CAPTURING BRITISH YOUTH CULTURE interview Maisie Daniels and Stuart Mitchell - archive images courtesy of Derek Ridgers
You can’t hear the name Derek Ridgers without it being followed by the term ‘youth culture’. With Britain in the ‘70s and ‘80s seeing subcultures energetically emerge such as punk, skinhead, and the mod revival, Derek saw himself turning the camera away from the bands he was seeing perform and into the crowd. Armed with his Miranda camera and an incredible eye for detail, it has resulted in a beautifully raw and extensive catalog. Spanning back over 40 years, it is quite remarkable how many characters he has captured by his lens.
A self-proclaimed non-conformer to a particular trend, Derek had the ability to dip between the different emerging subcultures and capture some truly special, and in turn, historical documents. All of which are timeless images that provide a snapshot into an era that so many of us look back upon with admiration and in some cases, recollection.
We had the great pleasure of meeting Derek accompanied with a friend, and fellow photographer, Stuart Mitchell (aka walnutwax) at The Photographer’s Gallery - where else? Where we, three generations, sit and chat openly about the underground club scene, the essence of youth and the future of documentary photography.
Maisie Daniels: So Derek, it all started when you went into the clubs back in the ‘70s and you started photographing the bands, is this right?
Derek Ridgers: Well, I started photographing as soon as I got hold of this Miranda camera in ‘73. My girlfriend – and now wife - Jo-Anne and I had gone to see Eric Clapton at The Rainbow in Finsbury Park - it’s a Brazilian Pentecostal church now. We were right at the back and I had this Miranda camera with me by chance and I thought: ‘Well, I could run to the front and pretend to be a photographer’. In those days there wasn’t much in terms of security to throw you out and in some places, there was no security - the only people that did security were the bands' roadies. Anyway, I ran down the front, jumped over the wall and pretended to be a photographer. There weren’t many photographers there anyway - maybe one or two - and that’s how it all started.
M.D: You’re known for photographing British youth subcultures however, you didn’t appear to put yourself in a subculture. If you were, where would you see yourself?
D.R: Well, I tried to be a part of a few when I was a teenager. I would have liked to have been a mod when I was 15, but I had no money. You see, you do need decent clothes, even if you don’t have a scooter like the mod’s had in those days. One of my friends had a scooter, I tried to drive it and it was a disaster! I’d never driven one before and I’ve never driven one since. Even in the short space of time, I got myself into a right pickle with someone who was washing their car…I ran over all their stuff, I couldn’t stop. They must have thought that I was doing it on purpose.
M.D: And what were you, Stuart?
Stuart Mitchell: I tried to be a mod also, but I was like a second-generation mod so, in the late ‘70s into the ‘80s. I liked The Jam, The Stranglers etc.
M.D: Was Jo-Anne part of a subculture?
D.R: No, I suppose she was a very mild version of a hippie when I first started going out with her, which I suppose I was as well at the age of 18/19. I went from school being a kind of cheapo version of a skinhead to a combination of skinhead and hippie for a short while because of the finances.
M.D: I guess that the hippie is one of the cheapest subcultures!
D.R: Well, I guess so. And I was still living at home with my mum and dad and they were against everything, especially my father. He didn’t like long hair, he didn’t like short hair.
M.D: Do you think your relationship with your parents had any impact on you becoming a photographer?
D.R: Oh yes, a huge impact on my life really. I owe everything to my parents as to how I am. I was an only child and it took me a long time to mature and I don’t think that I got any level of proper maturity until I was well into my 40’s.
MD: And what was the attraction for you to start photographing these different subcultures?
D.R: I didn’t ever decide to do that you see; I’d been photographing bands and all the best musicians that I could get up close to for 3 or 4 years. The Rolling Stones, Betty Davies, Kokomo, Labelle, Vinegar Joe, The Kursaal Flyers. Any good bands that were visual, I’d go and photograph. The thing was though; some bands weren’t very ‘visual’ so I wasn’t bothered. Anyway, at the end of ‘76 I was photographing The Vibrators at Kingston Poly and when they came on, the audience started going ape-shit, and I turned around and I thought, “actually, the audience is a lot more photogenic than the band”. And I wanted to photograph them but at that point, I didn’t have the gumption to do it, I had to work up to it.
M.D: I can imagine you would, putting a camera into the face of the crowd is a very daunting thing to do…
D.R: Yes, it depends on how you do it of course. It did take me a little while to get used to confronting people, but then I’d get the confidence to photograph someone and another person would be like “why don’t you photograph me?” and I would photograph them and it would evolve. It was certainly not done by design.
M.D: How were these skinheads about getting their picture taken? Did they take well to it?
DR: The great majority of them were fine but there was a small percentage of very dangerous people among them that I would still prefer not to talk about. Some of those guys are still around.
M.D: Do you think that not being a part of a subculture, per say, helped you when photographing people that were a part of one?
D.R: Most probably, yes. I could flit around between different subcultures and often shoot more than one on the same day. I wouldn’t have found that as easy to do if I’d aligned myself with one particular group.
M.D: You shot a bit in color, however predominantly it was black and white. What was the reason for this?
M.D: Oh I see! Well, I personally love the timelessness of your black and white images and the raw beauty they hold. What are your thoughts on modern youth culture? It seems like there hasn’t been much that has come about since the ‘90s ravers…do you think that is it something that’s dying down?
D.R: No I don’t, but this is what I think: I think that I shouldn’t have an opinion about it because I don’t think that young people want people of my age saying what’s what about youth culture nowadays. [Laughs]
M.D: I hear you…how would you say that the punk subculture has influenced punk today?
D.R: I think there are a lot of punks now, probably more worldwide than there ever was back in the ‘70s. Some of them may never have heard of The Sex Pistols or Malcolm McClaren. Some of the ‘weekend punks’ in America, they might be bankers in the week and then go out listening to their Green Day and gel their hair up and pretend to be punks, but why not! It’s not for me to say that’s not the way to do things, you know, they can be whatever they want to be. I’m not judgmental of anybody.
M.D: Do you think that the seemingly dying down of the subculture could be to do with social media and the internet?
D.R: Well, certainly. You don’t have to get together in little clubs, you can get together online. You can dress up and show yourself off and you never have to leave your own bedroom.
M.D: Yes, completely. Punk appeared to come out of youths being angry, we have angry youths today, but I guess they can put out their anger differently, at the click of a button…
D.R: I think the recollection of punks being angry might be right, but they never seemed that angry to me.
M.D: So it was more of a facade?
D.R: A little bit, yeah. A lot of kids were punks for a short while and then moved on and became something else. Young people want to dress up, they want to go out and they want to hook-up. I don’t think that anger had much to do with it or politics for that matter. People’s assessments of what’s happened since, journalists and commentators, might say it was about anger. They may be right, but that isn’t really how it felt. It felt the same as now, but they were dressing in a certain way.
M.D: When we look back now at the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s so glorified. Did you realize you were documenting history at such an important time or did it just feel like everyday life?
D.R: Not really, no. The thing was even with The Roxy - the first punk club in Covent Garden - there were punks there, yes, but there were also a lot of people there like me, wearing cardigans and who might have just come from work. Plenty of people like me there. The media always focuses on the half-a-dozen people in one place that look brilliant and they don’t care about the other people. I wasn’t one of the media in those days and I would categorize myself in the same way. When I went to a club, say Blitz or Taboo, there were maybe 500 people there and probably 25 people there who looked fashionable and cool and they would just get photographed all the time. So when people look back, that’s all they have to remember it by.
M.D: If you were a 22-year-old today, do you think that you would pick up a camera and start photographing youth culture?
D.R: Blimey, that’s a very good question. Probably not, no. I think that there are so many photographers now that I would pick something other people weren’t doing. Maybe I would want to be a painter, or a writer because either one is much harder than being a photographer and therefore fewer people do it. I wanted to be a painter when I was young, but I never got into a good college. I did a foundation course at Ealing, applied for St Martens and The Slade got turned down by both and decided since I wasn’t quite ready to get a job, I would switch to graphics. At the end of that course, they wanted to throw me out again and I still wasn’t quite ready to get a job, so I did two years of advertising and marketing. I was quite successful at that. I got a distinction for my degree and went straight into an advertising agency.
M.D: Do you ever paint now?
D.R: No, I don’t but it is something that I’ve been thinking about. Maybe when I retire.
M.D: How long after going into photography did you start to make a living from it?
D.R: I was an ad agency art director until ‘81 and I’d already got a couple of quite solid gigs as a photographer before then, but nothing I could really earn a living from. So what I did for a year, I became a freelance art director and I was working for other art directors and doing their work for them. So I doubled my money in that year. I’d do that at night and during the daytime to go and see magazines and go and shoot pop groups and things.
M.D: And when you started working for these big publications, did your life change quite quickly?
D.R: As soon as I started working for NME it did. That was in ‘82 so that was really only a year after I started and as soon as I worked for them I got people ringing me up. And I haven’t really rung anybody up since ‘82.
M.D: You’re still a working photographer and you have branched into fashion photography, photographing the Gucci Fall ‘17 lookbook, Victoria’s Secrets and many more. What was it that took you into this arena?
D.R: Really, I think it was an excuse to take photographs of people. I‘m really interested in people, more so than I am in fashion. I’m not really interested in fashion at all.
M.D: Do you still photograph people on the streets?
DR: I do, yeah.
M.D: And do you find it different to back in the ‘70s/ ‘80s? I can imagine that people on the streets don’t want their picture taken quite so much?
D.R: Yes, it’s much harder. I was photographing in Soho - which I think is really my patch - as I’ve got an on-going project of portraits of people in Soho which, I started 3/4 years ago and I might spend 5 hours wandering around, not finding anyone to photograph. So it’s a lot of work to put in but it’s worth it when you find someone. For this project, it might be half-a-dozen people per year, so it’s going to take me a long time before I’ve got anywhere with it!.
M.D: And you’re working on a new book at the moment?
D.R: Yes, I’ve got a few new books that I’m working on at the moment! [Laughs]. I’ve got a monograph which is just about to go to the printer. I was tinkering with it for ages because it is my photographic life. It’s 45 years condensed down to 202 photographs; it’s something that I am really fretting about. I don’t actually think that it is my ‘202 best photos’. It’s probably my 180 best photos and the other 22 just there to help the flow and because they sort of fit.
S.M: Why do you think it’s more difficult to approach people on the street now? Do you think it is because they are more suspicious?
D.R: I think it is because everybody has a camera now. Once upon a time, it was a bit of a novelty but we are living now in a completely multi-cultural city and if it was just the old-fashioned English attitude towards it, it would be different. However, you’ve got all different cultures, some of which just don’t like people going up to them with a camera.
M.D: It seems that so many places have closed down now in London. Take Passing Clouds (Haggerston) which was an old favorite of mine. You’d have liked it Derek - proper hippie vibes, lots of culture, music, open till 7 am, and now that’s gone, like many places. I can’t help but feel that there aren’t many places for youths to go anymore.
D.R: Well if people are going to be spraying acid over people at clubs, there’s going to even fewer people going.
M.D: Yes, like only the other week at Dalston Superstore…
S.M: 5 o’clock in the morning, it is terrible.
M.D: And how do you feel about the future of underground photography?
D.R: I’m happy to hand the baton onto other people who do what I do, only better. The only clubs that I would go to now would be if I had a commission, then I’d happily do it. Somewhere like Sink the Pink - there are some great looking people there - but I’d need to have a reason to go, at my age! [Laughs]. People might see me there and think ‘he’s someone’s Grandad, looking for his granddaughter or something like that’. [Laughs]
M.D: Can you finish this sentence: Youth is...?
D.R: A distant memory.
M.D: What is your favorite F Word?
Derek Ridgers by walnutwax