The headlines don't make things sound particularly great. "UK nightclubs closing at 'alarming rate', industry figures suggest". "Why the British nightclub is dying (by a nightclub owner)." "How can we save London's club scene?" The general story goes that before licensing regulations, noise complaints and high rents started to drive smaller venues out of existence, a definitive club culture had spread through the London's West End, East End and pockets of its south-west.
The reality's obviously more nuanced and complicated than that, but we're left with one conclusion: clubs are closing down faster than new ones are opening, not just in London but around the country. In fact, by the end of last year, the UK had lost about half of all its clubs in the decade since 2005. If that doesn't represent the perfectly smug argument for the YouTube "E was better in my day" commenter cohort, then I'm not sure what does. But thanks to the work of photographers who documented life after dark in the 80s and beyond, we've got more than the hazy memories of a group of 45-year-olds with which to define that explosive time in British nightlife.
"What I was always taking pictures of was not so much the music or the dance, in a strange way," says Adam Friedman, a 53-year-old photographer whose club from the 80s to 2000s are held in Youth Club's photography archive and are part of a group exhibition that opened in east London on the 7th of July. "What I was taking pictures of was the joy. And I think that's an underrated power. That's an antidote to anything bad in the world – it's our kind of superpower."
Speaking to Adam now, almost 30 years since he returned to London after a spell photographing New York's subcultures and club kids, he sounds as entranced by the sanctuary of the nightclub as he was as a teenager. He grew up in north London, he says, picking up an interest in clubs through a fascination with punk and live music. A few years later, he cut his teeth photographing people in downtown Manhattan – from his Hispanic neighbours to "the Wall Street guys, throwing their money around in places like Area, spending thousands in a night" – then returned to the brutality of Thatcherism in the UK, in about 1987.
"Everyone seemed like they'd been broken, like they'd been told they couldn't do anything," he says, remembering the anti-community sentiment at the time. But, at night, people still found a way to connect. "Sometimes at about 3AM, there's a moment, there's a look on someone's face: a way the whole thing comes together. And it's amazing. We've all felt that, anyone that's been out and been a kid and had wanderlust in their heart, has felt it. But to get a picture of it, or a series of photos of it, is amazing. It's really important." Keeping a record of those moments of happiness has come to define his work.
How does he feel about how far we've gone in the other direction, where every one of us who can hold their smartphone aloft is a photographer? "What I've always liked about photography," he says, "is that it's an egalitarian art. Before phones and everything came in, we were represented at every main occasion. Of course, it's exploded. I'm alright with it. When things change, I change." In this case, that means he's moving from his club portraits and photos to a project on a massive scale. He's looking to turn a mosaic-like print of hundreds of photos – "a picture of a club night for every night of the year" – into one giant piece, reminiscent of a stained-glass window. He's calling it the Key of Joy.
As for the future of club nights, he doesn't sound massively excited to throw in his two cents on the topic. "I'm not really sure I'm qualified to answer that," he begins. "I think what's happening to club venues in London is what happened to gas stations in London. Try filling your car up here. Where did the gas stations go? They got sold and they're building offices on them. That's what happened to the West End, that's what's happening everywhere. It just got too tempting not to sell those buildings off."
The 'Origins East' exhibition, featuring photos by Adam Friedman, Gavin Watson, Teddy Fitzhugh and David Swindells, runs from the 7th of July until the 22nd of August at London's Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen.
See some more of Adam's photos, as well as a selection by the exhibition's other photographers, below.