Interview Gary Kemp
Portraits Kirk Truman
“I’ll tell you one thing though; vulnerability is very photogenic. You can see that
Derek and I are talking at Fitzrovia’s Berners Tavern, a few yards from the Soho neighbourhood where both our careers were born. Derek Ridgers is not a photographer – he is more than this. He is a social documenter and Londoner. His work has now spanned five decades of youth culture in our capital and beyond, appearing in the NME, GQ, The Face, Time Out, Loaded and The Independent.
Gary Kemp: Have we actually ever met?
Derek Ridgers: Oddly, no. I photographed your first gig at The Blitz Club in the late 1970s. If I remember right, I think I only got about three frames.
GK: Tell me, how did you get into this?
DR: When I was young, I didn’t really want to be a photographer at all. I wanted to be a painter. I knew the basics of photography and when I left art school, I became an art director in advertising. I started to carry a camera around with me, and one day I took it along with me to the well-known Eric Clapton concert he did with Pete Townshend and Ron Wood in 1973 at Finsbury Park Rainbow. I was right at the back, but decided to go right to the front to take some pictures with the camera I had with me. Back then, there was hardly any security at gigs. You could get as close to the artists as I see you now. When I got the images back from the lab, they weren’t all that bad, but they weren’t brilliant either. The following year I lined up a commission to shoot Betty Davis at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. This really felt like the beginning of me establishing myself as a photographer.
GK: You’re most famous for your pictures of youth culture, especially street and club photography. When did that interest spark in you?
DR: I went to see the The Vibrators in ‘76. As soon as they came on, the audience went wild. There was a lot of Punk types there. At this point I hadn’t really developed the confidence to turn the camera away from the stage, and onto the people – though this was the night where I made the change.
GK: Tell me about your work in clubs and your documentation of youngsters. How did you manage to get into the clubs as a photographer?
DR: When clubs like The Roxy opened in December 1976, I didn’t quite have an obsession at this point, but it soon developed and the Punk movement became key to my work. Youth culture was as much about the individual as it was me. I was able to relive a much more exciting, much more dangerous youth as a photographer that never existed in my own life.
GK: Would you say that the camera helped you with a certain level of shyness in yourself?
DR: Yes, totally. Like many teenagers during my youth, I was trying to avoid getting beaten up. Luckily, I never did. I spent my youth trying to avoid the Mods, Teddy Boys or the Skinheads in fear of a beating. I toyed with dressing up a little like a Mod as a kid, to dressing like a skinhead, but never felt like I got it right. Thus, I’ve ended up spending my life looking at other people.
GK: What was so exciting about that period I guess was that there was something happening on the street which was stepping up onto the stage. I suppose to me it makes total sense that you would want to photograph these kids who were trying to find their tribe.
DR: Dressing up was never really my thing. The camera became something I could hide behind. I could go up to Skinheads, or Hells Angels and talk to them as a photographer, whereas I wouldn’t have been able to have done that without a camera.
GK: How did you obtain the trust of these individuals in order to photograph them?
DR: I started photographing the Skinheads in 1979. It was accidental really. I went down to the club Billy’s expecting to arrive at the Bowie Night, but it’d been moved. There were a few skinheads and a few New Romantics hanging around. So, I started to take their pictures. I’ve always stuck to the same approach: be kind, be friendly, don’t tell them too much and if they say yes, take their picture!
GK: For me, what always captivates me about your images of these kids, is that there’s a sort of ordinary, working-class look about them. I feel that I can see an innocence and naivety in them. Do you look for that?
DR: Its never been something I’ve looked for. I’ll tell you one thing though: vulnerability is very photogenic. You can see that in people, especially some quite hard people, too, who are quite happy to go round beating people up. I just try not to do anything. Usually I just ask somebody to stand there, be still and be themselves. I will ask them to stand away from their friends so that I can capture them alone, regardless of their tribe.
GK: What do you think about most in taking your images – fashion, reportage or social history?
DR: Once I got properly going, I was told about the German photographer August Sander who I’d never even heard of before, and had come to realise there was a similarity between what I was doing and what he had done. I wanted to try and make my work a social document, though in the beginning there was little intention of doing so.
GK: Is there still youth culture today?
DR: Yes, definitely. They’re all over the place, but of course the Internet has changed how you find your tribe. Though I have this belief that when it’s warm, everybody comes out. And then you can see them. However, as a street photographer I have found that the level of access to images today makes it much more difficult to stop and photograph somebody.
GK: When the New Romantics hit, how did you get into The Blitz? I thought we were very quite strict about who we let in…
DR: Steve Strange didn’t want to let me in at all. Eventually I wore him down. At first he said to me, “Not tonight. It’s a private party,” which is what he said to most people. He kept me out there on the pavement until he eventually let me in. That’s usually the case anywhere I go. After an article was published in The Sunday Times about my documentation of that scene, Strange never excluded me again.
GK: Is there a frisson between yourself and your subject?
DR: Yes. I don’t think its any different to any relationship between the subject and the camera lens. There’s always an interpersonal frisson there. For me, my work is as much about London as it is portraiture and social documentation. I’ve been all over the world to take photographs, though I see myself very much as a London photographer. I’m a creative who wanted to become a painter. At a young age I guess I believed it was destiny… until I picked up the camera.