Derek Ridgers is best known for documenting the British youth movements of the 70s and 80s, but he doesn’t feel much nostalgia for the period.
He never felt much of a personal connection to the punks, rockabillies and New Romantics he famously photographed; the closest he got was to the skinheads, but with a thick head of hair pulled back into a ponytail then as now there was never a danger of him becoming one.
“I’ve always been the kind of photographer who’s on the outside, looking in,” he tells me as we sit in a London cafe flicking through 78-87: London Youth, a collection of his work which will be published this week. “It’s a historical document. I’m not going to make any big claims about the time – I recorded how they lived and how they dressed and maybe I lived a little bit vicariously through it.”
Perhaps this distance comes from the fact that when he started photographing these groups, aged 26, Ridgers already felt he was “too old” to be truly part of them. “I was working in an advertising agency and I’d just gone down to a few gigs and started photographing the bands. Then the people in the crowd started looking more interesting than the bands so I turned to them.”
Mark, Taboo, 1985; Martin, Billys, 1978 (Derek Ridgers)
He carried on with his ‘nightclub portraits’, but never stopped working in advertising. He later moved on to portraits of celebrities and politicians, with subjects including Martin Amis, Tony Blair, Tiger Woods and Vivian Westwood.
Ridgers, now 61, says he chose 1978 and 1987 to bookend the collection not because of any symmetry in the dates, but because these nine years covered the post-punk, pre-acid house period. “That was the period when these groups flourished – after punk started to diversify but before they were killed off by ecstasy and people going to raves.
New Romantic, Chelsea, 1980; Babs, Soho, 1987 (Derek Ridgers)
“Those were some of my best times but I don’t think there’s really a difference in youth culture then and now. People still go out and want to be seen, they have that urge to be looked at. The only change is that people have access to a lot more media. If you have a good look it can go round the world in the same evening – you don’t have to wait for it to be published in a book like this.”
(This is a contrast to the essay by video artist John Maybury introducing the photographs, in which he suggests London has yet to see another youth movement as inventive and energetic as the ones which defined his heyday: “Curiously the London represented in these images might be recognisable to a 20-year-old today – a time of recession coming after an extended period of boom and bust, but there the similarities end”.)
The real difference between the late ‘70s and 2014, Ridgers says, is found not in the subjects, but photography itself. “I’d never have made it if I was setting out now. You’ve got all these bloggers and street photographers doing stuff like this, and it’s much, much harder to get noticed.
“I got on because there weren’t so many people doing that at the time. To anyone who asks me how to get into photography, I always say – make sure you’re doing your own thing, don’t just hang around with everyone else.”
Ridgers stuck at his own thing and is hoping to bring out a wider collection of his work – stretching from the nightclubs of the ‘70s to now – in the next couple of years. He shows me a selection of the images he hopes to include, which are oddly similar despite being created up to 35 years apart: it’s true that the same sense of exhibitionism runs through all of them. But how have the clubs themselves changed over the decades he’s spent at some of London’s best known nightspots? “To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve never really been to a club to go clubbing.”