Derek Ridgers’ London Youth gives unprecedented access into the heart and soul of the subcultures that defined London’s alternative club scene across the 70s and 80s. From the latter days of punk to the early days of acid house, Ridgers’ lens penetrates far beneath the surface of London’s hedonistic, underground revolution and exposes the creativity of a generation eager not to conform during a time of recessionary hardship and Thatcherite politics.
While Ridgers’ book may serve as a testament to a different time and the ever-changing nature of youth culture and fashion, more than that this collection of photographs reminds us of the timelessness of the ceremonial teenage ritual of dressing up and going out. Ridgers’ work spans far beyond the anonymous portrait photography published in this book, his later work boasting some of Britain’s most important figures in literature, music and film. We went down to his Q&A at the Victoria & Albert Museum to grab a few words with the man “always on the margins with a camera,” about the contrast between then and now, fame and anonymity and the effects of technology on modern youth culture.
Does subculture still exist in any sense in modern day London, or does this book document a bygone period?
I think it still does exist. I went around Soho recently for a week, taking pictures for Instagram and I didn’t have too much difficulty in finding some really great looking people. You need some place for focus, a reason to go to a club or an event, and I think that’s still very much the same. If you can find that focus, you’ll find those people.
Do you feel like there are less defined groups of people, but the attitude behind that expressionism remains?
Yes. And I think there’s less separation between youth groups now than there was then because nothing has a chance to really grow out of the spotlight. Everything is in the spotlight because of social media. If anything interesting happens, it’s put on social networks and immediately people know about it. Then, almost as immediately, people will be online criticising it. So these groups don’t have a real chance to grow out of the spotlight. When Billie’s started in Soho in 78, it was 18 months before it was covered in the media, by which time everybody had really evolved.
In contrast to your older photos, on this Instagram account you often tag the subject, do you like the relationship you can now build with the people in your photographs?
Social media is great in that sense because it gives people an opportunity to involve themselves. It’s not that I’m just going around looking for great looking people, use them and then forget them. And with my older photos, social media has been a fantastic help when going through my archive because I can ask people whether they know certain people, and whether they’re still around or not. I’ve learnt a lot more about some of my subjects.
London is such a key character in these photos, has the city’s commercialisation and gentrification changed the people you meet and the way you interact with them?
I think it has, yes. Things have changed. It’s harder to find certain groups in London because they’ve just been priced out. You still can find pockets of genuine Londoners; you just have to know where to go. The thing that really is more difficult is everyone’s got a perception of what someone taking a photograph of them now means. I saw a couple of middle-aged mods walking down Carnaby Street recently and I asked if I could photograph them and I managed to persuade them but they didn’t really want me to. One of them said “Make sure that doesn’t go on Facebook.” Two middle-aged guys, getting all their mod gear on, walking up and down Carnaby Street, they must have really wanted to be looked at, and I’m just helping them.
Your body of works consists of both anonymous people on the street, and high profile celebrities - do you approach someone famous the same way you would someone anonymous on the street?
No, it’s got to be completely different. You can’t really step back with someone famous. You’ve got to get your personality to interact with theirs. With my nightclub and street portraits I was really just an observer of what was going on. The most I would ever say to someone was “Would you mind standing there, as oppose to there.” If you try that with famous people, you’re reliable to become unstuck. When I first started, my first photographs of rock groups were terrible because I just used to stand there and photograph them, whatever they were doing I would just photograph them.
Finally, of all these different subcultures you’ve captured, was there ever one you felt more affiliated with, even a part of, or did you always feel very much uninvolved?
I wasn’t uninvolved, but I wasn’t fully a part of any. I did try to be a skinhead, a cheapo version of a skinhead, when I was about 16 or 17. But I wear glasses so I can’t get involved in fighting, and I didn’t have the money to buy the clothes. And I didn’t have any skinhead friends. I did feel a connection with a lot of the people I was photographing. But by the time of the wave of skinheads I started photographing in the late 70s-early 80s, the far right had got themselves involved. In the 60s there was none of that.