Ewen Spencer is often best known for his work documenting youth and subcultural scenes. Sometimes those scenes are defined by geography, as with his city-hopping Guapamente zine series, sometimes his work has dwelled upon specific musical worlds – grime and UK garage among others. His new book, While You Were Sleeping, published by Damiani, is not about a scene. It’s about something bigger. It’s about people just having a great time out.
Fresh out of art school Spencer found himself photographing for Sleazenation magazine, taking photos in clubs of every imaginable variety all around the UK. Now, some 20 years on, he’s brought these photographs together to create a celebratory, seamy, and sometimes solitary vision of British nightlife in an era of optimism.
VICE: You had been shooting at Northern Soul nights as a student, and those images were your route into working for Sleazenation, right?
Ewen Spencer: The book’s not about Sleazenation, but the pictures stem from that time when I was working for them, mostly between ‘98 and 2000. It was my springboard into making professional pictures.
For two years at art school I had been shooting the Northern Soul scene. I remember on my bedroom wall as a student I had a planner of all the all-nighters. Northern Soul is very seasonal, thinking about it now it was wonderful, those summer nights in the West Midlands, coming out of the club at 5AM into the sun. That was my scene, so it felt good going back into it as something else, as a photographer.
Steve Lazarides – who was the magazine’s photo director – he got that work, saw that it was authentic, real. I had really targeted Sleazenation as a title. It was very ironic, and that wasn’t a thing then, you wouldn’t find that in music, or clubs. Everything was very heartfelt, earnest, optimistic. Sleazenation was a bit more “fuck off”. Very punk, and very British.
Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, 2000.
So were they assigning you beats or specific jobs? How did it work?
The photos were to illustrate the listings section of the magazine. They would send me to places, but then say, “Just fill in the gaps”. It’s difficult to explain now, but going out was such a big thing then, the depth and variety of places you could go was amazing. Soho was heaving. It was a very different time. I want the pictures to describe that time and discuss it. But not really in a nostalgic way, it’s not about wanting to go back to that – it was just an interesting moment.
You were doing documentary work in a club, rather than “club photos”.
I had come fresh from learning about social documentary photography, which I wasn’t really aware of until I went to uni in Brighton. I learned about Side Gallery, and photographers like Chris Killip, Graham Smith, Paul Graham and later Ken Grant and Mark Power. These people were instrumental in reshaping social documentary photography into the 80s and 90s. It was something very British and I applied that to something I loved, which was Northern Soul.
Metalheadz, pupils, Blue Note, Hoxton Sq 1998.
Do you feel like it was a time when people were just more relaxed about being photographed on a night out?
I was quite covert about it, but I was also quite integrated into the places. The people in the pictures I would often have spent some time with. It was often about reassuring people that what I was doing was sound. That was a time when saying you “worked for a magazine” made people feel it was all above board. They were probably just relieved I wasn’t from social services or an undercover copper. I think the book also has a lot of solitary feeling images, that maybe reflects a bit of my experience. I was just there as a young man trying t make my way, it was quite solitary.
WKD bar, Kentish Town, 1999
A lot of people know your work from more scene-specific projects.
You can see within the book that I was sort of already erring toward different scenes and subcultures. There’s heavy metal, quite hard gay clubbing at places like Wild Fruit in Brighton, nu metal nights at Metro, just off Oxford Street. I would venture into those sorts of spaces because I was interested in the subcultural and the sartorial. In how people behaved when they came together.
I was going through all the old images early last year with my son, who works with me. He was like, “What the hell’s this about? What was going on?” And I was like: “This is what was going on”. This is what people did. He was born in ‘98, so he asked me where he was [while I was making these pictures] and I said, “You were sleeping”. That’s where the title comes from.
Looking back on it all, do you think of it as a sort of “halcyon era”, were people having more fun?
I think there was a lot of optimism. People were having a good time in general. The 90s were, as people always say, my generation’s 1960s. People converged a bit more from across classes. Asian kids, white working class kids, Black kids. Everyone was mixing it up more. There was a convergence of indie guitar music with dance. There were so many different genres popping up every week. We had a new government. It was a very exciting time. I felt very optimistic about things.
But of course, there’s always a seedy underside to British nightlife. British kids are just a bit like that. They just like it, don’t they? It’s getting your hands dirty, it’s experiential. You want to have made an impact, or to have “lost part of yourself to the night”.
Sanctury, Rancid, Camden, 1999.
Queer Nation, Substation South, Brixton. 1998.
Sonic Mook Experiment, 333, Old Street. 1998.