Every picture tells a story

He may not have realised it at the time, but Derek Ridgers’ ‘casual snaps of interesting-looking people’ would serve as a unique visual record of subcultural style.

Derek Ridgers is a documentary portraiture photographer, best known for his images of London’s diverse subcultures. From the 1970s to the present day, he has photographed everyone from punks and mods to fetishists and ravers. Capturing new subcultures as they emerge, on the streets and in clubs and bars across London, his pictures offer a fascinating insight into the ever-changing faces of fashion, music and youth culture. With a portfolio that also includes portraits of musicians including James Brown, Nick Cave, Keith Richards and Prince, he has many interesting tales to tell about his life behind the lens. We wanted to know more…

It dawned on me that I was recording people who might not look the way they did for very long, but I had no idea how significant these groups were going to be in the future.

“I first got into photography in the early 1970s. I was working as an art director for an ad agency and we were doing a job for the Miranda SLR camera. My boss told me I should take one home and practise with it so that I’d be able to produce a better ad.

“I was a huge music fan in those days and I was always going to gigs. One day, my wife and I went to a concert and we were in the very back row, miles from the front. I had a Miranda camera with me and I had the idea to go down the front, hop over the barrier and pretend to be a photographer – just to get a bit closer to the action. It wasn’t particularly gallant of me to leave my wife in the back row, alone, but she’s got used to making the odd sacrifice over the years.

“After that, I pretended to be a photographer at rock gigs for a couple of years. And then, in 1977, I started to take my efforts a little more seriously. To begin with, I was just photographing some of the interesting-looking people I was seeing as I went about my daily life. I realised early on that I was rather fascinated by other people’s lives as they were more interesting than my own. My photographs simply provide a window through which people can observe the world that I see – if they want to.

“I had my first show, Some Punk Portraits, at the ICA in 1978 – and after the show I remember thinking ‘Blimey, I don’t suppose anything like that will happen again’. I thought it would be a one-off. But some sort of seed was sown and gradually I felt there might be some mileage in going out and searching for other interesting-looking young people.

“In 1979, a group of skinheads approached me in a club and asked if I’d like to photograph them. By that time, I’d already embarked on shooting a group that would soon become known as the new romantics and, after that, I started to work a bit harder at it.

“It started with just a few casual snaps. But within a year or two it dawned on me that I was recording people who might not look the way they did for very long. I had no idea how significant these groups were going to be in the future, though. My only regret is that I didn’t take myself more seriously early on. It didn’t occur to me that what I’d been doing was actually ‘important’ until after my book 78-87 London Youth was published and people started to tell me so.

“Most of the people I approach have been happy to be photographed. I’m always very low key and I try to be extremely polite but it doesn’t work with everyone, by any means. These days, it’s getting much, much harder. We live in a very a multicultural society now and not everyone sees having their photograph taken by a stranger as reasonable. I certainly get more threats from unwilling subjects (or their partners) than I ever used to 30 or 40 years ago.

“If I ever feel at all apprehensive about approaching anyone – and I often do – then I know they are just right. I’m always looking for the kind of person who draws the eye, and these kind of people are never hard to find because they stand out. There needs to be an element of uncertainty for it to be interesting.

“I’m also looking for people who look deliberately different but I draw the line at anyone that looks too theatrical, as if they are just wearing a costume for the day – one can always tell. I’m looking for overt sexuality, from either gender. And vulnerability. Both these qualities are extremely photogenic and, when put together, even more so. One of my favourite photographs was one I took on the streets of Soho, of Babs, the girl with the back-to-front facial tattoo.

“When I was a rock photographer, my favourite photos were always of people who had had serious careers and became modern icons, such as Like Keith Richards, Tom Waits or Nick Cave. But my career highlight has to be when my name went on the masthead of The Face magazine in, I think, 1980 or 1981. And, about a year later, on the masthead of NME. In both cases I was listed alongside one of my heroes Anton Corbijn.

“I’m not sure anything that’s happened since has quite matched that frisson of excitement. But I’ve published quite a few books and been in lots of fantastic shows and, as a rock photographer, I travelled all over the world – always at someone else’s expense.

“At one point, I did a shoot in the pool at the top of the Hyatt on Sunset, known to the cognoscenti as the ‘Riot House’. The pool has the most beautiful view over Hollywood and the skyscrapers of Downtown LA, and has featured in plenty of films, including This is Spinal Tap. It was a glorious sunny day and I was in that very pool, shooting The Beautiful South for the cover of NME. I’m not sure it gets much better than that.

“But I don’t take any of it for granted, not for a moment. And I’m always looking ahead to the next project. I’ve just done a book for Gucci and I have one final book of work from my 1980s archive, which will be published in the autumn.

I’m always looking for the kind of person who draws the eye, and there needs to be an element of uncertainty for it to be interesting.

“I’m currently starting work on a monograph I have planned for 2018, and I’ve also been discussing a collaboration with the artist Sam Jackson and a completely separate collaboration with the silk screen-printer Danny Flynn. Then there are several other long-term projects from the 1980s and 90s that have never quite seen the light of day.

 

“For the past 10 years I’ve also been shooting some mild erotica. Initially I thought it could become a book and I did have a publisher lined up. But erotica is such an oversubscribed area that unless one has something very different to contribute, one has to think very carefully. The work started out in one direction and, almost entirely due to my subjects, it veered off in another direction and what I’ve been left with I’m not quite sure what to do with!

 

All photos by Derek Ridgers

 

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