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Peter J Walsh: digitising iconic images of the UK’s rave scene using Affinity Photo

Photographer Peter J Walsh immersed himself in Manchester’s rave scene in the late 80s and early 90s, documenting some of its most iconic moments for the music press, including The NME, The Face, Mixmag and I.D, as well as his own personal archive.

Peter amassed one of the most comprehensive photographic collections of acid house culture during that time, and over the years his images have featured in group exhibitions at The Venice Biennale, The Philharmonie de Paris, The Vitra Design Museum in Germany, The Design Museum and The Museum Of Youth Culture in London, and The British Culture Archive in Manchester.

We spoke to Peter about what it was like to photograph the rave scene back then and how he digitises the negatives from his vast image archive using his favourite tools in Affinity Photo.

Ravers at the Hacienda, Manchester—image ©
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into photography?

I’m from Droylsden in East Manchester, and I started taking photos using my Dad’s camera, a Canon AE1, on family holidays and celebrations. My Dad was a good photographer, and he taught me about shutter speeds, composition, f-stops and how to use a light meter. I really enjoyed taking photos, and my Dad encouraged me to keep educating myself about photography. One year my parents bought me a Canon A1 for my birthday—at the time, it was a top of the range camera—and that was a turning point for me. I wanted to take my photography further.

Ravers at the Hacienda, Manchester—image ©

I started developing and printing my own negatives at Counter Image on Whitworth Street in Manchester. Counter Image was a communal darkroom. I remember seeing a poster advertising the darkrooms in the doorway of the building after leaving the Hacienda one Friday night. One of the first assignments I was ever given was to go and photograph places of interest to your life in Manchester. I walked out of the door, turned right onto Whitworth Street, and took a wide shot of the Hacienda and then a shot of the front door. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the Hacienda would be such an integral part of my life.

There were a lot of demonstrations happening in Manchester at the weekends in the early 80s. I began photographing them and was asked to join Profile Photo Co-op covering social issues in the North West. I photographed demonstrations, strikes and news stories for three years. Once a month, I would meet up with Paul and John, fellow photographers on the team, and we would critique each other’s work: talking through images, discussing the composition of photos and each other’s assignments. It was great documentary photography training.

Shaun Ryder of The Happy Mondays, OSM party Granada Studios, July 1989—image ©
How did you come to shoot the music scene in iconic clubs like Hacienda in the 80s?

After leaving Profile, I began working for City Life magazine—Manchester’s equivalent to Time Out In London. I was commissioned to photograph clubs, fashion, restaurants and portraits of people in the city. Each week I would cover a different music or club venue, and I was assigned to photograph Hot on a Wednesday night at The Haçienda. I’d been going to the Haçienda as a punter for many years, but when I entered the club, it was like nothing I’d ever witnessed before. The music and atmosphere were intense and different from anything else in Manchester. That night I realised that Acid House was a seminal moment in time, and I decided to start photographing this new youth culture. Around this time, I started working regularly for The NME, The Face, I.D. and Mixmag.

Ian Brown of The Stone Roses—image ©
Did you realise how big acid house and rave would become at the time?

I’ve always been into history, and I thought Acid House was as culturally significant as the counter culture of the sixties or the birth of Rock n Roll. I was at the epicentre of this phenomenon, and I needed to document what was happening around me. As well as the bands and the DJ’s, I was also interested in the ravers, the security staff, the club promoters, and the fashion of the time. I wanted to photograph as much as I could for posterity.

What was the most challenging part of documenting those events?

When I first started photographing acid house raves and nights, there were no autofocus cameras, so I was photographing everything using manual focus—it was a real challenge. When Canon came out with the EOS-1 autofocus camera, I snapped one up. It made my job so much easier. One of the biggest challenges was conserving film stock as the nights went on. I photographed Joy Rave in Ashworth valley in Rochdale which was put on by the Gio-Goi boys. It was one of the first outdoor raves up north, and I was getting great photos as the night wore on, but I knew I would get some brilliant images as the sun came up. So I had to stop shooting around 3am—otherwise I would have run out of film in the morning. I wish I’d had a digital camera back then!

Gio Goi Joy Rave, Ashworth Valley, Rochdale—image ©
Gio Goi Joy Rave, Ashworth Valley, Rochdale—image ©
What gear did you use?

I was shooting using two Canon F1 cameras, all fully manual. I still have them, solid, brilliant camera bodies. If the assignment required both black and white and colour film, I would load one with colour and one with black and white. If the assignment was just black and white, I would be load both with black and white film and have fast prime lenses on each body—a wide-angle on one body and either a 50mm or 85mm on the other. This enabled me to react quickly to what was happening around me and grab the photo I wanted.

DJ Paulette, the Hacienda, Manchester—image ©

Then autofocus cameras arrived! I purchased a Canon EOS-1, which made the job of shooting ravers a lot easier—it was the perfect camera for shooting in clubs and gig photos. I would combine the EOS1 with the Canon F1’s, so I had various shooting options for whatever I was covering. I’d have a Canon flash unit on the EOS and use the F1’s for available light shots. I also had a Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL, which I used to carry in my pocket, so I could grab quick photos of ravers and band members in clubs if I wasn’t on assignment or didn’t have my main cameras with me. It was such a great camera, and I got some stunning photos using it because it was small and inconspicuous.

You still have images from that time on film. Have you come across any nice surprises while digitising the negatives? And is there a particular photograph in the collection that stands out as being especially meaningful to you?

When I look through the contact sheets and transparencies, I still come across photos that I think wow, what a great shot, I don’t remember taking that. I have so many negs and transparencies to scan in, it could take me a decade to digitise them all.

Bez, Tony Wilson and Paul Davies, the Hacienda, Manchester—image ©

One of the photograph sessions that is especially meaningful to me is of The Happy Mondays at Tony Wilson’s late-night TV show, The Other Side of Midnight, end of series rave held at Granda Studios in Manchester. I was allowed access on the stage as the programme was being recorded and got some amazing shots of Shaun and the band. I sent them off to The NME, and a couple of days later, I got a call from Helen Mead, their Live Editor. She said would you like to work for The NME in the North of England and I said yes. Those photographs mean everything to me—they changed my life.

The Happy Mondays, OSM party Granada Studios, July 1989—image ©
You’ve been using Affinity Photo for around three years. What first impressed you about the software, and why do you continue to use it?

I love the UX and UI of Affinity photo. It just works. It passes the Dieter Rams good design tests on all levels. I also really love the fact that the software is helping to democratise photography post-production. The fact that you can buy Affinity Photo for a one-off payment and have lifetime updates is brilliant. It gives the next generation of photographers who might not have the funds to afford a subscription model the ability to compete, and it levels up the playing field. Photographers from working-class backgrounds who might not have the money to go to university and study for three or four years can have access to great photography software.

How has it streamlined your post-production work on archive images?

Affinity photo has halved the time I take working on my negatives and transparencies. I love the inpainting brush tool—it’s made my job so much easier. I also really like the slices feature in the Export Persona, which enables me to export multiple versions of the same image with one click. I also use Affinity Photo for developing my RAW images when I’m shooting digital.

A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State, Victoria Baths, Manchester—image ©
Derek Jarman and Margi Clarke, the Hacienda—image ©
Can you talk us through your process?

Here is a breakdown of how I work with each 35mm negative/transparency in Affinity Photo:

First, I scan each negative or transparency at 24-bit colour and 4000 dpi, saving an approx 50MB tiff file. Then I import the image into Affinity photo. I duplicate the original layer, so I can do a comparison as I work.

To begin the editing, I add a Live Filter layer (Sharpen and Clarity), adding 2-3% to the original scan, then I add a Levels adjustment layer and adjust the black percentage as needed. For black and white negatives, I add a Black and White adjustment layer. For colour transparencies, I add a Colour Balance adjustment layer. Then I add a Brightness and Contrast layer and adjust as needed for the image.

Next, I start cleaning the image of scratches and dust. Even though the negatives and the scanner have had compressed air to clean it, there can be quite a few marks left behind after the scan as the negatives and transparencies are over 30 years old.

Before Affinity Photo, I used the Clone Stamp Tool to get rid of dust and scratches, but now I use the Inpainting Brush Tool, and it’s been a game-changer for working on my photos. It’s just brilliant and has cut my post-production time in half when working on an image. Again and again, it’s so accurate when replacing the damaged areas of the image. It’s an incredibly powerful tool.

Once the post-production is complete, I export the image at various sizes for archive, photo libraries and the web.

808 State, The Refuge Building, Manchester—image ©
On average, how long does it take to scan and post-process one image?

It depends on how much post-production the image needs. It takes around one to two hours for each image scanned to finished exported post-production master.

What do you hope people take away from viewing them?

I managed to photograph a great cultural moment in our history where people came together from all walks of life and diverse cultures, ethnicity and backgrounds. Acid house united and unified people.

Ravers at The Boardwalk, Manchester—image ©
Ravers at The Boardwalk, Manchester—image ©

The music and art changed people lives, opened their hearts and minds to new ideas and forms of expression. I hope people will be moved and inspired by my work and take away some of the hope and possibility for a better life that is captured in the images.

Your work has appeared in a variety of exhibitions across the UK and internationally. Is there a dream location or publication you would like to see your photos displayed?

I’m happy that my work gets exhibited in different galleries around the world, but I would love my work to be displayed in Tate Modern or MOMA in New York and Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport art venue. I’ve always wanted to have my images of acid house on massive outdoor screens, so Piccadilly Circus and Times Square would be dream locations to display my work.

Luke Unabomber, the Hacienda, Manchester—image ©
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for budding documentary photographers who might be reading your interview?

Photograph things that you love and are passionate about. Keep photographing everything about your interests. Photograph the people, the places, the fashions. Look at other photographers and artists work, and keep inspiring yourself to create great work.

Keep going and never give up. There is a wonderful quote from Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist philosopher, educator, author and poet, about working hard to create something outstanding, “Great art is created only through diligent and painstaking effort to perfect and polish oneself.”

You can see more of Peter’s photography on his website and socials: Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Prints from his acid house and rave archive can be purchased here.

Spotlight editor

As editor of Affinity Spotlight Melanie oversees the stories, interviews and tutorials published on the site. Outside of work she enjoys travelling, reading crime thrillers, Pilates and dabbling in a spot of oil painting. Get in touch with Melanie if you would like to contribute or be featured on Affinity Spotlight.

Credits & Footnotes

All images copyright © of Peter J Walsh and used with permission.