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Soho, 1982Photography Derek Ridgers

Derek Ridgers on porn, plastic surgery and the changing face of beauty


Photographer Derek Ridgers has been traversing the subcultural landscape for decades but what does he think about the current state of youth culture?

In our series Icons we profile the individuals behind some of the greatest beauty images of all time, looking back on their work and forward towards their enduring influence and legacy. 

From King’s Road punks and Soho new romantics to Ibiza ravers and Manhattan drag queens, Derek Ridgers has been traversing the subcultural landscape for decades. Growing up in London in the 1950s and 60s, the photographer arrived just in time for the explosion of youth culture as teddy boys, beatniks, hippies, mods and rockers proliferated the scene. 

It wasn’t until leaving art school in the early 70s, however, that Ridgers picked up a camera and began documenting the kids he was seeing around him. “There was the most amazing flowering of all the different youth tribes, all at once. Crazy make-up and even crazier hairstyles,” he says. “A lot of creativity and beauty growing, against all the odds, out of depression, no future and social chaos.” 

Finding himself on the front line of these emerging tribes, and armed with a camera, Ridgers began taking captivating portraits of a disenfranchised and disillusioned generation of punks and skinheads. Since then he has been travelling through underground fetish clubs, LGBTQ+ communities, discos and music festivals, recording what he sees and compiling a definitive record of the kids defining the aesthetics of generations of subcultures. 

So who better to speak to about the current state of youth culture? We caught up with the photographer to talk porn, plastic surgery and the changing face of beauty.

You grew up in London, how did that shape your understanding of beauty and the world you saw around you? 
Derek Ridgers: I think I was tremendously lucky to be born exactly where and when I was.  (Chiswick, West London 1950). Virtually as soon as I hit my teens, youth culture seemed to be taking off in every which way.  Mods, Rockers, Teddy Boys, beatniks. Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tamla Motown. Mary Quant, Biba, Courreges, The Fool, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, Vidal Sassoon. Miniskirts, flares, psychedelic clothes, coloured tights, beads, paisley, parkas, winkle pickers, shirts with ludicrously long collars. Ready Steady Go on TV. The Pill and what was called the Sexual Revolution. It was a very lively time. I couldn’t help feeling a small part of it somehow.

When did you first become aware of your appearance?
Derek Ridgers: When I was about 11 or 12 and started to have to wear glasses.  They were the old fashioned National Health sort. I thought they made me look like a swot and I thought they would stop me ever getting a girlfriend.

Were you part of a subculture yourself? 
Derek Ridgers: I always felt very much an outsider. I still do, in many respects, but not in a bad way. I see it as a matter of personal perspective. I would have liked to have been a mod but I wasn’t quite old enough when it was happening. I tried for a short while to be a skinhead but having glasses and not really liking fighting that much, was always going to kibosh that. When I was at art school, I was a sort of an uneasy mixture of skinhead and hippy, if you can possibly imagine such a thing… I wonder why that never caught on?

How did you get into photography?
Derek Ridgers: I left art school in the summer of '71 (just a few months before my son Bill was born) and became an art director in, what turned out to be, a succession of smallish advertising agencies. To begin with, I had no interest in taking photographs myself but I wound up working in an agency on the Minolta/Miranda camera account.  My boss at the time suggested I take a 35mm camera home with me, start to use it and get familiar with it. He said that that was the way to come up with better ads - to know the product better. I don’t know how successful the ads were but it certainly sparked something in me.

You started taking pictures of kids in the 70s. What did people look like then?
Derek Ridgers: London was dull, dirty and depressing. The whole place seemed scruffy and dirty. But there was the most amazing flowering of all the different youth tribes, all at once.  Crazy make-up and even crazier hairstyles, the like of which still hasn’t really returned. Stuff that I documented over four or five of my books. It really was amazing. One of my best-known photographs from that time is of a young man with ‘We Are The Flowers In Your Dustbin’ tattooed across his forehead and those words were extremely apposite.  That was exactly right. A lot of creativity and beauty growing, against all the odds, out of depression, no future and social chaos.

What drew you to the edges of society and subcultures that you were capturing?
Derek Ridgers: From my perspective at the time (and still, really), it didn’t seem like the edges of society at all. I was photographing the young people I saw all around me.  Most of them weren’t necessarily friends at the time, although plenty of them have become friends since. I always cast myself as a silent observer in those situations.  I didn’t ever want to be chatting or having a drink with a friend when there were photos to be taken.

There was a lot of anger and disenfranchisement among young people at that time. How did people react to you? Were they receptive and open to having their pictures taken? 
Derek Ridgers: Throughout that time, I found people were overwhelmingly receptive to having their photograph taken.  It was well before the age of the selfie and social media, most people didn’t own cameras and some people just never got photographed at all. In fact, several times, people told me I was the first person to ever take a photograph of them. That would be literally unbelievable nowadays, wouldn’t it?

How did you start photographing the fetish scene? 
Derek Ridgers:  I met a guy called David Claridge the first time I went to 'Bowie Night' at Billy’s in '78.  He was an actor and was trying to be a bit of a nightclub entrepreneur, like Steve Strange. We gradually became acquainted and I usually went along to the club nights he organised. I remember the first night of a Japanese/Chinese themed club he started in 1981 called The Great Wall (where I also met and photographed the singer Chica Sato).

As far as I am aware, it was his idea to revive the idea of clubs for fetishists, where people would wear rubber and, as it was still termed at the time, ‘rainwear’. In late ’82 or early ’83 David told me he was starting this fetish club in Falconberg Court called Skin Two.  He invited me along.  

Although they let me in, that first night, without the need to dress up in rubber myself, it was clear that some of the other punters didn’t like me being there at all and they certainly didn’t like seeing my camera. It led to a few altercations, occasionally physical, but I quietly persisted.  And my methods have always been pretty discreet and polite anyway.

I continued to shoot at Skin Two for the first year or so that it existed and also at a couple of other early fetish clubs like Der Putsch. Once the punters realised I wasn’t going to sell any of my photos to the Daily Mail, people just either accepted me or ignored me.

Was there a specific beauty identity in the scene?
Derek Ridgers: Not as far as I know, no.  It was really about whatever sexual fetish you had, or wanted to have, in your private life.  It was mostly rubber and leather but not exclusively so. It could be anything, as far as I know.  Uniforms, stockings, high heels, whips, cross-dressing, nudity. Literally anything that didn’t negatively interfere with other people at the club who weren’t into what you were.

You have also been a prolific rock photographer. What have you found to be the difference between photographing normal people and those in the public eye? Do you have a preference?
Derek Ridgers: The big difference I suppose is what is reality and what isn’t. With my documentary portraits, I try to affect the situation as little as possible. I’m really just trying to reflect what I see. With my editorial portraits of rockstars and actors, it almost the exact opposite.  If you don’t affect the situation you are liable to come out with some very boring photographs. Especially if, as is often the case, your subject doesn’t want you there. But real life is ultimately more interesting and certainly more meaningful. In a hundred years time no one will care what the lead guitarist of Catherine Wheel looked like, will they?  They might care what ordinary people in clubs or on the street looked like though.

Over the decades of photographing LGBTQ+ communities, what have you seen change?
Derek Ridgers: Well, it’s gone from a couple of thousand people at ‘Gay Pride' on Kennington Green, in the ‘80s, to over a million now at ‘Pride’ in Soho and the West End. Just as I didn’t really ever see any of my subjects as being on the edges of society, I didn’t really feel apart from the LGBTQ+ community either.  Those early New Romantic clubs would never have existed at all if it wasn’t for the LGBTQ+ community, so I very likely would not have had a career either, without them. Other than that, I suppose the major change would be the trans and nonbinary identities which, although they may well always have existed, one certainly wasn’t made aware of, prior to relatively recently.

Would you say youth culture is different today than it was in the past?
Derek Ridgers: Yes, of course.  There really wasn’t much of a youth culture at all prior to the Second World War.  Before then, apparently people went from being children to adults overnight. For instance, my grandmother, who left school at 13 (in 1900), went straight into service.  And I have a theory that youth culture and the whole concept of the ’teenager’ coincided with the invention of the 7-inch vinyl record, in late 1949.

It was that that started it all IMHO.  Without that, you’d never have had the pop charts and therefore no Bill Haley and Elvis Presley (although I realise they both actually started on full size 78 rpm) and I think they helped to kick everything off. Plus the films The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause and Rock Around the Clock.

The 7-inch single took music out of radios, clubs and dance halls and into people homes and eventually into parks and fields. It still didn’t really kick off until the baby boomers reached their teens, in the ‘60s, but I think you can trace everything back to that one invention.

The chattering classes love to moan about how Glastonbury has gone corporate but, until relatively recently, stuff like that, with 200,000 music fans gathering in a muddy field to listen to music for three or four days, would have been beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

What kind of subcultures are you seeing in today’s society? Is there anything that has interested you?
Derek Ridgers: Everything about youth culture still fascinates and interests me. Whether I want to photograph it now, as much as I did, is another matter. There are plenty of photographers around now who mostly do what I used to do but do it so much better than I used to. I sometimes still shoot on the streets and, occasionally, in clubs but it’s so much harder now than it used to be.  I get far more knockbacks. People can show the world what they look like every day without my help. Plus of course, they don’t want to relinquish control. Facebook and Instagram put the subject themselves back in charge. In the last few years, I’ve become a fashion photographer and, at my age, I’m perfectly happy concentrating on that.

How do you think social media/ selfie culture has changed our perception of beauty?
Derek Ridgers: I think if social media/selfie culture has done anything about our perception of beauty, it’s that it’s able to show us a greater range of life’s rich pageant. In all its forms. Of course, the corollary of that is the rise of online bullying and trolling.  I have a very beautiful female friend with nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram. But that number also means she gets far more than her fair share of haters, which I think she finds hard to deal with. A tiny proportion, it’s true, but even then, one would not want to ever meet any of them.

Beauty has become increasingly popular in recent years especially in conjunction with social media. Do you think people now have the freedom to express themselves more as individuals or is everyone’s look homogenising?
Derek Ridgers: 97% of the free world, within whatever context, dress in a fairly homogeneous way.  And the other 3% have the freedom to express themselves however they wish. And I expect these proportions will have always been like that. 

Even during the mod era, in 64/65, or the Summer Of Love in ’67, or the punk explosion ten years later, or the late ‘70s/early ‘80s New Romantic era, I would say it’s always a few people dressing up and looking cool and the homogeneous majority, just standing around watching.

Do you see the rise of surgical procedures and treatments such as fillers as creating its own subculture? Have you come across any plastic surgery focused tribes?
Derek Ridgers: You could probably call the porn industry a plastic surgery tribe couldn’t you? Women with breasts like beach balls and ginormous arses. Other than that, I don’t know of any plastic surgery tribes, as such.  There are plenty of people around these days who are keen on body modification and augmentation but I suppose that has always been the case, hasn’t it? Just not so much, until recently, in the USA and Europe.

What is it you’re trying to convey in your work? Has that changed over the years?
Derek Ridgers: With my documentary portraiture, I wasn’t really trying to convey anything at all. Not be at all judgemental and simply make a record of all the most interesting looking people I saw around me and hopefully give them a wider audience. With my editorial portraiture and photos of rock stars and actors, I was just going for some impactful and memorable images. In neither case has that changed much, or at all, over the years.

What do you think your archive of work says about how beauty has evolved over the years?
Derek Ridgers: There have been many changes but probably the most visible difference is that in the ‘70s and early ‘80s people, especially men, could get away with never ever having their hair done.  Having it just grow out of their heads, to any length, washing it occasionally and that was it. These days, especially on TV, one simply never sees that. That’s the one big change that I can think of - grooming.

What are you working on at the moment?
Derek Ridgers: I’m still trying to catalogue and scan my archive, publish books and organise photography shows.  That’s very nearly a full-time job in itself. Other than that, I’m planning to do a book of my photos of Nick Cave (don’t tell him that). And also do some very small run photo zines.

What is the future of beauty?
Derek Ridgers: All I can say is that I hope to recognise it and appreciate it when it happens.