Princess Julia chats to an ex club cohort – London’s legendary nightlife photographer, Derek Ridgers.
The Vortex, Soho 1977
Let’s get something straight: cult photographer Derek Ridgers is obsessed. Obsessed capturing what goes on in clubs, pubs and happenings across London in the midnight hours, that is. He has amassed a photography archive spanning five decades and made it his business to go where others may fear to tread. His most recent books The Dark Carnival… Portraits from the Endless Night (extracts from which can be seen here) and The Others (which was published by IDEA Books in November) document lost moments from our subculture’s most stylish, decadent and dressed-up youth, that have become, over the years, fashion’s most picked-apart reference points. Whether you have been part of his story or a voyeur filled with curiosity, Ridgers’ engaging portraits tell a story of real people expressing their own fierce individuality: the glance of a Batcave punk, the look of disdain from a New Romantic, a skinhead sizing you up, or a fetish ball-goer staring seductively out of the page.
The Vortex, Soho 1977
Julia: Let’s talk about your book, The Dark Carnival. From to Dec ‘76 to the present day: that’s a lot of archive.
Derek: Yes it is. It’s 40 years stretched over five decades.
J: How did you do the editing process? It seems like a big mountain to climb…
D: Not really, because I’ve got thousands and thousands of photographs: over the years, a few photographs would kind of jump out. Some photographs would be used for other things, one of the earliest photographs was in Time Out and there was a few used in The Face. Gradually over the years, I started to build up a few photographs that had some kind of meaning, or that I thought were special, or that I thought were pictorially nice.
J: The greatest hits!
D: I suppose, yes, in some respects – certainly my master-work up to now.
J: It’s a beautiful book. Some of the people in it I know, some I don’t know.
D: I think I veered off track really towards the end of the 80s, but there were many reasons for that. I think one was the rise of rave culture, where people were more interested in dancing and getting sweaty than dressing up and being photographed. So I sort of lost interest for a few years, photographing people in clubs. I suppose 89/90/91; there’re not so many photographs from that period. Then, another reason was – and I haven’t really told anyone this – that I started to go to football more, so I wasn’t really hanging out in clubs so much on weekends. But by the time the 90s came round, I started getting back into it more and there was also the rise of the fetish clubs from that period.
J: And glam clubbing…
D: Yeah, I suppose. I started to have more of a reason for going out. By ‘93-’94 Loaded started and I had a page in Loaded called “Getting Away With It”, that gave me impetus to go for a bit more. That went on way too long, it got an embarrassment towards the end.
J: Was there ever a moment where you thought: ‘I’ve got something here, I’ve captured something or someone which could be considered a seminal moment.’?
D: I definitely think Billy’s was a seminal moment – it was for everybody that went there, wasn’t it? And Blitz as well, that was a seminal moment. This was when I was starting to take photos, so I look back at some of those pictures and think I could have done better. If I had a better camera and a little more practice, they could have been a 100% better. From about ‘82 onwards, I started to consider my photographs a little more seriously.
J: Was it a hobby to start off with, or something you just felt compelled to do? What was that compulsion to get out there and take pictures of people in clubs expressing themselves?
D: Yes. I think I was searching to relive a more interesting youth than the one I had.
J: I remember you telling me about your youth: how your parents were so strict with you.
D: They weren’t so much strict, as very, very narrow-minded. When I came back with a flamboyant jumper, my dad would not let me wear it outside of the house. In fact, he wouldn’t let me wear it in the house! He told me I was being a nancy boy. I suppose many lads of my generation would’ve had their dads accusing them of the same thing. With me, because I was an only child, I didn’t really stand up to my father. If I had’ve been a nancy boy, perhaps I would have said, ‘Well, fair enough.’
J: Was it you rebelling?
D: I didn’t really see it as rebelling – I’m talking about the latter years of the 60s, when I had long hair. My dad was always telling me to get it cut so I had it cropped, and then of course he didn’t like that either. It was either too long or too short.What my dad wanted was me to have a short back and sides, like a military-type haircut – which, in the late 60s, just wasn’t on for young people. Nobody other than Alan Bennet had that style, at that time…
J: How did you discover London’s various countercultures?
D: You know, I turned up to Billy’s after the cool kids had gone. No- one bothered to tell me at that point, because I didn’t really know anyone. I was relatively friendly with Marilyn and George at that point, more friendly with Marilyn than George; I think they were quite amused.
J: Did they have your phone number?
D: Well, Marilyn had my phone number. I wasn’t particularly friendly with Steve [Strange]: he tolerated me to begin with. I used to stand out on the pavement until he let me in. He had me standing out there long enough to know that I really wanted to come in… 40-45 minutes, then he let me in.
J: You’re very polite. Do you think that works to your advantage, as a youth culture documenter? You always ask to take people’s photo, rather than just taking it.
D: Yeah, it might do. The only time I didn’t ask was when I saw people snogging, and then I’d ask them afterwards.They never, ever minded, because they were [more] focused on what they were doing. Really, it’s so much easier for them to say yes and forget about it, than possibly have an argument.
J: You’ve never had an argument with any of your subjects?
D: Well, I did have an argument with some skinheads prior to getting beaten up. I had a guardian angel sitting on my shoulder so many times: I mean, Nicky Crane saved me from getting beaten up.
J: Nicky Crane was a very interesting character: he was head of the skinheads, but he was also gay.
D: He’s been exposed though, over the years.
J: I remember he was very good friends with [famous Lucian Freud nude model] Sue Tilley and he used to come round her flat and used to show us his scrapbooks full of clippings from newspapers. He was very, very proud of them.
D: He did like fighting as well.
J: He liked a bit of rough and tumble with the boys! He had a sort of double life. So you met him when he was quite butch, yes?
D: Yes, in ‘79. He did the security on the door of Taboo for a while.
Wonderland: How important was it to have had your photo taken by Derek Ridgers?
J: That’s interesting, actually. I think part of the enjoyment was in dressing up: people didn’t have cameras in those days.There was artist called Nicola Tyson who took snaps as a young art student, and sold them to us for beer money. I didn’t consciously want people to take our pictures, because nobody really had a camera – it was unusual to take pictures in a club. At the Blitz, Steve Strange positively encouraged notoriety: he invited press down there, and you, Derek, were one of the people he trusted to take pictures.
D: There was Ted Polhemus, although he wasn’t really a photographer in those days, and there was Gabort [Scot]… He died recently.
J: Did he? I didn’t know.
D: I think I first met him towards the end of Blitz. He was the house photographer for Camden Palace, for a while.Taboo of course would hire a lot of photographers. Nick Knight used to go to Taboo.
J: Nick, he was more of a studio photographer to me.
D: I honestly can’t remember if I ever saw him down there with a camera. It always seemed like there were plenty of photographers there but I think… I just was maybe a bit more persistent. Like Woody Allen says,“80% of persistence is simply turning up.”That’s right, really.
J: I wasn’t really thinking that I was going to have my photograph taken, or that these photographs would be a testament to my existence. Nobody used to have a camera in the punk era, so I don’t have any pictures of myself. I know that me and a friend did some together.
D: I remember seeing Steve at the Vortex… He was blonde in those days wasn’t he?
J: Yes, I used to go there as well, the Vortex! And the Roxy a few times. That’s where I met Steve.
D:There was always a fight at theVortex wasn’t there? Every time I went there, there was a fight.
J: Toya [Wilcox, punk singer and TV personality] was there, wasn’t she?
D:Yeah, she [Toya], told me she was going to be a big star and eventually she was quite a big star.
J:Yeah! She did, she got there. Do you have any dreams and aspirations?
D: I’ve always had them. I think as soon as you let those go, you may as well finish and give up.
Polly, Madame Jo Jo’s, Soho 2005
Photography: Derek Ridgers Archive
Words: Princess Julia