 3200. The film I finally found and fell in love with was Fuji Neopan 1600 – which I would push (over process) to 3200. I would know how that film was going to react to the light around and I would use that. See the images below of  British Sea Power, Ian MacCulloch and Ian Brown. I’ve rarely managed to achieve that technique to the same degree with digital. Once in a while, maybe… see the images below of Inder Goldfinger,  Ghetts and The Blinders, but you can still see the difference between the film shots and the digital, I think. Hmmm maybe not The Blinders? I’m particularly proud of that shot, partly because it has such a look of film.

The last, very huge, massive difference for me between working with film and working with digital is the darkroom process.

I used to lock myself away for hours and hours in the darkroom. I would put some Cocteau Twins or something on the CD player and set about going through the rituals needed to produce a photographic print.
As someone who struggled with addiction for a very long time, on and off, I had grown used to rituals. Tinkering away with small items, being careful, being methodical, chemicals, equipment, liquids, burning.  I had grown used to spending a lot of time alone and lonely, I had also grown used to being separated from my community and doing my own thing.
The darkroom gave me all of those things but also gave me the chance to come back into the world with something to feel proud of, instead of feeling shame. It gave me the chance to spend hours alone, but not lonely, performing repetitive actions, methodically, calmly, surrounded by the sound of running/trickling water, the smell and touch of potentially harmful chemicals, measuring, mixing, waiting, hearing, seeing, all in darkness except for a small red light. I would emerge into the daylight of the afternoon quite fragile, feeling as though I’d just fallen to earth, but with a smile inside, instead of dread and shame – and importantly, without having harmed myself or upset anyone else.

The similarities and contrasts of the two situations (drug use and film photography) seemed quite pertinent to me.

There’s so much I could say about film photography and it’s rituals, and why they can be so important and beautiful, and maybe another blog post will spring from it.

In the meantime, I’ve just found some bottles of darkroom chemicals that I ordered last year. They remain un-opened and so still useable. I wonder why I still have not committed to finding a darkroom I can use, and made going back to film a priority. I know sometimes I get stuck in ‘contemplation’ for literally years – a work in very. very slow progress.

Review of Leeds Festival 2022

Click here to read review

Words and images by Shari Denson

Indieterria interview Shari Denson

Click here to read interview

An interview from 2019 we found online

Review – Neighbourhood Festival 2021

Click here to read review of Neighbourhood 2021

Words and pictures by Shari Denson

Review – Leeds Festival 2021

Leeds 2021 review

Words and pictures by Shari Denson

A Very Insecure Exhibition – Denson/McBride – 22nd Feb 2019

Two fiercely independent, northern, female photographers. Two separate but interwoven bodies of photographic work. One major retrospective…..For one night only, in Manchester.

Tickets available here :

“A Very Insecure Exhibition” promises to be a joyful, heartfelt journey through Karen McBride and Shari Denson’s photography. Both women have been capturing the essence of live music in Manchester (and everywhere else) in all its rawness and beauty since the turn of the millennium. Their paths have crossed many times…but only now will they join forces to show what they have produced, in this massive show of respect and love for each other’s work.

The venue is in city centre Manchester, but will not be revealed in full until much closer to the event. Let’s just say….It’s going to feel different. It’s going to involve the viewer. It’s going to be big,bold, punk and powerful….and it’s going to be very fleeting.

“Honesty. Integrity. Soul. It is present in every shot she takes.” – John Robb on Karen McBride

“Some photographer’s have an eye…it’s almost like Shari has two.”
Guy Garvey on Shari Denson

“…A great photographer grabs the emotion, insecurity, the beauty and the wild moment of the soul and creation.

Instead of being drowned out by the endless digital clicks of selfie culture, great snappers like Shari and Karen see their work mean so much more.

A great photo is not a snap, it’s a work of art, invested with a keen eye, a deep understanding of the subject and a technical skill.

Great photography is there to be celebrated – so come and celebrate with us.”
John Robb

Shari is the photography workshop lead for MASH, the Manchester charity that supports female sex workers. Images to be displayed at the iconic Victoria Baths in Sept 2018

MASH is proud to be launching a creative photography project for its staff, volunteers and service users, set to culminate in an exhibition of ‘ambiguous portraits’ at Manchester’s iconic Victoria Baths.

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Shari is featured in Suffragette City: Mancunian Matters meet two of Manchester’s most influential women shaping the music scene

Saying that Manchester is at the forefront of music is nothing new but the fresh recognition being given to the city’s female leaders of music is definitely something to be proud of right now.

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