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Portraits of London clubbers in the 1980s

Portraits of London clubbers in the 1980s

From punks to New Romantics, Derek Ridgers captured British youth culture in all its glory

From punks to New Romantics, Derek Ridgers captured British youth culture in all its glory

David Bennun | November 8th 2017

Like all good photojournalists, Derek Ridgers combines the twin qualities of acumen and near invisibility: of knowing where to be, what to shoot, and how to shoot it in the least invasive way possible. His big subject is British youth culture, and he has been on the spot since the late Seventies to document the punks, skinheads, goths and New Romantics, as well as London’s clubland and the fetish scene, for magazines like the NME, The Face and Loaded. Today, when these subcultures serve as a kind of giant dressing-up box into which contemporary fashion designers and pop musicians dip at will, Ridgers’s work – on display at an exhibition called “Run to Me”, curated by Faye Dowling at Charlie Smith London, a gallery in east London – reminds us how each of those movements was not simply a sound or a look adopted by its adherents, but a way of being, one lived with absolute ardour and commitment. 

The exhibition, which will be moving on to Frankfurt next year, pairs a selection of Ridgers’s photographs of London clubbers from the Eighties and Nineties with oil portraits painted by Sam Jackson in response to Ridgers’s work. The exhibition captures perfectly how the era’s pop-culture underground allowed its participants to transcend their everyday selves and become – through costume or sheer passion – other creatures altogether. 

British pop culture of the time was not the first to combine music, performance, artistry, clubbing and joyous, flagrant sexual transgression. Much the same happened in Weimar Berlin and Andy Warhol’s New York. What was distinctive about Britain’s youth culture was its egalitarianism and its range of looks and sounds. Following the conspicuously middle-class hippie movement, from punk onwards, it was strongly (although not wholly) working-class, benefiting from cheap urban accommodation, free education at art schools, and provocateurs who favoured mischievous activism over self-promoting solipsism. The photographs in “Run To Me” have caught its spirit entirely.

 

“Stoke Newington” (1981); “Psychic TV Gig” (1986)

Separated by five years, these two photographs of young love (or is it lust?) show how much the ostensibly disparate youth cultures of the Eighties had in common. Ridgers took “Stoke Newington” at a house in Hackney where this group of mods relocated after the local pub shut for the night. This girl with the heavy eyeliner, cigarette and home-made Chelsea tattoo embodies mod style, while the couple wrapped around each other at the gig by experimental noise-pop group Psychic TV are prototypical cyberpunks, their clothing and tastes far removed from the mods’. Yet the spider-web tattoo in the background of the first photograph might easily have been spotted in the second, while the dancing lad in the latter photo would not have looked much out of place among either mod revivalists or football hooligans. The tribes were discrete, but their interests crossed over and their pleasures were universal. The pictures demonstrate Ridgers’s talent for getting underneath the hard shells of his subjects and capturing their vulnerability and abandon.

 

“Tanya, the Batcave” (1983); “Torture Garden” (1998)

Of all the subcultures that trace their origin to punk, none has endured like goth. The epicenter of London goth was the Batcave, a nightclub where Siouxsie Sioux often performed with the Banshees. Those who had a particular taste for goth’s dark eroticism, its rubber and its leather were often, unsurprisingly, drawn to the fetish scene (which had itself been a major influence on punk, via Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Chelsea boutique, SEX). What had once been hidden away in basements and private clubs became more visible, gaining first a magazine (Skin Two), then a major London nightclub (Torture Garden), both of which remain staples of the scene today. Tanya, in her carefully arrayed gothic elegance, may seem far removed from the unnamed subject wearing nothing above her thighs but accessories and a gas mask (more unknowable, despite her nakeness, than a fully clothed woman with a visible face). But the two are linked by an attitude which stresses the darker side of desire, and by celebrating women’s sexual power.

 

“Tuinol Barry, Chelsea, London” (1983); “At the Mud Club (Fouberts), Soho” (1984)

When Ridgers first shot Tuinol Barry, his subject was a skinhead punk with Sex Pistols lyrics tattooed onto his forehead. By the time Ridgers took this photograph two years later, Barry had grown an extravagant coiffure and acquired a T-shirt featuring New Romantic godfather David Bowie. The brief period between the portraits saw the New Romantic movement bring queerness out of the shadows and into the mainstream; suddenly, people who didn’t conform to heterosexual norms were topping the charts and appearing on national television. The unidentified subject of “At the Mud Club”, whose outfit is indebted to the New Romantic aesthetic, is shown in the pose of a saint or martyr from Renaissance art, as though he were undergoing a profound devotional experience. 

 

“You Used to Hold Me” (2017) by Sam Jackson

Sam Jackson’s paintings do not have the documentary significance of Ridgers’s work; instead, they bring out the inner worlds of Ridgers’s subjects. Tags, slogans and unexpressed thoughts are scrawled on them, as if we can read their minds as clearly as the words on Tuinol Barry’s brow.

Run to Me Charlie Smith London, London, until 11 November, and will be exhibited in Frankfurt in 2018

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