The capital’s youth culture, ever-changing, self-revitalising, has been fertile territory for street and documentary photographers alike since the 1950s, when a young Ken Russell snapped teenagers doing the hand-jive in the Cat’s Whiskers coffee bar in Soho. I doubt that anyone, though, has an archive as wide-ranging as Derek Ridgers, who began photographing stylish young people who caught his eye in London in the early 70s. Throughout that decade and the next, he tirelessly trawled the city’s nocturnal demimonde, its clubs, bars and often illegal late-night drinking dens. 78-87 London Youth, though comprising barely a fraction of his work, gives some indication of its richness.
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Ridgers, who worked for NME in the mid-to-late 80s, recently described himself as “one of life’s observers, constantly on the margins with a camera”. His outsider’s eye drew him to other more exotic outsiders: skinheads, punks, post-punks, new romantics, goths, acid house ravers and every hybrid style that emerged out of these various subcultures. He has photographed in fetish clubs and grungy dives, drawn always to the myriad passing – and sometimes enduring – characters who came out at night while the rest of the city slept. Certain faces are instantly recognisable to anyone who was there – the singer from Animal Nightlife, the ubiquitous Steve Strange – but his approach is determinedly democratic. This is primarily a record of a time and a place, rather than the famous people who emerged from it – Boy George, Leigh Bowery – though he shot them, too.
As time passes, this kind of observational photography attains a new importance, becoming a kind of visual anthropology of a bygone era. In this context, Ridgers’s adherence to a kind of democratic detachment – the person who was “constantly on the margins with a camera” – seems even more astute even if, as he insists, it was utterly instinctive. Nothing is imposed here; he simply stands back and observes.
What is interesting, with hindsight, is not just the range of tribal identities that emerged in the 70s and 80s, but how serious the nightclubbers of the latter decade were about dressing up and going out. One of the underlying narratives in Ridgers’s photographs is the move away from the confrontational culture and imagery of punk towards the flamboyant, decadent thrust of new romanticism, where the pose and the clothes were everything.
Hopefully this is only the first instalment in a much bigger series devoted to Ridgers’s invaluable archive of London youth culture in these decades. With every year that passes, it does seem more and more like not just another time but another country: stranger, more tribal, less self-consciously stylish than today’s tyranny of hipsterdom. And amid all the poseurs and the posturing, the skinheads still look scarier, more starkly intimidating than any youth tribe before or since.