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Derek Ridgers
From “The Others”, Planets, 1980Courtesy of Derek Ridgers and IDEA Books

These photos document the fearlessness of 80s London youth

Derek Ridgers’ images of gender-bending club kids give a rich insight into the hedonism of the British underground

He's granted us one of the richest insights into the hedonistic underground of British youth culture – from the dawn of punks to acid house ravers – but London-born photographer Derek Ridgers has always felt like “an outsider, wistfully observing from the margins”. He explains: “I was more guilty of vicariousness than voyeurism. Unlike most of my contemporaries who were also documenting the youth sub-groups of the late 70s and 80s (like Nick Knight, Gavin Watson and Graham Smith), I was never part of any of the tribes I was photographing.”

Given his sentiment, the title of The Others has an autobiographical ring. Ridgers, though, recounts that it was simply the name of the computer file he used to store unpublished images of London’s rule-rebelling club-goers, who didn’t quite fit into a tribal category. When the publishers, Angela Hill and David Owen at IDEA Books, put together the selection of photographs, they stuck to the title given its appeal as “an alternative to ‘alternative’, which has kind of lost its meaning since Nirvana came along.”

“I was more guilty of vicariousness than voyeurism” – Derek Ridgers

Rather than the diehard Skinheads or DIY-glam New Romantics we might expect from Ridger’s steadfast repertoire, The Others captures the unheeded and indeterminate frequenters of such era-defining nightspots as the Blitz, Beat Route, Cha-Cha and Gossips. Under those sweaty roofs, thriving sanctuaries of self-expression played out the fantasies of a generation of youth sticking two fingers up at Thatcherite politics.

But if Britain in the 1980s was scarred by economic hardship and urban decay, Ridgers’ lens remembers it as a time of radical cultural change and sexual liberation. Before social media, #freethenipple and hype around Caitlyn Jenner, Ridgers captured the breast-baring girls and gender-fucking boys “who risked a beating every night to just dance, drink, gossip and pose their nights away for absolutely no reason other than to explore what hadn’t gone before”.

Those last words are lifted from Richard Habberley’s excellent introduction to Ridgers’ book. Habberley, once a regular of Soho’s underground haunts, and ex-flat mate to Boy George, notes: “Most of the people pictured in this book grew up in the urban poverty and squalor of late 70’s Britain. We ran from the suburbs to live in the big city, residing in squats and cramped bedsits... Unaccustomed to luxury and comfort, we had gusto, bravado and the arrogance of youth. Our ‘style’ was every style”.

It was Ridgers’ intuitive eye that caught the most stylish looks, from understated to outlandish. For him, “without certain art schools like Saint Martins and London College of Fashion, there never would have been the New Romantics and some of the wilder oddities parading the streets, because a large part of it came from those colleges. After all, you didn’t really have to go very far to get to the Blitz, ‘cause it was just around the corner.”

Between three and four in the morning, when most had left the nightclubs, Ridgers says he took his best photographs: fiery kissing or forlorn teens, dispirited by the end of the night. What distinguishes these “Other” images from many of those previously published is his reportage style, versus straight up portrait photography. Nonetheless, both his styles offer a glimpse into a world that will forever enthrall us, as Ridgers muses, “I’m probably just a conduit for people’s nostalgia”.

The Others book launch is hosted by IDEA and Kim Jones, Thursday 12 November at Comme des Garçons Trading Museum, Paris. Signing with Ridgers from 6-7.30pm.