An exclusive podcast
Some people earn the tag of legend – and for five decades Derek Ridgers, the London-based photographer has captured the Dark Carnival of the British underworld in our most radical club nights, from Blitz and Skin Two through to today’s Wraith Club. Growing up in the 60s, and making his name photographing punk clubs, and taking rock shots of the world’s greatests, he is a hero to many working photographers and fans of subculture, alike. Humble, brilliant, and with a rock n roll gallows humour to match his dark lens, now 70, in this Goth Shop X Cold Lips podcast, it’s a pleasure to have a conversation attempting to span his archive, and talk about voyeurism and documenting the cultural politics of the underground.
Derek Ridgers stands alone in his preservation of the fleeting expressions of the night. His limited silver bromide and C-type signed and numbered Derek Ridgers Editions are available via the wonderfully curated Goth Shop:
Here, Kirsty Allison speaks with Derek Ridgers, subscribe for more, and transcription lies below.
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DARK CARNIVAL: Derek Ridgers
DECEMBER 10, 2020
For nearly five decades photographer Derek Ridgers has been documenting the dark carnival of our nightlife from The Roxy Club, Blitz and Skin Two, through to Wraith Club. Poet and performer Kirsty Allison talks to Derek about the cultural politics of the underground, and how his work both captures and inspires our precious freedom of expression.
This interview is an extract from a collaborative podcast by Goth Shop and Cold Lips.
You can stream the full podcast interview at Cold Lips here. ♥︎
Kirsty: I started Cold Lips because of the work that you started, Derek. I first met you when I was working at Loaded magazine. I saw you creaking in, leather trousers, probably having been up all night.
Derek: I used to wear leather trousers did I? Crikey. I don’t remember wearing leather trousers during the day. I certainly wore them at night sometimes, but only under sufferance.
Kirsty: Right. To blend?
Derek: Well, I didn’t blend in anyway, but I’d been going to fetish clubs for about ten years, just wearing a cardigan and a pair of jeans, and one day someone said to me, ‘Why don’t you just go a little bit of the way and wear a pair of leather trousers?’. And so I did. I’ve still got those leather trousers, but I’d rather like to have a ritual burning of them, or, maybe I’ll pitch them into the Thames.
Kirsty: I remember us having a conversation that you went to Ealing Art College. I’m from Ealing originally, and it’s always fascinating to me that you’d walked those streets, and had been there with Freddie Mercury.
Derek: I had a fantastic time in college. It was really my coming of age as a person, because until then I was just a kid, a schoolboy, living at home with my mother, father and grandmother. I wasn’t very worldly, I was very immature. But going to art school I met a lot of interesting people, mostly older people, because I was 16 when I went there. I had a fantastic time. That was 1967.
Kirsty: Wow. Ealing in ‘67. My father would have been knocking about shortly after that. A fun era around there.
Derek: I knew Freddie although he didn’t stand out particularly. I mean he stood out because he was quite handsome and very well dressed. Very friendly chap. Everybody liked him.
Kirsty: And how did you find Ealing at that time? Was it quite remote? Did you go out into town, or to the clubs?
Derek: I wasn’t really much of a clubber in those days, because in ’67, apart from a few blues clubs and folk clubs, there were no real nightclubs, not clubs as you would know them from the 70’s or 80’s onwards. There were a few discotheques, but they were more of a tourist thing, you know, for people that were in London on holiday.
Kirsty: What about the scene that Duggie Fields talks about? When he and Andrew Logan are doing the costume clubs.
Derek: I wasn’t knocking about with Duggie Fields in those days, or these days, for that matter. I think he’s a few years older than me. The first time I remember seeing him was around ‘75 when Labelle played at the Dominion. That was an interesting night. All the people that would have gone on to form the New Romantics a few years later were at that gig.
Kirsty: That’s always interesting. I love the way it always folds from one thing to another, like with Fiona Cartledge and Sign of the Times, and her being around Adam Ant, or the way punk folded into acid house with Spiral Tribe, or Mutoid Waste. Did you notice a lot of the Pink Floyd thing?
Derek: I was a Pink Floyd fan from quite early on. I saw them at the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream [Alexandra Palace, 1967]. I was actually sitting on the back of the stage when they played. They didn’t come on until about 3 o’clock in the morning. That was a good gig. There weren’t all that many people there, a few thousand.
Kirsty: Culture then must have been a lot smaller.
Derek: When I first started to read the International Times there were only a few places you could get it in Central London, you couldn’t just walk into Smiths and buy it. There was a network of people that had bought it, read it, and would hand it on.
Kirsty: James Brown, who was the editor of Loaded magazine, said that when he travelled with you extensively in the 90’s, that you had these hook-ups in clubs in different places all around the world. The way that culture operates now is so different. But your photography then and now is consistent in a kind of native need for people to express themselves.
Derek: In some clubs in New York and LA, Berlin, and even as far away as Rio, you would run into people that you might have seen in the clubs in London. It was quite interesting that these very colourful people would get around a bit.
Kirsty: I had that with people from Manumission. There’s a connectivity through nightlife that seems somehow stronger and more meaningful. Having seen the sun come up with people.
Derek: It was an interesting time. My ear was close to the ground in those days. Though it hasn’t been close to the ground for quite a long time, really.
Kirsty: Well, you’re doing Wraith club now, and it looks pretty good, it looks the same. I spoke recently with Lucia Blake, who started the Trans Pride festival and the club night Transmissions at Vogue Fabrics, in Dalston. I really love what she’s created. I think there’s a kind of ‘post-filter’ aesthetic. It takes pleasure in being a bit raw. For me, it signifies that there’s a real need to be properly inventive, rather than just a simulacrum of everything that’s been before. But it is interesting too that many of the images you take look like they could have been the mid-80’s.
Derek: Yes in some cases, they do. A lot of people will say to me, ‘Oh, we wish we’d been around in those days. It looked like so much fun’. And it was fun at times, but it wasn’t quite the same amount of fun as it appears to be from the photos. It was mostly just ordinary people wearing jeans and jumpers, standing around watching the cool people – Mods, Hippies, and then others. There would be a few that were great looking, everyone else standing about watching them.
Kirsty: So the image gets canonised in itself, doesn’t it? And then becomes hyperreal in what it then represents. They become iconic. Did you study graphic design in the 70’s?
Derek: I did a graphic design for a year, until I was thrown off that course. Then I did advertising and marketing. I spent ten years as an advertising art director. I loved the job. I had a few decent clients, such as the Minolta Camera account. I was offered South African Air Airlines and I was the only person that didn’t want to work on it because of the political situation at the time. I didn’t mind working on tobacco. I suppose I should have recused myself of tobacco, really, but it seemed like a good thing to work on at the time.
Kirsty: It is interesting to hear you talk about not wanting to work with politics, because I find your work very political. It is kind of documenting the cultural politics of the underground, and the people finding freedom in that. It seems you have been quite conscious of what you’ve been documenting.
Derek: The first four or five years in the clubs I was just as an amateur enthusiast. I used to see great people and take photographs of them. But I suppose things started to change in the spring of 1980 when I had some photos in the Sunday Times magazine, and then in The Face magazine, I think it was issue seven. I started to believe that maybe I could become a photographer. I enjoyed the advertising job, but I wasn’t quite the right person. I didn’t really fit very well. I wasn’t a smiler. I didn’t butter people up, you know? I got the sack from my last advertising job at the beginning of ’81, and I thought, well, I’ll give it a go.
Kirsty: You’ve worked for most decent publications, but I’ve never seen you as being a commercial photographer. I think that’s what has made your work authentic. I think you respect who it is that you’re photographing. So you get to really capture them.
Derek: Well, it’s kind of you to say so, but I don’t really know. I don’t feel that I’m judgmental at all, by the same token, I don’t necessarily need to know very much about the person I’m photographing. I like it all to come out of the process rather than out of my own mind. If it’s a portrait in a nightclub or on the street, I don’t ever like to direct anybody. I suppose I got into my stride by about ’84. But now looking back, I think my photographs would have been better if I’d have just gone with the flow a bit more, but I didn’t have the maturity to recognise that when I was a young photographer.
Kirsty: It’s so interesting the way you change. But that’s also what you see in those photographs. And it kind of goes with the territory of photographing club people, that they are going to show off a bit.
Derek: That’s true. But another thing that people don’t always realise from my photos is that those clubs were often extremely dark. Very noisy, very sweaty. Sometimes I couldn’t even particularly see what I was photographing. My photographs sometimes come out looking nicely lit, a contemplative moment, but it wasn’t always like that. I’d be standing there, people walking backwards and forwards while I was trying to take a photograph. I also had to pre-focus everything. But that was easy enough to do because it was either three feet or six feet for me.
I wish I could say different, but I reckon probably fifty percent of the photographs I took in clubs in those days had something wrong with them. Weren’t in focus, weren’t properly exposed, were developed wrong, maybe the chemicals were too old or I took the top off before it was fixed, or shook it up and you could see bubbles. I made every single possible mistake you could make, and I made them three or four times.
Kirsty: I guess that’s what happens if you go out all night your whole life?
Derek: To begin with, when I was still working, I used to hitch home. It was possible to do in those days. Sometimes I’d get in at half past five, you know, I’d have to be up to go to work at half past seven. Maybe this is why I got the sack eventually.
Kirsty: Did you get invited to go to the clubs? Did you get commissioned?
Derek: I did everything but get invited. I definitely got disinvited to quite a lot of clubs. When I first turned up to clubs like Billy’s back in the late 70s, they would say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir, it’s private party tonight, it’s not for you’. Steve Strange wouldn’t let me in to begin with. I just used to have to wear him down, which I could eventually, he was a nice enough guy. But he didn’t want a lot of people who looked like me in his club. There’s a few photographs of me in the clubs, I’m actually wearing a cardigan in some of them. In the early days of the fetish clubs, some of the clientele definitely didn’t want me there.
Kirsty: It really was truly underground back then.
Derek: The scene at Skin Two club at Falconburg Court at the beginning of the eighties was a very tightly knit little group. I don’t think they liked me being there at all. I got offered out a few times, but I didn’t go. I mean, offered out for fight.
Kirsty: You must have seen a lot of things. The fetish clubs in Berlin now have a no-photography rule.
Derek: I think they have in London in the fetish clubs now. But if you know the people that are running it and you are discreet and polite, I think it’s okay. And I always was, I was always very polite. I never used to take photographs in those clubs if I hadn’t asked people first.
Kirsty: It may be a voyeuristic scene, but it’s not the same as you going in with a button in your pocket, and a little rose with a camera in it.
Derek: No, it’s not quite like that. I think there’s a lot voyeurism in most photographers really.
Kirsty: Yes, and as a journalist as well. It’s interesting about kind of how sex gets changed through these eras and kind of how how that’s changing now for women, too. I just find everything so puritanical at the moment. I mean, sexual liberation is kind of part of the underground.
Kirsty: I wanted to talk to you more about the politics of body modification. You were taking these photographs in the States in the 80’s and 90’s, it wasn’t really going on here so much.
Derek: I first started becoming interested in tattooed people, around 1980-81, I went to The Face and suggested an article about it. I photographed a lot of skinheads who were tattooed in jail, or by scratchers. There were some tattooists, Dennis Cockell was one, who didn’t want their work being associated. But I could definitely see their point. I think some of the kids with the facial tattoos were persuaded by the people doing it. I think often they might have just been offered a couple of cans of lager as payment for doing the work.
Early on I was very interested in these facial tattoos and the antisocial tattoos. To such an extent that if I was on a bus and I saw someone with a facial tattoo I would jump off the bus and run after them.
I don’t take photographs on the street so much now because of my age, really. I’ve still got the energy, but I find it much harder to make contact with people. A lot of young people, especially young women, don’t want to be photographed by old men, and I can see their point. You know, they don’t want to be chased down the street by an old man with a camera.
Kirsty: It’s really changed, hasn’t it?
Derek: When I started in the 70s, I was sometimes the first person to photograph them. They’d never been photographed by anybody. In my whole life I never saw my father take a photograph. I don’t even think he had a camera.
But I’ve handed the baton on to other photographers doing the same kind of work now. And I think they’re doing it a lot better than I could now anyway. But I still do it because I enjoy it.
Kirsty: I’d like to go back to the idea about whether or not you see it as a political act to create this archive?
Derek: Well, I think everything you do is political to some extent, but I try to be as objective as I can. I photographed a lot of people in the past that had racist tattoos. And I think in those kinds of instances, you have to allow the photographs to speak for themselves. The more I can shut up about it, the better it is really.
Kirsty: Yes, that’s like me talking about my poems, I’d rather just let the art talk. I’d rather just produce something that worked, rather than a disposable comment.
Derek: The last time I had photographs of skinheads in The Guardian, I started to read the comments and I had to stop. I don’t think anybody agreed with me. They either thought I was advertising these fascists, or the people from the right thought I was trying to show them up. I just wanted it to be remembered, what the people were doing, not just one group, but many different groups, and allow the photographs to speak for themselves. And then also, by the same token, let people say what they think as well.
Kirsty: I’ve read you describe that as how you first learn how to get people’s trust.
Derek: I’ve learnt a lot over the years. You’ve got to be completely honest. You can’t patronise people. Some of these skinheads were very attuned to when someone was trying to patronise them. So you have to be completely honest, even if your views are not the same as their views, and that becomes obvious very quickly. I’d ask them if they mind being photographed and if they’d say yes, I’d try and keep completely quiet, not chit-chat to them or anything, just so that I’m just there in front of them. After a while, it can unnerve people slightly. And it’s at that point at which I get the better photographs.
Kirsty: It’s exactly the same as being a journalist. That awkward silence that people feel, right? That space to hang in. Do you see any similarities do you see between you and your subjects?
Derek: Well I am a little bit like some of my subjects inside, but just not outside, and it’s the outside I’m photographing usually. I mean, when I was young, I was probably just as mixed up as some of them were.
Kirsty: It’s a really British gaze that you’ve got too. When I look at all your work in context now, the whole story from the 70’s to now – it really does suggest this dark carnival of what we do in the underworld, that kind of rare freedom. And it’s a privileged place to be, to have that particular set of values, a way in which we can express ourselves.
Derek: I wonder if we’re ever going to get back to that. Whether the coming generations will ever be in these dark, sweaty nightclubs where you can hardly move. It’s not going to be very healthy for a while is it?
Kirsty: Though it never really has been has it! I see people online, and that culture is alive. But social media has made all of these things so much more shareable, and in that way they’ve become more conscious. But some of the wilder ones are completely anarchic about how much they share publicly. I’m concerned about the Foucauldian value of us being observed all the time, and the power of an omnipresent Big Brother that affects our social behaviour with that big lens, and how that ultimately affects our freedom.
When I was going out in the 90s, there weren’t any cameras. If you went out with a camera, people were like, ‘What are you doing?’ So it wasn’t very documented. Whereas now it’s as if that’s the reason for people to live, because it’s cultural capital. And capital value, too, because you are trading your look and your business as an actual economy, which is worth something in the shallow worlds of media and personality.
I think the biggest act would be if the undercurrent was used publicly. But there’s so much at risk with that, because people cannot trade against the system that they’re in. That was what was always attractive about club culture, that it was where things went on away from the system.
Kirsty: There’s an interview you did with the Independent saying ‘My excuse was having a camera’.
Derek: I suppose when I started as a photographer, having a camera was an excuse to gaze into other, more interesting lives than my own. It was like opening a window and looking through at a party that was going on. But when I went out with my camera, I never used to socialise with people. But if I’d have been standing around talking to people, I’d be missing out on taking photographs. So I was very focussed.
There were a few people that helped me and were always very nice and let me into their clubs at the time. So I appreciate that. I haven’t forgotten that, like Rusty Egan and Chris Sullivan.
Kirsty: But you were helpful to them too. I love the thing about Ginsberg always having a camera, and Patti Smith grabbing whoever’s around. I love all that stuff because it’s important that we document our lives. But that’s all on steroids on Instagram now.
Derek: I think people share too much of themselves online in general. Some people explain every aspect of their life online. And I don’t think it’s really a good idea very often.
I wish I’d have had a camera in the sixties. Everybody around in certain places, all kinds of people. The very first time I ever got taken out by a girl we went to all nighter at The Roundhouse. As I walked in I had to step over David Hockney snogging on the floor. That was the first time in my life I’d ever seen a man kissing another man, and it was David Hockney. I used to see him around occasionally. I got a photograph of him in Gossips, around about ’82 or ’83.
Kirsty: I used to love going to Gossips. That was a great club. And Martin Green’s Smashing Club. He is solid in that British gaze. The thing about Covid is that these people, who are very much the fabric of that British gaze that I’m talking about – they’re the true artists in many ways of this very British identity, and they aren’t getting rewarded at the moment. And I wonder whether or not that true underground hustle is going to be abolished through everything becoming more data-centric.
Derek: I think will always be there, but I think it just evolves in different ways. But I think we are going to have underground clubs again one day and underground basement clubs, too. If they can ever find the places to have underground basement clubs, because I think Gossip’s is a hotel now, isn’t it?
Kirsty: They are all hotels are now aren’t they? But all the hotels are shutting now too. With Covid I was thinking like, wow, it’s all going to get destroyed, all the institutions are going to break. I’m going to do theatre in my garden. But it’s gone a bit shonky because the institutions get funded, the artists don’t. There [may be no] reordering of of it all. It might just go back to how it was, and we might end up in a super-club era of mass culture.
Derek: I can’t really express a view about that. I’m not really the age group by any means.
Kirsty: Yes, it’s not up to me either. Thank God! I’ve always felt with London, being part of a club culture, that I am invested in that culture, that’s who I am, that’s what’s created me. And I’ve felt a duty to kind of preserve that, and educate through the work that I was doing at DJ magazine, to let people know what that cultural history is, to feed forward.
Derek: Yes I feel a little duty to the people who have been kind enough to allow me to photograph them over the years. I like to try to give something back as well.
Kirsty: I think in your photographs you are giving people liberation by offering that as an image. An image is so pervasive, and it does so much to be able to see the alternative [way of living] as an option.
It’s an important role of your work. Otherwise, all of that history would disappear. Your work is legendary. It is so important. It’s unique and it’s the best portrayal of club culture and the underground that I’ve ever seen.
I’ve always found it reassuring, because I’ve always been that person, and what I found in club culture is other freaks. And that was how we used to have to do it, because the culture of connecting in any other way didn’t exist. So the only way that you could meet people was through clubs. That’s kind of the culture that I’ve grown up in. And met the people I know and trust. A lot of that is to do with some sort of late night psycho-geography. I don’t know if it is a spiritual thing, but young people still need it, you still need to find your tribe.
Kirsty : Are you doing much commercial work?
Derek: I was shooting fashion quite a bit until the early months of this year, but it may well be that I don’t get back to that work because, of course, I’m 70 now, and people might think, well, we don’t really want to endanger him. I mean, a room full of young people photographing young people, that’s fine. So it’s possible that I might not get back to that, but I’d be happy to carry on shooting fashion.
Apart from obviously the very sad aspect of some people not surviving, this year hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing for people like me. It’s given me a chance focus more on what I am doing, and time to go through my negatives. And I’ve got tens of thousands that no one’s ever seen that I should really scan and smarten up.
Kirsty: Looking forward to seeing all of those, sooner rather than later.
Derek: Yes, but that is a constant thing too. I don’t think I’ll ever finish it. It’s just something that I need to do.
Derek Ridgers photographic archive spans from 1976 to today. His prints are available in limited editions C-Types and Bromides at Derek Ridgers Editions. You can find our special collaborations with Derek in the Goth Shop store.
Kirsty Allison is a writer, poet and performer and founder of the underground journal Cold Lips. Kirsty ran the Silvia Plath Club , sings in her band Vagrant Lovers, and is managing editor of Ambit literary magazine.
All photographs © Derek Ridgers, 2020.
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