Derek Ridgers’ work is beyond eponymous. Having shot every living and extinct subculture in the past forty years, he is the man who lurked about London’s darkest club corners and documented everybody from mods, punks, to New Romantics, skinheads (he admits to have been a rather “useless” one) to early acid ravers. But his beginnings were rather atypical as he admits to zero fascination by photography in his early teenage years. Becoming a painter was his first passion, while attending an art school at the age of 16. However, it wasn’t until he was 22 or 23 that his boss at his job as ad art director at Miranda told him to pick up a camera (which he actually bought at the age of 24).
My first encounter with his work was during a research about British subcultures, being struck by his portraits of snogging couples, pouting Marilyn and grinning Nina Hagen. Shooting all these characters created utopian world which we now nostalgically try to reminisce about at some Dalston basement.
I spoke with the man responsible for one of the most iconic counter-culture images (remember the “We are the flowers in your dustbin” skinhead with the Bowie tee?) to find out a bit more about his love of the “dark” , what is going on with London’s club culture and why is Damien Hirst the epitome of punk today.
To begin with, I was taking photographs of rock bands that I liked but not because I really wanted to photograph them. Initially, I was pretending to be a photographer, simply so that I could go up to the front of the stage and be a bit closer to the bands. But I found I was gradually developed an interest in the photos I took.
By 1976 the audience at gigs had started to get a lot more photogenic than some of the bands and so I swung my lens away from the stage. That’s what led directly to me turning up to the first night of the London punk club, The Roxy. And that is when I started to take myself more seriously as a photographer and that’s when my interest in subcultures started.
Were you a part of one?
I was never really part of anything and, when I was a teenager, I was never really sure what I wanted to be. I was a bit of a live-at-home hippy at one point. And a rather useless skinhead for a bit. But the truth was, looking back, I was always happiest as an outsider. When I started taking photographs, I felt I was too old to be a punk. Although in the beginning I was only a few years older than some of my subjects. Except, I didn’t know that then.
What is today’s punk?
To be completely honest, I don’t really know. Plus I’m not the right person to postulate. I always try my best to remain a little detached. Although in terms simply of fashion, worldwide, there’s probably more punks around now than there has ever been. In terms simply of the punk ideology, there were never many in the first place and there probably aren’t many around now.
Maybe Damien Hirst? If ever there was a bloke who made the most of the punk ideology, it must be him. You might not like what he does – I know of no one that does – but at least he gets off his arse and does it.
Can you compare today’s Zeitgeist to any of the eras you shot (visually, politically)?
No, not at all. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s was a very different, much darker time. The streets of London were a mess. And the poor guy who had ‘We are the flowers in your dustbin’ tattooed across his forehead had it exactly right. They did all seem like the flowers in a dustbin.
And it was the malignant era of Margaret Thatcher. She and her buddy Ronald Reagan were directly responsible for a lot of the pickle the World finds itself in today. If human beings are around in a couple of hundred years’ time, I think Margaret Thatcher will become to be seen for what she really was – genuinely evil.
Has clubbing and club culture in London changed today?
Yes, incredibly so. Things are very different now because a lot of those little clubs don’t exist.
Soho for instance, where nearly half my nightlife photographs were taken, is rapidly changing. There isn’t the same after dark frisson of excitement about the place any more. These days it’s more about subtracting every single buck from the tourists that still flock there. Gentrification and the need for developers to maximise the profit from every square inch of the place means that there just aren’t any scruffy, little basement clubs left. Those scruffy, little basement clubs were the area’s lifeblood. Now it’s all penthouse flats and global brands. They have destroyed the very thing that drew people there in the first place – its superficial sleaziness.
Did you see your photography as fashion or documentation?
Very much documentary photography not fashion. The work has become more relevant to the history of fashion and what people were wearing and in that sense only, it can be considered fashion photography. Had I known then what I know now, I would have made plenty of adjustments and done things a lot differently.
You’ve shot pretty much all of them – mods, punks, skinheads, New Romantics. Do you have personally a favourite era?
The most photogenic era during my career was the ten year period after punk. But for reasons stated above it was certainly not my favourite time to be alive. As a working photographer my favourite time is always now. In my imagination, if I’d owned a camera then, my favourite era most probably would have been the second half of the ‘60s. If I had my time again, I’d buy a camera ten years earlier than I did. My life has been a little like the bloke in the film Zelig. A camera would have provided the proof.
How have digital technologies changed photography?
In many, many way. I no longer have to spend half my waking hours in a photographic darkroom for one. And it must be a good thing that the ability to take well exposed, well focused photographs is now a possibility for virtually anyone, of any age, in the World. Or at least in the developed World.
So that nowadays, if anything interesting happens, anywhere, someone will be on hand to photograph it. No one has to wait for a professional photographer to turn up.But digital technologies have removed the mystique that used to surround the professional photographers like myself. And all the better IMHO. Nowadays it’s so much harder to have that as a career in photography. But, other than photographers themselves, who really cares?
I saw you will team up with Paul Smith for an event at London Collections: Men?
Paul Smith, together with help from the British Fashion Council, were kind enough to give us their exhibition space in the Albermarle Street store. There will be the launch of my new book PUNK LONDON 1977 and a short blink-and-you’ll-miss-it show.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I’m quite frustrated really. There are huge chunks of my work no one seems much interested in. Like those from my 25 year career as a full time rock photographer. But having seen 5 books published now over a period of 30 months, I don’t just want to continue publishing my archive without taking a step back to think about what would be best. And, more importantly, what will be most interesting for people to see. I’ve shot so much in the last 40 years. I even have a project which is (mainly) porn stars meeting their fans. It’s just totally crazy and doesn’t make any of the participants, including me, look very good. But it’s good enough that it should be seen. Stop Press – Possibly in the next issue of UNION magazine.
I’ve just taken on a new agent (the first one in 15 years) and, for the first time in my life, I can now legitimately call myself a fashion photographer. We are also planning a big show and, if we can find the funding, a career defining monograph to go with that show. I’m hugely optimistic about the coming couple of years but no more or less than I have been about every other one of my 65 so far.
Words by Desislava Todorova.
Photos by Derek Ridgers.