DEREK RIDGERS: AFTER DARK
Ask Derek Ridgers what he thinks style is and his answer is succinct. “A headline from an ad campaign I art directed in 1980 read, 'Style is the perfection of a point of view’,” the photographer answers. “As a definition, that’s not too shabby.” If we’re all in agreement on this, then it’s obvious that style is something the photographers work has in spades.
Ridgers made his name by putting in hours in London’s nightclub scene, beginning in the 1970s at a time when cameras and photographers were still rare enough to have a certain cachet. But it was luck that enabled Ridgers to pick a camera up in the first place. While working at an ad agency, his boss encouraged him to try out one of the products from their newest account: the Miranda camera.
I started taking it to gigs and after that, never really looked back. Photography drew me in and gradually took over my life.
For Ridgers, the camera signified access. It allowed him to approach the bold, exciting young people in clubs and at gigs that he never otherwise would have. The images that resulted constituted a new kind of photography that blurred into social documentary, imbued with an intense intimacy. The portraits Ridgers captures offer something very personal – far more personal, perhaps, than you might expect from a simple, fleeting encounter on a dance floor.SIAN AT BATCAVE, 1984
In London in the 1970s and 1980s, those dance floors were homes for the city’s youth and subcultures: punk rockers, skinheads, New Romantics and goths all posed for his camera, sometimes inadvertently. Ridgers found first them at The Roxy, Blitz, Le Beat-Route and the Camden Palace. “The Roxy, in its initial ’76/’77 inception, was incredible.” Later, he says, he favoured The Taboo, Torture Garden and Submission in the 1990s, as well as clubs around the world he would travel to. “Although it wasn’t for the faint of heart and no cameras were allowed, The Vault in New York City was certainly a weird one.” Of all the subcultures he photographed, post-punk held a certain appeal for him.
The incredible variety and creativity in the way young people expressed themselves through what they wore. It was just one big mélange of anything and everything.
[Anthropologist and renowned culture expert] Ted Polhemus called it ‘a vast supermarket of style’, and that would be about right.
But maybe what is most interesting about Ridgers’s work is how it has permeated through the years. Today he is still taking photographs, describing himself as “one of life’s observers”. Styles have changed, nightclubs have closed and opened and closed, the music may sound different, but something about his work still feels current and critical. And his own style has remained constant in the years since: honest, revealing black and white portraits and snapshots that often linger in the eye of the viewer.
“When I first started to take my photography seriously, my interest was simply in recording all the amazing people looking I saw,” says Ridgers. “Not all that much has changed. After 45 years that’s still my primary motivation. Simply to record the people I meet and give them a platform. [Now], in the era of Instagram, they obviously don’t really need me to do this, but I’m hanging in there still doing it anyway.”ANOTHER EXCESS AT PLEASURE DIVE, LONDON, 1985
So, what’s his method? “In the 1970s and 1980s, I would sometimes visit more than one club in one night, but I always preferred to stick with one,” he explains. ‘I’d much rather get there late than get there early, and I’d always try to stay as late as possible. At some clubs, like Taboo in the mid 1980s, there were always a lot of photographers around, but I would almost always be the last one to leave. Towards the end of the night, things could get quite interesting because people would relax and no one expected someone like me to still be hanging in there.”
There’s a sort of witching hour in the sort of nightclubs that run all through the night.
After about 3 or 3.30am, stuff happens that would never happen earlier in the night.
From the very beginning, Ridgers relied on a uniform of sorts to help him fit in anywhere, without ever standing out. “My uniform in the 1970s and 1980s would be blue jeans, docs, open neck shirt and usually a cardigan. If it was cold outside, also a duffel coat. It's still much the same today,” he confirms. "For my whole adult life, I've dressed much as a provincial geography teacher on their day off. Unbelievably, I was fashionable once, when I was 15, for about two weeks. But I didn’t like getting stared at by people I didn’t know. Or, for that matter, people I did know. After which I gave up and tried to dress specifically not to be looked at.”GABRIELLE, KINGS ROAD IN LONDON, 1982
There are other things about Ridgers’s work that have stayed the same down the years, too. “I’ve always done my best not to use people,” Ridgers says. “My interest in them was genuine and sincere back when I photographed them and it remains so nowadays too. Some people who I first met or photographed in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I’m still occasionally meeting and photographing in this decade too. Some I've remained very good friends and some others, that I didn’t really know back then, I’ve reconnected with and become friendly with via Facebook.
In one case I’ve become friendly (online) with the daughter of one of my better known subjects - Tuinol Barry.” Ridgers’s portraits of Tuinol, a striking young skinhead who he photographed twice in the 1980s, became emblematic of a certain kind of English subculture that might have faded from view in recent years.
Unfortunately Tuinol Barry is no longer around, but my photographs of him ensure he’s remembered by a lot more people than just his immediate family.
Of course, Ridgers is now 67, and much has changed both in London itself and in youth culture, more generally. What does he think youth culture looks like now? His answer is realistic. “Really, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m sure youth culture resides in places specifically not intended to be where people of my age can find it. I think it’s important that young people create something for themselves without having people like me always try to categorise, describe and define it. Take grime, for instance. I have no understanding or appreciation of grime whatsoever. And I suspect that's a situation the adherents of grime would thoroughly approve of.”THROBBING GRISTLE CONCERT, 1985
But with the changes that London has undergone in recent years, can we still find a way to express ourselves with the vitality of the post-punk era? On that front, Ridgers is wary, but doesn’t hold back.
I’m not one of those people who think everything was always better in the old days, but in the case of what’s happened to London in the last 20 years, it is rather inescapable.
Lots of dingy little basement nightclubs that were vital to the various subcultures in the last century have now closed. We’re rapidly losing the living history of those times.
Much of Ridgers’s work is characterised as almost quintessentially British – see the Tuinol Barry portraits, which were described by the BBC in the weeks after Brexit as having “more to say about what makes this island nation than countless postcards”.
Regardless of what happens tomorrow, it’s reasonable to assume that Ridgers’s photography, which is held in the collection at London’s National Portrait Gallery and has been exhibited at the V&A, the ICA and Tate Britain, will still remain relevant. If he’s to keep taking photos in this same way now, heading into his fifth decade, how will he manage to stay sharp?
“Without any difficulty I can assure you. My family is a very acerbic bunch and one can have no pretensions around them. My 12-year-old grandson Jake, especially. He’s my main critic. His criticism is brutally honest and he’s often absolutely spot-on.” The years may go by, the world around him may change and evolve, but it’s still the conversation that swirls around youth itself that lies at the heart of what Ridgers does.
TEXT: Ana Kinsella
PHOTOGRAPHY: Derek Ridgers
VIEW MORE AT DITAworld