Irish nightlife through the eyes of a faithful clubber
Ahead of his exhibition in Dublin, photographer Karl Magee breaks down what makes his local club scene so special.
All photography Karl Magee
In the 90s, Dublin was home to a thriving rave scene. James Redmond's 2017 documentary Notes On Rave In Dublin captures it brilliantly, with clubs like The Asylum as well as abandoned warehouses and fields hosting hundreds of young people ascending to another dimension. Although the decades have passed since the birth of the city’s underground club culture, Dublin still has a thriving community of music lovers and intimate venues. One person guaranteed to be on the dance floor as events return is local photographer Karl Magee. For years he has been shooting the ephemerality of great nights out at clubs and festivals across Ireland. An exhibition of his work -- Until Then -- is being shown at the Dublin 8 gallery Hen's Teeth and opens today.
The exhibition comprises of images Karl originally compiled for a charity zine released during lockdown, raising money for a local mental health charity. To mark the return of the scene the project celebrates, his photographs are now available to experience up close and personal -- with the zine also being re-released and sold at the space.
The images capture everything from the impressive array of DJs that come through the city -- you’ll recognise the likes of Avalon Emerson, Conducta, Ben UFO and Leon Vynehall -- to the colourful graffiti behind the decks of Wigwam, where those playing leave their mark. Then there are the hands raised to the ceiling, the sticky floors, the hazy neon-lit rooms filled with vibrating shadows, the smoke machines, even the festival security guards. According to Karl they’re not tied to specific events but rather intended to document “a feeling or memory that anyone could recount from their own personal experience”.
We spoke to the photographer to discover more about his project and the local scene.
What made you decide to pursue photography?It has never really felt like a pursuit or a decision, more like something constant and always there that traces all the way back to my first camera. It was an iPod Touch and my favourite thing about it was the freedom it gave me to capture moments anywhere and everywhere. This included trips away and memories with friends and family.
When and why did you start documenting nightlife? I started with taking the odd photo or video on my phone. It was so new and exciting in the beginning, so it felt natural to record and capture each occasion. I loved being near the front and seeing how everything was unfolding on stage or in the booth. As a photographer, the scenes were so dynamic and every second there was a new composition to frame and capture. There was endless creativity and expression to be found at festivals and club nights. Even by taking only 5 - 10 different images, so many different stories could be told and that was most special for me.
What do you set out to achieve when you shoot a night? Who are you documenting for? Yourself? The people who attended? Or is it more of an archival thing? In the beginning, it was quite personal. From attending different events regularly, I felt a certain need to have something to take home as a memory. These became celebrated images at the peak of a night or a favourite DJ I had been looking forward to seeing. Over time, I began to seek out more abstract moments from club spaces and enjoyed using the lights to compose images. These moments were a newfound love as they could be shared with anyone who has memories from a dance floor. The images were not tied to a venue or event, but a feeling or memory that anyone could recount from their own personal experience.
What’s so special about Irish nightlife? And Dublin’s in particular? The people that bring it to life week in and week out — whether that’s the crews behind the scenes, the people on the dance floors or at the venues. These are the individuals that make the nights so amazing and share such an electric aura and energy. It leaves you coming away from an event feeling so inspired and grateful to be part of something so special. We sure don’t have venues like other bigger European cities, but we make up for it many times over with ecstatic crowds and passionate teams sharing their work.
**Have your most beloved local venues managed to make it through the pandemic?
**Dublin is now less than a month away from a full reopening, which is so exciting. It feels so special to see events popping up in venues like Wigwam and Tengu. I have such great memories from these clubs. The intimacy of these spots always evoked a positive open atmosphere, where you could say hi and chat to anyone. This built an incredible community of passionate music lovers and I felt really lucky to be part of it.
Have you captured the return to the dancefloor yet? How has the mood shifted? I was lucky to spend some time in Berlin in the summer and attend some open air events. The mood was definitely quite different. It felt strange and tense at times as individuals enjoyed the music, swayed side-to-side, masks on and expressionless. I captured one image of a friend Yuli in Berlin, consumed by the white smoke machine. The combination of everyone wearing masks and the thick smoke really felt like something from a movie. It felt so surreal to be in a moment like this. What may have felt like a cautious start, now seems to be building towards a grander return to these once familiar spaces.
**Is there an image from the series that means the most to you?
**My favourite image is a moment captured at a festival. The scene was so transient and changed in seconds. I was lucky to have my camera on and in my hand to capture the scene of friends photographing each other in the thick red smoke. I thought it came out as such an interesting photo with so much depth and mystery; almost like a painting with the sky and trees in the back. The person on the right is disappearing into the red smoke and we can’t see the face of the photographer. I always loved the idea of being able to share this image with them and then seeing the images they captured. Maybe one day our worlds will collide once again.
Many photographers have documented club culture before you – do you have any favourites? Wolfgang Tillmans. His work is so creative and carefree. He’s quite imaginative and can really make something out of nothing, whether that’s trousers on a bannister, his famous still life images or Jochen on the beach. I love the way his whole 30 years of work is accessible to see across his published books. There is always so much evolving with his different styles and that curiosity is so intriguing to me.