«I’m perfectly suited to be a wallflower» AN INTERVIEW WITH LEGENDARY PUNK PHOTOGRAPHER DEREK RIDGERS

Derek Ridgers Dark Snow Magazine Interview

We spent a night at the pub in Soho with british photographer Derek Ridgers talking about photography, London youth subcultures, music, style & nostalgia.

Derek Ridgers // Photo by Mila F. Soho, London, January 2019

From the late ‘70s – early ‘80s you had 10 years of documentary photography. After that you were a rock photographer and now you are mostly a fashion photographer. What do you prefer between all those genres?

Well, I suppose what other people prefer is the amateur stuff I did when I was young. If I’m being honest I prefer being an editorial photographer, maybe not necessarily rock, but photographing actors or personalities, especially if they give you access and time, because I can be creative then. With lot of fashion photographers they don’t really want anything too creative, not from me anyway. What people say to me always is “we want you to do what you’re used to do, do it again for us!” and that’s not very creative. I like to be able to be creative if I can.

Do you ever feel like sometimes the model is so good that all your job ends up being just a “click and that’s it”?

I think “click and that’s it” is fine. George Melly once said about his libido it was like being chained to an idiot for 40 years, I have a feeling sometimes that my camera thinks the same about me! My camera is more intelligent than I am, so I just let the camera do the work.

What do you expect to get by the people you photograph?

I like to get a bit of an attitude coming back from people. When I was doing rock photography sometimes it was so difficult to get an attitude from people, I ended up by being a bit of an idiot myself far often just in order to get a reaction, and that’s not really quite right… I was kind of a rock photographer for 25 years and the last 5 years it wasn’t my best work really because of that, I was doing the same thing over and over again and I was trying to get a reaction out of people and it’s not a good way to go about doing it if you’re trying to, you know, wind people up a bit.

Do you make any connection with your subjects? Do you direct them and talk to them while shooting or do you prefer to let them do their thing?

My connection, if it’s gonna happen at all, is always subliminal. It doesn’t really have much to do with me and my personality, is more of a subliminal thing, I don’t know where it comes from. If I got a choice between music or silence I’d go for silence. If I was constantly talking when shooting I wouldn’t be saying anything, it would be all rubbish… I mean, I do say to people “yeah that’s great, do that”, but I’m pretty silent.

I never direct anybody in real life because I don’t feel that’s my place, I just prefer people to be how they are and photography for me is really a series of binary decisions, one thing or the other, and then when I come to edit the photographs I decide to either use the ones that came out ok, not use the ones that are not very good. But I wouldn’t direct it because otherwise you may as well be in the studio. So I like the documentary stuff to be very documentary style.

You had very little technical skills when you started. Did you imagine that your early pictures would become so important today?

When I took the photographs of punks that were in my first show in ‘78 I thought that it was gonna be the only photographs I’d ever do. I just thought: I’ve taken a few photos, I’ve got ‘em see and that would be it. But then very soon after that I started to photograph new romantics and skinheads.

How did you find the skinheads?

I found the new romantics, the skinheads found me. They came out to me one night in a club and said “why don’t you take photographs of us?”. They just wanted to be photographed because in those days in the late ‘70s not everyone was ever photographed, you know.

Do you think that youth subcultures are not really revolutionary but just a question of looks and aesthetics?

I don’t think it’s particularly revolutionary, I just think that it might seem that way looking back but at the time young people were often just trying to express themselves with what’s current, you know. All of a sudden back in the mid ‘60s people were wearing checked hipsters, stripy blazers and shirts with really long collars and there wasn’t anything revolutionary about that, it was just that a few boutiques round here started selling those clothes and people liked them and started wearing them, but I don’t think it was revolutionary then and I think that punk was a little bit like that: just fashion people trying to express themselves. They wanted to be part of something when they’re young. Very anti-establishment and sometimes anti-social.

House party, Stoke Newington 1981.

That was a skinhead house party, I nearly got beaten up on the way, and when I got there of course everyone was into enjoying themselves drinking and trying to cop off with one another, so they just ignored me.

So you were an outsider?

Completely an outsider, it suits me perfectly to be an outsider, I mean my family was not very social, I’m an only child, I didn’t even have any pets when I was a kid, so I’m perfectly suited to be a wallflower, really.

I mean I was friendly with some of those guys, I’ve always been friendly with people if I could be, but I was never friends with very very people. I never really wanted to be friends with them, you know. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them, some of them I liked a lot, but I was focused on taking photos, so I didn’t wanna be standing chatting to people all night or drinking with them.

Taking photos gave you an excuse to go up to people, that’s why you became a photographer?

Of course, yeah! A lot of photographers like to hide behind the camera, it gives them a little bit more confidence. A camera gives me the legitimacy to go up to ‘hard cases’, you know, Hell’s Angels (I’ve seen what they are like sometimes…), and all very very sexy women in clubs, whereas I would never do that normally if I didn’t have a camera. And you might say that was the reason I became a photographer, and you might be right.

Were you comfortable photographing people in clubs?

Now I’m completely comfortable, but to begin with I had to work up a little bit of gumption to approach people because I didn’t know how well they were gonna react. With the punks to begin with I thought they might hit me or stick the nut on me or something, but in actual fact they were very nice. Almost everyone I photographed in clubs or on the streets, skinheads or anybody, is polite or they don’t always want to be photographed, but I would say in 40 years of taking photos and asking people I’ve been told to fuck off probably a couple of dozen times and that’s not bad, is it?

If you could go back in time, what would you have done differently?

Definitely I would have gone back to my teen years in the ‘60s and I would have taken a Nikon D850 with me and I would have had some brilliant photographs from the ‘60s when I used to go and see all the great bands like Hendrix, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin… I could have got right in the front and taken photographs, you know! And with me they wouldn’t all came out, when I was photographing punks only half of the photographs came out! I forgot the flash or it wasn’t working, or I didn’t synchronized it properly or I developed it wrong, took the lid off before it was developed, all kinds of things. When I started, to be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t really know my arse from my elbow, you know. It was honestly rubbish, really, but because I was in the advertising business I thought “well I must be brilliant, I’m gonna try and push myself forward” and that’s basically what I did.

What do you think about this obsession today with the ‘70s and ‘80s in music?

A lot of it passes me by because my musical taste is pretty much stuck in the ‘60s and early ‘70s so whatever is going on in music now I don’t wanna know about, and they probably feel the same way about me. I’m a very nostalgic bloke but my nostalgia goes back beyond that, I’m extremely nostalgic to the ‘60s, if I ever see a modern band that sounds like it came from the ‘60s or the early ‘70s, like the Wooden Shjips for instance, or Starcrawler, I like them, but it’s basically nostalgia repeating itself over and over again, which I like because I feel comfortable with it.

What’s your favourite place to shoot?

I suppose it would have to be London, Soho maybe, where we are now. Although it’s no longer how it used to be. I’ve probably taken more photographs here than almost anywhere other than Los Angeles. I like it there because you’ve always got the Sun, you don’t have to get a studio.  

Who are your favourite photographers?

Anton Corbijn, Vivian Maier, Richard Avedon. I think David Bailey is a great photographer, if it wasn’t for him I might never become a photographer, because I think I was inspired by his photos of Eastenders, for The Sunday Times magazine in ‘66. I’ve still got that magazine, I had since that time!

What would you like to do now?

Well, really I still like to do the same thing that I’ve ever done, I don’t go to clubs very much and because of my age I am a little bit more circumspective about how I approach people and what I do, but I’m still very keen on photography… It’s a little bit more difficult, the older you get it’s more harder to go up to young people in the streets. I still do it if I really want to, but nowadays I have to focus on events where other photographers are gonna be. If it’s like Gay Pride or events like that, people expect photographers to be there and dress up and they expect to be photographed, so I’m happy to do that, but if I’m sneaking about Soho trying to photograph people now it can be a little bit harder. I suppose you gotta do it otherwise you may as well stay indoors and watch tv! But I’m a fashion photographer now anyway, so everything is laid out for me. I’m not interested in fashion but it’s just where work is.

Have you got some photos that you shot in the past and that you never published?

Yeah there’s thousands, but mostly stuff I haven’t scanned, mostly not very good. I have looked over stuff quite a lot, but I’m always finding stuff that I didn’t realized I had shot. Sometimes I haven’t seen the potential of photographs I’ve taken… And it might be good for one day and then another day I might not see it. I was always looking for one photograph, so I don’t have a lot of different types of photographs, I’ve got always a lot of versions of the same photograph.

Photography by Derek Ridgers (@derekridgers)

Interview by Mila F. (@milafphotography)

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