London is known for all sorts. Its mawkish tourist attractions, its pie and mash shops, its diversity, its unparalleled destruction of everyone and everything that makes it so diverse. But it's also known for its nightlife, because although clubs may be dropping off faster than developers can acquire their deeds and build luxury flats in their place, the city still offers some of the best nights out in the world—just like it has done through all sorts of scenes and subcultures.
Derek Ridgers, known for his Skinheads: 1979–1984 collection and his photos of Ibiza before the rave generation arrived, has been snapping the capital's club kids for the past five decades. Over the years, the music they move to and the clothes peeling off their sweaty bodies may have changed, but the excitement and exhibitionism of clubbers in London remains the same.
Next month, he'll be releasing a collection of photos from the past 40 years in a book called The Dark Carnival: Portraits from the Endless Night. I recently spoke to Derek about his life in photography.
VICE: Hi Derek. Why nightlife photography? What was it that attracted you to that over, say, wildlife or industrial photography?
Derek Ridgers: Ever since I was at art school in the 1960s I loved to look at photographs, and I used to tear my favorite ones out of magazines. I still have boxes of those old tear-sheets nearly 50 years later.
I was a keen music fan and I started taking a camera to gigs, forcing my way to the front, pretending to be a photographer to get pictures of bands I liked. In 1976, punk happened and, suddenly, I noticed the audiences change, so I swung around and started photographing the punk audiences instead.
What period are the photos in The Dark Carnival from?
The first photograph was taken on the opening night of London's first punk club, the Roxy, in December of 1976. The final images are from Torture Garden earlier this year at Electrowerkz in Islington. So 40 years spread across five decades.
Wow. Are you from London?
I'm a Londoner, born and bred. I was born in Chiswick, West London, in 1950. London has always been the primary location for my documentary photography. I've shot many other projects around the world, but I'm always drawn back to my home city.
From a very early age my mum used to bring me up to Piccadilly to go to Lyons Corner House, and afterwards we'd find a place to have a coffee in Soho. From the age of 12 I used to come up to Soho on my own to look for records and second-hand books. I was wandering around Soho a lot as a kid and I'm still wandering around there now, still shooting those same streets.
Were there any other clubs, bar the Roxy, that you focused on in your photography?
The Vortex [on Hanway Street, Soho]. If it wasn't for the Roxy and the Vortex, I might never have gone down the path that I did. Those clubs were both so full-on and intense; it was all very photogenic. Those early punk clubs were a very immersive experience.
Bowie Night at Billy's in Soho in 1978 was like walking into a Hieronymus Bosch painting: wonderful and very weird. Le Beat Route was my favorite New Romantic club; it was less touristy and more cliquey than Blitz or the Camden Palace. I didn't mind the cliques—I was there to photograph them.
Taboo from the mid 80s might well have been the greatest of all the clubs during my time. If they'd dropped a bomb on Taboo at the time they would have taken out the best London fashion photographers, models, and stylists of the day, because they all used to be in there. Which isn't that farfetched, as it was a stones throw from the Cafe De Paris, which actually was bombed once.
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Other than Ku, the incredible Ibizan club from the 1980s, the best clubs I've ever been to for pure, rampant, no-tomorrow hedonism would have been the great fetish clubs of the mid 90s: Submission and Torture Garden. Virtually anything that could happen in a nightclub would happen at those clubs in the mid 90s. The clothes were very imaginative, too. Nowadays, if people want to go to a fetish club, there are hundreds of places they can simply buy an outfit from online, but back in the 90s it wasn't so easy, so people made more of an effort. Torture Garden is still going, but it isn't like it was.
A shout-out should also go to the Vault in New York and Club Fuck in LA—both pretty crazy places in their day.
Aside from fashion, what have been the biggest changes you've seen in London's nightlife?
I don't go to so many clubs these days; I don't have my ear to the ground as much. I guess Instagram, selfies, and iPhones have turned nightclubs into one long photo shoot these days. Back when I started, I was occasionally the only person with a camera in a club and sometimes the first person outside of someone's immediate family ever to photograph them.
Which of the scenes that you photographed did you feel the closest affinity to, if any?
I'm not sure I had an affinity with any of them particularly. I'm tall and rather awkward looking, so I would have looked ridiculous as a New Romantic. When I was young, I wasn't quite old enough to be a mod. I was a very low-rent skinhead for a short while too, but I didn't have the money to buy the proper gear and, what with wearing glasses, I wasn't so keen on the fighting either, so I didn't make a very good skin.
When I first went to art school in the autumn of 1967 I still had my braces, short jeans, big boots, and cropped hair, but I soon let my hair grow long. For a while I became an odd amalgam of hippie and skinhead, and I was probably the only one of that group there ever was! These days I'm basically just an old hippy. I'm very nearly a pensioner and I still listen to Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and the Floyd more than any modern music.
What do you think of TV and film portrayals of the scenes that you photographed? This Is England, for example.
To be honest I find almost all depictions of youth culture in TV and films to be a little excruciating, although I couldn't criticize any of This Is England because I haven't watched it. These films are not directed at people like me. I've spent 40 or 50 years immersed in youth culture. Those sorts of films are aimed at new people who want to be informed and entertained. The stories are usually full of clichés, but that's inevitable. I suppose they only become clichés because they are based on a truth.
Having said that, I was blown away by how brilliant the art direction and set design was for the film Northern Soul. For me, it was just like looking through a window into the past.
What do you think about so many subcultures being spawned online rather than in the streets nowadays? Are people less interesting to photograph as a result?
I'm not one of those people who believe that the past is always better than the present. The great thing about the internet age is the access one has to everything, and the way that the planet has now become a global village. If you look at any old photographs it may appear that the past was always more interesting, but that's just a function of how things get edited. In a club full of 500 people, there might just be ten interesting ones, but those are the ones that will be endlessly photographed.
Then, when one looks back at those photographs, the assumption gets made that everyone must have been like that. They weren't. If anything, people are more interesting and more liberated these days than they ever were—but there are far less clubs for them to be interesting and liberated in.
What has also undoubtedly been lost is the ability for things to gestate outside of the public eye. Sometimes things need space to grow away from all the keyboard critics who never manage to do anything much themselves.
True. You must have seen a lot of nightclubs and venues close down—do you see this as a travesty, or as a natural change in an evolving city?
London is a big organic city that is constantly evolving, with various elements coming and going according to the prevailing fashions and economic conditions. There are not many clubs left now, but who knows what will happen in the future?
Everyone's complaining about the old neighborhoods that are being mashed up to create the Crossrail. Of course those neighborhoods often only existed in the first place because they were created by slum clearances or other changes. Just like the London Underground, which caused a lot of complaints in Victorian times, people always complain about change.
Do you feel that London nightlife is unique or particularly different to that of other cities?
I've been to nightclubs in every continent and in places as remote as Baffin Island [between Canada and Greenland]. All over the world, there's much more that's the same about nightclubs than what is different. Young people go out at night, listen to loud music, invariably drink, fall over, and try to hook up with the opposite sex. Nightclubs are always dark and loud, the world over. I guess it's always been this way and it always will be.
What one might say about London clubs is that they often seem less genteel than in other big cities. Back in the 70s and early 80s, there were often a lot of fights. These days, security in clubs are so much more professional. I don't remember the last time I saw a fight in a night club, which has to be a good thing. But, to me, young men fighting feels like a part of growing up, so in that sense it would be a shame to lose even that entirely.
Last up: What do you enjoy about nightclub photography? What's kept you doing it for so long?
I love the vitality and young people's desperation to express themselves through what they wear and how they present themselves. Leigh Bowery, for instance; in my opinion, the central fact about him was his desire to express himself through what he wore and how he behaved. He was amazingly original and extremely photogenic. Of course, people like Leigh Bowery are not ten-a-penny, but that same impulse exists in many of us.
Derek Ridgers's The Dark Carnival: Portraits from the Endless Night is available in November.
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