__MAIN_TEXT__

Page 1

Val Williams

Derek Ridgers: Club and Street Portraits 1978-1987

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG


< cover > right

< back cover > left


< Lita, Kings Road, 1986 Billyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s/Gossips exterior around 1985 Clare and Michelle, Carburton Street 1980 > Taboo 1985


Val Williams

Derek Ridgers: Club and Street Portraits 1978-1987

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG


FOREWORD

Over a period of ten years, from 1978 to 1987, British photographer Derek Ridgers painstakingly recorded the young inhabitants of London’s streets and Soho’s fashionable club scene. His resulting portraits of skinheads and the exotic figures of the post-punk, New Romantic era are a remarkable and fragile social document, a record of an incredibly inventive yet excessive youth culture. Val Williams’s book, When We Were Young, brings together Ridgers’s extraordinary photographs of this period for the first time. Part photography monograph, part fashion history, part momento mori, the book also encapsulates the essence of Ridgers’s work and his influential role as quiet observer and collector of British street style. For an editor or curator, the hope is always that while working closely with artists a kind of empathy and mutual respect will develop. Some would go as far as to say that this is an essential requirement for any truly successful book or exhibition project. But rarely, I would imagine, are those hoped for working relations underpinned by so many biographical points of connection as those that exist between Derek Ridgers and myself, revealed, at times with a degree of embarrassment, during the course of producing this book. Notwithstanding the four-year age difference (I have to say that Derek is the older one), we grew up, without knowing it, very near to each other in the same area of West London. We went to the same pubs and clubs, and saw the same bands. I remember very clearly going to the same Eric Clapton concert, at The Rainbow in 1973, when Derek ran to the front of the stage and first discovered his facility with a camera, though I don’t remember seeing him. We may even have watched the traffic together somewhere along the M3, both bored and strangely excited by the relentless drone of passing cars. Like Derek, I was a child of outer London suburbia, and that post-war greyness, the dulled atmosphere of inertia and Val Williams’s insightful characterisation of Derek as a ‘wistful teenage spectator of Swinging London’ all feels extremely familiar and resonant for me. And when it gets this close, it becomes more personal. But then Derek’s photographs – for all their careful objective qualities and their status as simple records of what young people actually looked like at that time – do appeal on


< Nicola, Anarchy 1987 Trojan and Mark, Taboo 1986 > Feltham, 1980 Soho, 1984

a distinctly emotional level, too. The images draw you into a strange mixture of excitement and sadness. The posing could easily become irritating, but the feelings of young people desperate to please, to be noticed and to belong are genuinely poignant. Their sheer inventiveness – even in its truly overblown and deliberately excessive mode – and their determination to rise above a drabness that can slowly kill the imagination and the soul, are also things to marvel at, and, it must be said, to feel nostalgic about. Although Derek Ridgers’s photographs had been frequently exhibited and published during the Eighties and Nineties, it was their inclusion in the exhibition, Look at Me: Fashion and Photography 1960 to the Present, curated by Val Williams and Brett Rogers for the British Council in 1998, that first put them into an historical context and suggested what a significant document Ridgers had assembled. In a sense this book was born then in Val Williams’s imagination, and I am delighted that Photoworks has been able to play a part in bringing that original idea to fruition. When We Were Young has also become one of the first projects of what we hope will be a long-standing partnership between Photoworks and the Photography and The Archive Research Centre, at London College of Communication (University of the Arts), of which Val is Director. Every worthwhile book demands the care and co-operation of a number of people, all bringing their skills, knowledge and experience to every stage of the production. This book has been exemplary in that respect and I would like to offer sincere thanks and give credit to all those involved. Firstly, our thanks to Val Williams for creating this project and bringing it to Photoworks, for her dedicated support of Derek’s work and for her excellent and illuminating text for the book. Secondly, we would like to express our gratitude to Arts Council England for their financial support of the book and to the London College of Fashion, whose research fund has supported this project from its inception, and especially to Rob Lutton, Research Co-ordinator at LCF, for his individual support. Our thanks and appreciation also to Dean Pavitt of Loup Design, for his skill, enthusiasm and, as ever, intuitive grasp of the demands of the book;


to my colleagues at Photoworks, Rebecca Drew, Gordon MacDonald, Helen James, Ben Burbridge and Emma-Jane Spain for their help and continual support. And lastly we would like to thank Derek Ridgers for his all his work, total cooperation and unďŹ&#x201A;agging commitment, and for the gentle, self-depreciating humour that has kept us all happy. David Chandler Director, Photoworks


SEX, AGGRESSION AND THE DOCUMENTARY PORTRAIT Val Williams 1. Notes to the author, September 2004.

‘I didn’t set out with any intentions at all. I was a music fan with a borrowed camera and a compulsion that I didn’t then understand.’ 1 When Derek Ridgers began making photographs in the early Seventies, he did so against the background of an emerging British culture, which, encompassing art, photography and music, would react swiftly and strongly against the prevailing mores of the post-war decades. He made photographs at a time when photography began to move outside its existing boundaries, whether of fashion, photojournalism or art; when it both looked back at earlier photographic traditions and forward to a new populist youth culture. Derek Ridgers’s photographs are important both for the photographs they are and the subject matter they examined – and sometimes it is difficult to disentangle the two. They exist in a photographic territory that has not yet been charted; a territory which encompasses documentary, portraiture and style. In the photographs he made in the late Seventies through to the end of the Eighties, Ridgers chronicled the new and radical using a photographic methodology which has its roots in the work of August Sander and Mike Disfarmer, Walker Evans and Irving Penn, and in the photographs of countless vernacular studio portraitists. Though he never took any of his subjects into a photographic studio, the studio was there all the same, built from the bleak backgrounds of the urban landscape and the raw interiors of clubland, isolating and defining his subjects within the bracing vigour of his imagination. These are formal portraits; still, dignified studies of young people engaged in their own riotous imaginative journeys. The strength of Derek Ridgers’s photographs lies not just in his methodology, but also in the objectivity with which he viewed his subjects. He photographed people who fascinated him, people who were obsessed with fashion, self-image and the notion of belonging. His subjects were self-selected outsiders: punks, skinheads and the variously named New Romantics, Blitzkids and late Eighties clubbers. In making these photographs, he drew no moral distinction between groups of people: skinheads, with their tattoos, crew-cuts and self-confessed


< Helena, Kings Road, 1982 Lita, Kings Road 1982 > Chris, Chelsea 1983 Elizabeth and Helen outside Hell, 1980 Bonner, Kings Road 1982

violent lifestyles, were as interesting as the dandyesque New Romantics queuing up outside Blitz in the late Seventies: ‘I’ve always tried to photograph people in exactly the same way. I was initially very shocked by the skinheads, dumbfounded by their lifestyle and attitudes. They asked me to photograph them and their moody attitudes and poses were very photogenic. In fact they embodied the two qualities I find most photogenic – sexuality and aggression.’ 2

2. Ibid. 3. Ibid.

As did many documentary photographers of his time, Derek Ridgers photographed with an acute awareness of the transient. Just as his contemporaries in the independent photography groupings were photographing the dying customs and traditions of the English working classes in the knowledge that change was inevitable, Ridgers saw the importance of a pivotal moment in British culture – the emergence of the club scene, of street fashion, of an intense self-regard largely unmediated by either the fashion or music industries. Like his contemporaries – including photographers such as Mark Lebon, Nick Knight and Steve Johnston – Ridgers saw the social and aesthetic importance inherent in the emerging style subcultures. Like so many of those who went on to become important artists, photographers and taste-makers of the Seventies and Eighties, Derek Ridgers was a child of outer London suburbia; a wistful teenage spectator of Swinging London. From an early age, he was entranced by the mirror which photography held up to a world of metropolitan chic, seen through the medium of both mainstream newspapers and magazines and the emerging music and style press: ‘My parents used to buy the Daily and Sunday Express, and the Sunday Times Colour supplement was passed on by a neighbour. I bought Nova and Mayfair in junk shops and also looked at the International Times, OZ and the music papers – Disc, New Musical Express and Rolling Stone. The photos I liked were mainly of cars or girls, but I also collected photographs which either seemed graphically interesting or which I felt I might use in artwork at some point in the future. This could be literally anything – a tuba, the atom bomb and mushroom clouds, odd logos, skyscrapers, boats, metal grills, gangsters, strange looking shoes, sports, buildings, cross sections of things, boats, strange topiary, almost anything’. 3 Ridgers’s practice of selective accumulation from a wide variety of media was the


4. Boy George, Take It Like A Man, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1995. pp 59-60 5. Notes to the author, September 2004 6. Ibid

beginning of an artist’s methodology that would become an important element of his later career. His early collecting from magazines and newspapers showed a fascination with the appearance of things – the oddity of the mushroom cloud, the vivacity of popular culture, the construction of the urban landscape and a fascination with glamour, music and street fashion. The connection between a suburban upbringing in the Fifties and Sixties and later prominence in the club and music scenes in Seventies and Eighties London is a common element of contemporary biographies. George O’ Dowd (later Boy George) lived in Eltham and became part of the Bromley Contingent, whose early style experiments were made from material gathered from charity shops in South East London. ‘During the summer holidays of 1976 I spent most of my time with Tracy (Burch) visiting every charity shop you could reach on a Red Bus Rover. We rumbled around jumble sales, hunting for Forties clothes and shoes. Tracy’s mum worked in a fabric shop and brought home exotic fabrics: suedette, rubber, plastic and industrial nylons in day-glo colours. We couldn’t afford the clothes that were sold on the Kings Road, in ‘Acme Attractions’ and ‘Sex’, or the Beaufort Market, so we made our own.’ 4 Like Derek Ridgers, George identified an elite (even in the supposedly anti-elitist world of Punk) to which he could not, either economically or socially, gain entrance to. Remembering the suburban area he grew up in, Ridgers recalls: ‘We settled in a small detached house in a quiet cul-desac in Heston, an intensely boring suburb of West London. I suppose one could categorise the area as lower middle class. It was close to Heathrow and many of those who lived in the area worked at the airport. In those days (and probably now) it was as grey and dull as suburbia can get. A few schools, two churches, a TA centre, a war memorial and a couple of parades of shops. The only interesting thing that happened in the sixteen years I lived there was when Lucille Ball turned up and did some filming in a nearby street. Occasionally, me and my friends would wander down to the newly built M3 flyover and watch the traffic.’ 5 London in the late Fifties was an austere and traditional city, still scarred by the bombing of the Second World War; Ridgers remembers it as being ‘full of homogenous people, all dressed in dark grey – all men over the age of fifteen wore hats. There were no teenagers then.’ 6 By the beginning of the Sixties, the English


cultural landscape had begun to change. The new alternative Sixties scene was immensely appealing to Ridgers and particularly significant for him was the ‘14-Hour Technicolor Dream’, a benefit concert for International Times held at the Alexandra Palace in North London in the spring of 1967: ‘I was sixteen and it was the first time I’d ever stayed out all night. I was on my own and it was absolutely unforgettable and totally spectacular. Bands played like the Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, the Social Deviants, Sam Gopal’s Dream, John’s Children, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Giant Sun Rolley; Mark Boyle did a ‘psychedelic’ light show. It was full of hippies and girls with enormous eye make up and short skirts, and the vibe was really mellow and friendly…It was also the first time I’d ever heard live poetry. Adrian Mitchell read his famous poem ‘Tell Me Lies About Vietnam’ and I thought it was awesome. I also took part in what I think was called ‘Cut Piece’, which was organised by Yoko Ono, where the audience gradually cut a woman’s dress off her with a large pair of dressmaker’s shears’. 7 Ridgers’s interest in art was stimulated by visits to the Royal Academy Summer Shows with his mother, and throughout his adolescence, he was fascinated by the work of Aubrey Beardsley: ‘He was a brilliant draughtsman and I loved his inventive composition. It may have been this that influenced me as a photographer – he always offset his main subject or cropped bits of figures off, for instance in his designs for the ‘Savoy’ magazine, or his famous drawing of three waiters.’ 8

7. Ibid. 8. Ibid. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid.

At Ealing Art School (1969-71) he was introduced to the work of Sixties’ artists such as Warhol, Oldenberg, Lichtenstein, Caro, Allen Jones and Peter Blake, as well as Robyn Denny, Bernard Cohen and Jim Dine. He followed the work of the Boyle Family and was particularly impressed with the ‘Outsiders’ show at the Hayward Gallery in 1979: ‘It was mostly in the ‘primitive’ style, made by people in psychiatric institutions. For inventiveness, wit, commitment, skill and simple raw beauty, it completely blew me away’. 9 Though Ridgers was always interested in photography and was aware, in the Sixties, of the fashion photographers David Bailey, Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy and Terence O Neill, photography remained, for him, just one part of an integral art practice. As an art director in the Seventies, working for central London agencies which included Royds and Maisey Mukerjee Russell, he built up relationships with advertising photographers Red Saunders, Fred Saunders and the fashion photographer Lorenz Zatucky. He then saw Anton Corbijn’s photographs in the NME in the late Seventies and was inspired: ‘His work made me want to become a photographer.’ 10 From the beginning, Ridgers was interested in photographers who used the medium to explore particular groups within society. He was impressed, for example, by Finnish photographer Sirkka Liisa Kontinnen’s documentary photographs of working class communities in Newcastle, and by Diane Arbus’s intense and eerie portraits of American suburbia. He was fascinated by the transgressive vigour of Helmut Newton’s fashion photographs, and by the social reportage of Mary Ellen Mark. But most of all he was drawn to the work of the American documentarist Gary


Winogrand: ‘Learning about his somewhat unfulfilled life and his weird methods, it made me realise what a strength there is in the medium itself, and that simply clicking away with a camera without much thought can still have a tremendous value if you do it right. I realised, looking at the work of Winogrand, that when the photographer keeps himself out of the process, the stronger and more real the photographs become.’ 11

11. Ibid. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid. 14. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Methuen, 1979. p.107

By the mid-Seventies, Ridgers’s interest in music and his experiments with photography converged. He photographed Eric Clapton performing at The Rainbow in Finsbury Park in 1973: ‘It was a tremendous buzz, being just a few feet away from him. I was bathed in the same coloured lights as him, and I was in front of thousands of people, just like him; I could see and hear every little detail. It was a profound experience. Over the next couple of years, very gradually, I started leaping over barriers and clambering onto stages and shooting live bands wherever and whenever I could: Labelle, The Hammersmith Gorillas, Betty Davis, Maria Muldaur, The Rolling Stones, The Kursaal Flyers, Vinegar Joe, Eddie and the Hot Rods – I’ve got boxes of (not very good) live photos of them all. Once I began to get my photographs into print, I got a lot of work. Nick Logan, of The Face, was the first editor to commission me and Kasper De Graaf of New Sounds, New Styles also commissioned me when I first started out. I shot for the nightclub section in Time Out for a few years and after meeting Tony Stewart at NME started to work for them. From then on I was able to make a living solely from photography... I shot my first cover for the NME and eventually did over a hundred.’ 12 But it was the beginning of punk that impelled Ridgers to begin to take the kind of photographs which marked him out from the other photographers who were documenting the London music scene. When he walked into a Vibrators show at Kingston Polytechnic in the winter of 1976 and began to photograph, it was the audience rather than the band that attracted his attention: ‘It was my first live sighting of ‘punks’. Bedecked in all kinds of ludicrous apparel, they were leaping and writhing around in front of the stage, shouting and spitting and going absolutely mad… There was an excitement, a rawness and a vitality about them that was completely different to anything I’d seen before. Though I was drawn and repelled in almost equal measure, I felt a compulsion to try to record what I saw.’ 13 Dick Hebdige, an acute observer of subcultural style in post-war England, also recognised the sheer visuality of punk style, a visuality which would appeal so much to Derek Ridgers: ‘Faces became abstract portraits; sharply observed and meticulously executed studies in alienation. Hair was obviously dyed (hay yellow, jet black, or bright orange with tufts of green or bleached in question marks), and T-shirts and trousers told the story of their own construction with multiple zips and outside seams clearly displayed. Similarly fragments of school uniform (white bri-nylon shirts, school ties) were symbolically defiled (the shirts covered in graffiti, or fake blood; the ties left undone) and juxtaposed against leather drains or shocking pink mohair tops.’ 14 When Ridgers first visited The Roxy in Covent Garden in December 1976 it ‘was like walking into a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. It was dark, smelly, subterranean,


George, Wardour Street 1981

dangerous and unbelievably loud. There were punks with gravity defying hairdos in unfeasible colours, bizarre make-up, safety pins, swastikas, school ties, blazers, stockings and suspenders. There were transvestites in miniskirts and huge earrings. There were girls in PVC and fishnet tights, rolling around laughing and play fighting on the floor, which was covered in spilt beer and other indeterminate slime. And during the live music intervals, from Don Letts in the DJ booth, there was the sound of heavy Dub and the heady smell of weed. It was very nearly perfect.’ 15 Future club promoter and band member Steve Strange also saw the radical possibilities of punk: ‘I started making trips to places like the Lacy Lady in Ilford and the Global Village underneath the arches in Charing Cross. It was in places like this that I saw the punk thing happening long before the press picked up on it. People like Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol would be hanging around and I’d see how they were being creative and not just wearing clothes they had bought in the high street chain stores. I also saw the clothes in shops in the Kings Road, such as Acme Attractions and Sex, which were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Punk seemed to be the most exciting thing in years. I was desperate to be a part of it.’ 16 The arrival of punk changed Derek Ridgers’s photographic practice completely and he began his great chronicle of London club style, a chronicle which now occupies such a central place in both the fashion and photographic histories of the Seventies and Eighties. Confronted with one of the most inventive, flamboyant and fast moving style cultures of our contemporary history, Ridgers’s photographs were no longer just capable images of bands on stage, but precise and moving documents of our times.

Heroes, Dandies, Clowns: Observing the Blitzkids

15. Notes to the author, September 2004. 16. Steve Strange, Blitzed, Orion, 2002. p. 25 17. Derek Ridgers, interview with the author, 1998. 18. Ibid. 19. For instance in ‘The Face’, July 1984.

‘These were remarkable people... they were posers... they went to clubs not so much to dance as to look at each other.’ 17 ‘What they had in common was that they were fed up with punk and had a love of David Bowie.’ 18 Reading through the autobiographies, reminiscences and journalism which recount the emergence of a new club and music scene in London at the end of the Seventies, one encounters narratives which form a remarkable chronicle. Accounts such as Take it Like A Man by Boy George (1995), Blitzed by Steve Strange (2002) and Leigh Bowery by Sue Tilley (1997) are idiosyncratic, selfreferential reflections on a period in which the importance of image became paramount. Through these books, as well as through the style/music chronicles of Dave Rimmer, the reminiscences of Chris Sullivan, the journalism of Robert Elms and in interviews with figures such as Boy George’s mentor Philip Sallon 19, the story of the Blitzkids (who were eventually renamed in the mainstream press as the New Romantics, a generic term which has remained), emerges as a racy drama


Alternative Miss World 1985 Joshua, Camden Palace 1983 Johnny and Mike, Astoria 1986

enacted on the streets of central London. That these narratives – played out in clubs such as Billy’s, Blitz, Hell, Taboo, Batcave, Le Beat Route and Camden Palace (to name only a few) – are infused with personal ambition, regret, wonder and often sheer spite, makes them all the more beguiling. The interventions of bohemian entrepreneurs such as Leigh Bowery, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan in the London music/fashion scene established clubbing as a new arena for avant-garde fashion and style, and laid the foundations for the word-of-mouth culture which would eventually emerge, at the end of the Eighties, as rave. As Blitz aficionado Robert Elms wrote in The Face in 1982: ‘In the new year of 1979. Strange and Egan moved across town from Soho to Covent Garden and Billy’s became the Blitz. The idea of a one-night stand for fun and profit was firmly established. The merry-go-round was spinning again and the word ‘trendy’ was back in vogue. Inside the Blitz on a Tuesday in 1979 was a crash course for ravers, and outside, a queue, a foretaste of a decade soon and sure to come. This was to be the way of the world.’ Though Peter York in a 198O article in Harpers and Queen would dismiss Blitzkid style as, ‘a bit feeble and silly, dated from the word go, post-punk and intractably, hopelessly Post-Modern,’ the sub-cultural scene was firmly set. Surprisingly little has been written about Blitzkid culture. Perhaps, because its history is so anchored in autobiography, reminiscence and ‘I was there’ journalism, there has been a tendency to disregard it. For many influential commentators, Blitzkids were a sad departure from the ‘values’ and style of punk. Make-up, pirate hats, ringlets and velvet capes, musicians manqué and new stylists were a poor substitute for dangerous, dirty and fabulously rebellious punk. Blitzkid was a cultural anomaly – no-one knew where to place it. Was it fashion? Or was it art? Was it a challenge to punk or simply its inevitable successor? Blitzkids clubbed not because they needed to see the band but simply because they needed to be seen. Steve Strange could step from club promoter to band member (in Visage) without a cultural blink because style, not music, was the issue. Boy George, who aspired to dress rather than sing, became the front man of Culture Club, one of the Eighties’ most successful bands.


20. Dave Rimmer, New Romantics – The Look, Omnibus Press, 2003, p. 78. 21. Ibid.

While examination of the cultural history of the Sixties has become an industry, style culture in the late Seventies and Eighties has remained obscure and undervalued. Lacking what was perceived in the press to be a strong music base (whatever happened to Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Visage?) there was no commercial imperative to remember these club-going, post-punk dandies who dressed as nuns, clowns and pirates, fairies and cleopatras, white-faced divas, bondage girls and boys, tattered madonnas, princesses of the squats. In tracing the history of late Seventies and Eighties style certain formative events come into focus. In 1975, for example, the BBC showed its dramatisation of Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant. Hitherto little known outside London bohemia, Crisp was catapulted to fame as his narrative of desire and rejection was played out by John Hurt in the leading role. For journalist and writer Dave Rimmer, Crisp was, ‘a sort of prototype New Romantic ...who began wearing make-up and dyeing his long hair before such behaviour was even remotely acceptable’ 20. For many of the people who later frequented Blitz and Taboo, Crisp became an icon, a potent symbol of outsider glamour. That the BBC would dramatise Crisp’s own account of his life proved that both cultural and social mores were undergoing a period of rapid and startling change. Earlier, in London in 1972, Andrew Logan’s first Alternative Miss World – an event which Dave Rimmer has described as, ‘a happening on the bisexual borderlands between art and fashion’ 21 – had elevated drag from burlesque to style. Though New Romantic fashion came later, Logan would quickly identify with its androgynous, lavish, handmade costume codes, and with personalities such as Philip Sallon, Marilyn, Divine and Leigh Bowery, who openly transgressed the social and cultural codes which had so dominated Sixties style. But, towering over New Romantic culture was the dandyesque, enigmatic figure of David Bowie. For the boys and girls of English suburbia (the same boys and girls who would form the style vanguard at Blitz) Bowie became an icon. In his 1999 biography of Bowie, Strange Fascination, David Buckley quotes sociologist Simon Frith’s analysis of Bowie-ism: ‘Bowie-ism was a way of life – style as meaning –


Theresa, Hell 1980

and no other idol has had such an intense influence on his fans as David Bowie. His example of self-creation was serious and playful – image as art as image, and his tastes, the selves he created, were impeccably suburban – he read romantic literature, he was obsessively, narcissistically self-effacing...Bowie was youth culture not as collective hedonism but as individual grace that showed everybody else up as clods.’ 22 For Boy George, watching longingly from the sidelines in the bland south London suburb of Eltham, a 1973 Bowie concert in Lewisham was a key milestone in his own journey towards style celebrity: ‘I tried to give myself a Ziggy Stardust haircut. It was a disaster – I looked like Dave Hill from Slade. Richard lent me his Indian patchwork jacket. I wore it with my white cheesecloth shirt and a pair of loons. I spent the whole day hanging around Lewisham, watching the crowds well up. Hundreds of Ziggy and Angie clones. Girls in fox-fur stoles and pillbox hats, boys in glitter jackets. Bowie was like an alien. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen...I walked home singing into an empty Coke can. No concert I have seen since has had the same effect.’ 23

22. David Buckley, David Bowie the Definitive Story, Virgin 23 Boy George, Take It Like A Man, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1995.pp35-36

New Romanticism was largely derided by the established music press but from the beginning of the Eighties, the newly formed style magazines such as The Face and i-D, were committed to fashion, photography and streetstyle and became chief narrators of the New Romantic adventure. In the first issue of i-D Theresa Thurmer, a favourite Ridgers’s subject was featured: ‘...works in an advertising agency, has no fashion training but makes all her own outfits regardless. She models her looks on the film stars she admires, fave stars include Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Betty Grable’. The success of the new style magazines quickly catapulted street and club fashion from an inner circle to an international audience. Important, too, was the adoption of Blitzkid fashion by students at St Martin’s School of Art, strategically placed at the edge of Soho. Kim Bowen, who would become one of Derek Ridgers’s most photographed subjects, was a student at St Martins, as was Stephen Jones and many of the other Blitzkid student squatters living around Warren Street in central London. So influential would St. Martin’s fashion students become in the Eighties and early Nineties, that echoes of club culture, born in the compressed surroundings of Blitz, would reverberate through international couture until the end of the twentieth century. The history of the style and music vanguard in the late Seventies to mid- Eighties is one of anecdote. The stories, told and retold throughout recent autobiographies have become the stuff of history: Steve Strange’s refusal to admit Mick Jagger to the Blitz Club; the legendary visit of David Bowie; Boy George’s stint as a Blitz cloakroom attendant; Leigh Bowery’s squirting of an enema onto a glittering audience at an AIDS benefit; Sid Vicious and punk icon Jordan working as shop assistants at Vivienne Westwood’s Sex shop on the Kings Road. These anecdotal, subjective histories, as handcrafted and fantastical as the clothes worn by the people who wrote them, have become testimony to these times. In many ways they are survivors’ tales – both Steve Strange and Boy George suffered addiction and other traumas in the Nineties, Sue Tilley witnessed the decline of Leigh


Trix, Kings Road 1984 Bean, Kings Road 1982 Basienka and Julie, Camden Palace 1982

Bowery from wild Diva to AIDS victim. They tell their stories wistfully, with the sense of times past, absent friends and lost youth. Perhaps this is why, in the end, that Derek Ridgers’s photographs stand out so clearly from those of his contemporaries. For his photographs, in their gravity, their stillness and their own ineffable sense of loss, confirmed the sharpness of an outsider’s vision.

Endword

24. Derek Ridgers, interview with the author, 1998.

Together with other photographers such as Mark Lebon, stylists such as Judy Blame, designers Stephen Jones, Martin Degville (who opened one of the Blitzkids’ favourite clothes outlet, Degville’s Dispensary at Kensington Market), Sue Clowes, Stephen Linard, Helen and Stephen Robinson (who owned PX in Covent Garden) and the filmmaker John Maybury, Derek Ridgers was central in the promotion of new club fashion of the early Eighties. Though he described the scene at this time as a kind of phantasmagoria, Ridgers’s photographs have a powerful quietude. His grave, dignified portraits documented tightly knit, mysterious elites; secret societies governed by rules of dress and behaviour unwritten but nevertheless strenuously enforced. When he first photographed the Blitzkids, Ridgers stood in the street outside the club waiting for these ‘remarkable people’ to emerge. ‘I’d arrive at about 10.30 and spend my first hour trying to persuade Steve Strange to let me in. Normally this would involve a lot of hanging about. Once he’ d relented I’d make a beeline for the bar and then I’d just start snapping. Most nightclubs are very dark, very hot and very noisy, but Blitz wasn’t, people were too desperate to be seen for that.’ 24 The photographs he made, of couples in white gauze and velvet, young women with hair bound in rags and wearing voluminous back overcoats, young men in kilts and brightly coloured stockings, hand-made garments accumulated from Oxfam and the theatrical suppliers of Soho – infused with designer’s panache and a streetwise baroque – were far more than reportage or fashion. Shot through with longing, desire and excitement, Ridgers’s photographs were, nevertheless, dependent on a


tradition of portraiture that stressed the photographer as patient observer, one who made the rapid and transitory, still and immortal. The worlds which Derek Ridgers photographed were small ones, peopled by young men and women captivated by the idea of image. Ridgers’s photographs do not search souls, they look at surfaces, these are not so much portraits as documents. He chronicled a very particular kind of theatre, a series of highly wrought performances performed on impromptu urban stages. His subjects knew the codes of photography, knew not to smile or gesticulate – they were always still, needing to be recorded, longing for celebrity. Derek Ridgers’s compulsion to photograph London clubs over two decades was an extraordinary one. He has produced thousands of remarkable photographs of remarkable people, transient beings moving across an urban landscape, experimenters, flamboyant souls who cared more than anything about how they looked, whose greatest fear was of being ordinary. But it was the ordinariness that Derek Ridgers glimpsed in these costumed characters that makes his photographs so powerful – the people he photographed wore beauty like a mask. Ridgers’s photographs are an undeliberate chapter in a decade of English social and cultural history that changed the way we thought about music, fashion and consumption. It was the decade of the handmade and the customised, of Oxfam shopping, conspicuous sexuality, of excess, wild success and dismal failure. Played out against the backdrop of a rapidly changing London cityscape and a revolution in politics and economics, the style cultures that Derek Ridgers photographed meant far more than style.


Chris, Kings Road 1982


PERMISSION TO STARE? Derek Ridgers

Determining exactly when and where this all started is almost as hard as working out exactly when it finished. But I do know that it definitely didn’t start out as a specific project. I didn’t set out to make a ‘comprehensive study of Britain’s youth’ during the Eighties, or anything like that. In fact, I didn’t set out with any intentions at all. I was a music fan, with a borrowed camera. And with a compulsion that I didn’t then understand. Back in 1978 I wasn’t a photographer, not even a keen amateur, just an advertising agency art director with a flat-lining career. Thinking back though, right from my early teens I was always interested in looking at photographs, and I’d often cut out and keep ones I liked from newspapers and magazines. So I guess there must always have been something there. But in 1967, when I left school and enrolled at Ealing Art School, I don’t think I was even curious as to how a camera worked. Those of us on Ealing’s ‘Ground Course’ (a first year of general art studies to establish where one’s talents lay) were required to spend half a day a week using a camera and learning the rudiments of photography. Sadly, it all went in one ear and out the other with me and whenever I had the need to use the medium, perhaps for making a photo-litho or silk-screen, I’d go to Bill Patterson, one of the photography tutors, and say, ‘would you mind just running through this bit for me one more time?’ He’d usually sigh, take the camera or film from my hand and say, ‘Just give it to me, I’ll do it.’ He was a lovely man but perhaps not blessed with the required patience to deal with a lot of whacky students, so I tended to take advantage of this quality in order to avoid any unnecessary toil. Which was perfectly fine, except that it meant when I left art school four years later I hardly knew how to process film and I certainly didn’t know what all the little numbers on the front of the camera meant. Fortunately, I was employed, straight from college, into the advertising business as an art director so I thought I didn’t need to. But a couple of years, and a couple of job changes on, I found myself working in an agency that had a


< Astral Flight, 1984 > Gabrielle, Kings Road 1983 Soho 1982 Soho 1979

camera account – that of the late and not very lamented Miranda SLR – and I was told to borrow one and try it out, so as to get to know better what it could do (not so much, as it happened, but we obviously didn’t say that in the ads). So it was that one night, when I went to see an Eric Clapton gig at The Rainbow in Finsbury Park, I just happened to have a camera and some film with me. The seats my girlfriend and myself had bought were terrible, almost the very back row, and it was like watching an ant performing on stage. So I thought – I’ve got a camera, why don’t I just go down to the front holding it, climb into the pit and pretend to be a photographer? In those days, 1973, there was virtually no security at rock gigs so it was perfectly possible. So, rather unchivalrously leaving my girlfriend where she was, I ran down to the front and, effecting the air of someone who did this sort of thing for a living, hopped over the low wall and watched the rest of the gig from behind the borrowed Miranda. It was a tremendous buzz, being just a few feet away from one of my musical idols. Bathed in the same coloured lights as him, and in front of thousands of people just like him, I could see and hear every little detail. And it was an infinitely more profound and worthwhile experience than sitting right at the back. When I got the few frames that I’d shot processed, I found that in fact, completely by luck and with no element of judgement whatsoever, they weren’t too bad. And so, very gradually over the next couple of years, I started leaping over barriers and clambering onto stages and shooting live bands wherever and whenever I could: Labelle, The Hammersmith Gorillas, Betty Davis, Maria Muldaur, The Rolling Stones, The Kursaal Flyers, Vinegar Joe, Eddie and The Hot Rods – I’ve still got boxes of (not very good) live photos of them all. But all too soon, like virtually every proper job I’ve ever had, I was declared surplus to requirements at the agency with the Miranda account and, in order to continue my ersatz career as a music photographer, I went out and bought myself a second-hand Nikkormat. But it was still the proximity to live music that was the main attraction, not taking the photos.


Then something significant happened to me one night, in late 1976, at a Vibrators show at Kingston Poly. I was crouched on the side of the stage, about three feet to the side of the band’s speaker stack and, as soon as the band came on, the audience started to go crazy. It was my first live sighting of ‘punks’. Bedecked in all kinds of ludicrous apparel, they were leaping and writhing around in front of the stage, shouting and spitting and going absolutely mad. And, more significantly, they were, even to my untrained eye, a darn more photogenic than the band. I didn’t quite have the gumption to start photographing them there and then, their manner took me aback slightly, but I knew that next time I encountered them I would make more of an effort. And, I felt a frisson of something that night and I wasn’t quite sure why. Apprehension certainly. The punks were ostensibly fairly violent looking and some were none too careful where they aimed their globules of phlegm. But there was something else too. There was an excitement, a rawness and a vitality about them that was completely different to anything I’d seen before. Though I was drawn and repelled in almost equal measure that night (a feeling I’ve since become very familiar with) I felt a compulsion to try to record of what I saw. So, a few weeks later, in December of that year, when The Roxy (the UK’s first punk club) opened its doors in Neal Street, Covent Garden, I was one of those in the queue. The story of the club and its short life has been well documented, but for me that first night was like walking into a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. It was dark, sweaty, smelly, subterranean, dangerous and unbelievably loud. There were punks with gravity defying hair-dos in unfeasible colours, bizarre make-up, safety pins, swastikas, school ties, blazers, stockings and suspenders. There were transvestites in miniskirts and huge earrings. There were girls in PVC and fishnet tights, rolling around laughing and play-fighting on the floor – a floor that was almost invariable covered in spilt beer and other indeterminate slime. And during the live music intervals, from Don Letts in the DJ booth, there was the sound of heavy Dub and the heady smell of weed. It was very nearly perfect.


Shelley, Chelsea 1982

And for anyone with a camera it was an absolute godsend. So I began to go down there three or four times a week and take as many photos as I could. At that time, I didn’t have a car or much money, so I’d have to hitch home afterwards and often not get back in until 5.30am. I’d usually have walked miles too, because it’s not so easy to hitch across central London in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, I also had to be up to go to work only a couple of hours later, and doing those sort of hours invariably led to me being pretty ragged during the day. It wasn’t unknown therefore for me to nod off to sleep at work. Luckily, during that time I had my own office, so I fixed it that if anyone opened my door they’d knock into a chair I’d placed behind it for the purpose, and the noise would remind me to try to look awake. In its initial incarnation, The Roxy lasted only just over three months, but then other punk clubs came along. I don’t think the Sex Pistols ever played The Roxy, though they were often there, but most of the other top British punk bands of the time did. By the end of the year I had a set of photos of punks and the punk bands that I was almost proud of, and so I wrote to several magazines with a view to trying to get them published. Only two people responded – Sarah Kent at Time Out and Jack Schofield at Photo Technique. Both were encouraging and enthusiastic about the photos I showed them, leading directly to a show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (where Sarah Kent also worked) and their publication in several magazines. The pictures were also used extensively in two books – Shockwave (Plexus) and 100 Nights At The Roxy (Michael Dempsey). I felt that I’d really lucked out with my punk photos and I was determined to consolidate this success and find other similar subjects to photograph. For a while I tried photographing the Teddy Boys and Rockers in West London, and then the prostitutes and rent boys of Piccadilly and Soho. Though the people themselves were usually friendly and interesting enough, in neither subject did I quite feel the same compulsion that I’d found with the punks. And then I read somewhere about ‘Bowie Night’ at Billy’s club in Soho. It was the first report of the sub-cult that would later become known all over the world as the New Romantics. The first night I went there I met and photographed Steve Strange, George O’Dowd (later Boy George), Martin Degville (later of Sigue Sigue Sputnik), Theresa Thurmer (later Pinkie Braithwaite and later still Pinkietessa), Siobhan Fahey and Keren Woodward (later of Bananarama), David Claridge (later the hand inside Roland Rat) and many, many other equally colourful souls. That first night at Billy’s I felt again everything I’d felt with the punks; more so if anything. Except that everything was far more mellow and less violent.


At virtually the same time period and in the same club, though not on ‘Bowie Night’ obviously, I also came across the first group of Skinheads I’d seen since the end of the Sixties. At first I assumed they were just a bunch of art school poseurs, because I couldn’t then see how a fashion/lifestyle like that could spontaneously reinvent itself. But, with their graphic tales of people they’d beaten up and events they’d trashed, I was soon disabused of this notion. For some unaccountable reason this didn’t put me off. These two groups, then, were the next subjects I was able to get my photographic teeth into. But this time I decided to give my photos a more documentary quality. I don’t, to this day, know exactly why I chose to do this and I can’t pretend otherwise. Jack Schofield had advised me to study the work of August Sander and Disfarmer, and so I guess that may have been something to do with it. But I think that once I got rid of my fear and apprehension of approaching these people in the first place, what I was most interested in was making a physical record of what they looked like, what they wore and how they presented themselves. It meant I had to make direct contact and speak to my subjects, rather than lurk on the margins and go for a more pictorial or reportage style approach. All I can say now is that it seemed the right approach at the time. My whole set-up at that time was still amateur in the extreme though. I only owned one camera body and one lens, and my flash unit was a cheap ‘Sunpak’ which I’d mounted on the camera upside down with a contraption made from a bent coat hanger and a lot of Sellotape. I set up a small darkroom in the house that my family rented with a couple of our friends. The only spare space I could use was the cupboard under the stairs (which we used as a larder). I found that it was just about big enough if I moved all the food out and stood between the inside of the door and the larder’s bottom shelf. The only problem I had was that if I breathed out too heavily or leant back slightly, the door would spring open and I’d fog everything. I solved that one by fitting a lock on the inside of the door and locking myself in. I’d bought a tiny and unbelievably cheap Eastern European enlarger and instead of photographic developing dishes, I used plastic cat-litter trays. They were the same shape but a whole lot cheaper. It wasn’t particularly pretty but it worked and I kept that set up for many years. After that, as a photographer, I never looked back. By 1982 I’d had two more one man shows and my photographs of Skinheads and the Blitzkids had been widely published, including in the Sunday Times Magazine, The Face and the French edition of Photo. At my day job, when I got into the lift one day with the MD, he told me that he’d seen some press coverage for one of my exhibitions and how impressed he was by it. Then, a week or two later, he fired me. I’d really enjoyed my time as an ad agency art director, it was creative and rewarding work, but I’d gotten a little weary of the snakes and ladders game of holding down a job. Getting on well for a year or two and then, when an account was lost, being


< Stephen, Blitz 1980 > Clare,Kit Kat Club 1987 Carole, Le Kilt 1981 Le Beat Route 1981

shown the door. Eventually it just wore me down. So I thought, since I’d done okay with my photography, even to the extent that my ex-boss had had a positive opinion about it, maybe I should give it a go full-time. It was slow going at first. Magazines were often eager to use the photographs I showed them, but actually getting them to commission me was a lot harder. The photographs in this book were all taken in London in the decade after punk happened in 1977. That ten years between 1978 and 1987 saw the second coming of the mods, the last vestiges of the Rockers (and the Teddy Boys that never quite went away), the long death of Punk, the birth of Goth, the rise and fall of the New Romantics and the last rites of the second coming of the Skinheads. It also saw the rise of fetish clubs, mainstream gay clubs, hip-hop, the rave scene, Grunge and the ‘crusties’, as well as the trend toward body modification. I didn’t choose to photograph it all but what I did photograph has to sit against this background. And, though I continue to take similar photographs and work on similar projects today, in my opinion those ten years were when London’s street and club culture shone the brightest. As to exactly why I’m still doing it now, I’m not sure. At 54, well into middle age, I still find myself often getting up out of my chair and driving off into the night to go and take photos. My photographic abilities, such as they are, grew I am sure from a series of inabilities rather than any specific ability. When I was young I had limited social skills, but I could draw. When my school friends were out drinking, fighting, going to parties and messing around with girls, I’d be indoors drawing or painting. I guess this makes me sound like a bore. No doubt I was. To be honest, I’d rather have been out drinking and messing around with girls myself, but it never came as easy to me as I thought it did to my friends. And I was pretty much the last kind of person that would ever have made a good Skinhead, Punk, New Romantic or whatever. I couldn’t even hack it properly in the Boy Scouts.


So, I think the underlying reason I started taking these photos was that it gave me the chance to intrude on, and gaze into, other, more interesting lives. On a deeper level it also gave me more conďŹ dence in myself and, whilst not doing very well in my initial career, a degree of validation. But with a camera I could stare at people without it being perceived as rude or intrusive, and standing behind the camera gave me the legitimacy and courage to approach people in the ďŹ rst place.


< Miss Binney, Camden Palace 1982 Regine, Batcave 1984 > White Trash, 1981

Acknowledgements I’d like to thank the small but elite group of people who were helpful, supportive or took me seriously as a photographer during the time these photographs were being taken. They were – Don Atyeo, Alex Brunner, Andy Czezowski, Sue Davies, Michael Dempsey, Kasper De Graaf, Judy Goldhill, Mary Harron, Andrew Heard, Michele Jaffe, Sarah Kent, Ralph Jedraszczyk, Rae Lewis, Nick Logan, Carol Mann, Lynda Marshall, Fran Pelzman, Sue Ready, David Robilliard, Cynthia Rose, Jack Schofield, Jane Solanas, Tony Stewart, and David Whyte. I’d like to thank Val Williams, David Chandler and Victoria Lukens. And all the many thousands of people who allowed me to take their photograph and the club promoters that gave me access to their club nights. I’d also like to thank Jo-Anne, who has helped in my every waking hour for the last 34 years. DR


> Hell Club, Covent Garden 1985 >> Regine, Heaven 1987

First published in 2004 by Photoworks The Depot, 100 North Road, Brighton, BN1 1YE T: 01273 607500 F: 01273 607555 E: info@photoworksuk.org www.photoworksuk.org Copyright ©Photoworks 2004 All photographs ©Derek Ridgers. www.derekridgers.com Texts ©the authors Edited by David Chandler Designed by LOUP Printed in Great Britain by Dexter Graphics Ltd British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN 1-903796-13-X All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electrical, mechanical or otherwise, without first seeking the permission of the copyright owners and the publishers. Distributed by Cornerhouse Publications 70 Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 5NH T: 0161 200 1503 F: 0161 200 1504 E: publications@cornerhouse.org Photoworks is an independent arts organisation that brings an international perspective to promoting photography in the South East of England. Photoworks operates over four main areas of activity: commissioning new work, producing exhibitions, publishing books and a twice-yearly magazine, and developing the audience for photography through education and participation programmes. When We Were Young – Derek Ridgers: Club and Street Portraits 1978-1987 is published with the support of Arts Council England and London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London

statioanary

30/6/04

9:00 am

Seite 1


Profile for Marc Peter

Derek Ridgers book  

Derek Ridgers book