Party On

How Derek Ridgers Captured The Club Freaks of London

Derek Ridgers photographed London’s nightlife denizens for nearly 30 years: the Punks, Teddy Boys, New Romantics, mods, skinheads, Goths, fetishists, ‘and a whole lot of less classifiable others in between.’

01.17.16 5:01 AM ET

LONDON — Call it chutzpah.

Signing copies for The Dark Carnival: Portraits From The Endless Night, his photo book documenting several decades exploring the subversive London club scene—think pictures of women wearing trousers with a cut-out around their crotch, or swastikas tattooed on their arms—veteran photographer Derek Ridgers scribbles away, surrounded by a group of colorful misfits that are the subject of his book.

“I only started to take pictures as I was into bands and wanted to get closer to those band. But in 1976, when punk started, I turned around and the audience looked more interesting,” he says. “I found that people were interested in the people in my pictures.”

Indeed.

He’s affable and normal-looking apart from a ponytail. He comes across like a chirpy unassuming London cab driver in a nice checked shirt.

But Ridgers’ fans and subjects that stand with their pink hair and leopard skin coats, have popped from between the pages of this black-and-white collection of images, to give a colorful taster of some of the eras and cultures that he has captured in the book.

“Through a love of live music and going around nightclubs with a camera, almost by accident I have become a visual documenter of London’s style culture from the mid to late ‘70s until today: Punks, Teddy Boys, New Romantics, mods, skinheads, Goths, fetishists and a whole lot of less classifiable others in between,” he says.

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Many of the photos were taken in clubs here in Soho, where his book signing was taking place. “The idea was to imagine them all being in the same club on one night but in fact the pictures were taken over decades in legendary clubs, then and now, from Torture Garden to the Astoria or Sink The Pink, a transvestite club in Bethnal Green,” he says.

In the book, one finds pictures of transvestites in all states of dress and undress, some wearing lipstick; others in chains. But, he says, “ I don’t think it’s subversive. I often approached these subjects because I liked the confrontation but sensed vulnerability.”

Described as a series of photographs taken in the twilight hours when the subjects were free to express their vision of themselves or their fantasies, the pictures capture a world that might no longer exist or perhaps never did, Ridgers says.

The Dark Carnival includes 200 photographs. Representing a fraction of the images he took, they capture a scene that he says has somewhat changed but that he was able to capture.

“Aside from nearly getting beaten up, and maybe worse, by skinheads on a few occasions, I quietly came and went,” he says. “I was very much an observer and I felt that was my place. It was the place I wanted to be in.”

I ask if this world still exists.

“Not in the same way, no,” he says. “But then it never really did, in a way. The photographs in my book are about three percent of the total number that I took over the years, and they were selected to show only the interesting, beautiful and extraordinary. And of course there were always many more. My book represents one person’s journey through clubland’s endless night, and it was never intended as a project or to be comprehensive. But there are still plenty of great club nights out there.”

He was born and has lived for most of his life in London. He went to art school in Ealing, West London, and planned to become a painter but ended up in the advertising business, and then came photography.

One thing led to another.

“It is because of chutzpah basically,” he says of his photography career. “And because working in the ad business made me realize that anything was possible. I thought I could just ring anyone up and get them to meet me or allow me to photograph them. There may have been a little BS involved.”

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This is how he got started. “I was a fan of The Slits. I don’t exactly know how but I got (the band’s guitarist) Viv Albertine’s phone number. I rang her and said I wanted to take The Slits’ photograph. I’m sure her first question would have been ‘what for?’ and I honestly can’t remember what I said. Then I called up a fashion photographer that I knew with a beautiful studio in Chelsea and asked him if I could borrow his facilities and, could I borrow his assistant too? The Slits came down, the assistant set everything up and I did my shoot. If I could do it that way, anyone can do it.”

He was fired from his advertising job in early 1981, and has been a full time professional photographer ever since.

“My 25 years circling the globe as a rock and celebrity photographer was an amazing experience,” Ridgers says. 

“From dancing cheek to cheek with Bono in an empty Tokyo nightclub to being personally driven around a deserted San Diego golf course by Tiger Woods, and gatecrashing some extremely wild parties along the way, I could probably write a book. And I might just do it too. One day.”