Derek Ridgers has been capturing the most photogenic denizens of London alternative culture on film since 1976 and the birth of Punk.
And it is no exaggeration to say that his images of punks, teddy boys, new romantics and fetish folk from the last four decades probably constitute the most illuminating and extensive documenting of the capital’s youth subcultures attempted by any one photographer.
Derek began this labour of love a year after I joined the London music paper Sounds as a staff journalist. And since Sounds, like NME, was an early champion of Punk, our paths began to cross fairly regularly at clubs and gigs.
We continued to find ourselves covering many of the same events as Punk gave way to New Wave and then, perhaps more significantly from a visual glamour point of view, to the New Romantic scene.
By then I was already an ‘out perv’ on the music scene, and although I didn’t know too much about Derek’s personal interests at that point, I was not that surprised to find him turning up at the opening night of the original Skin Two Club at Stallions in Soho on January 31 1983.
Debbie, Torture Garden 2010 (Derek Ridgers)
It was soon clear that the new fetish scene, which many consider the offspring of Punk and New Romanticism, was right up Derek’s strasse, professionally at least.
And so, as I gradually moved my allegiance across more or less fulltime from the music scene to this exciting new subculture with its own clubs, designers and magazines like Skin Two, Derek would be at the same events, photographing the same stuff that I was writing about.
Because (as he says in his introduction to The Dark Carnival) he wanted to photograph “the peacocks and the show-offs and the kind of people that I could never have been myself”, Derek Ridgers focused on the venues and events where such individuals were most likely to be encountered.
He shot at many different fetish nights, but I think I most frequently encountered him at Torture Garden, whose parties have always encouraged exhibitionism of the most creative kind.
At some point in the night, I would generally find myself walking through one of the venue’s spaces and notice this tall, bearded figure propping himself up against a wall, camera at half-cock, waiting for some suitably decorative girl, boy or trans-person to pass within range.
We’d usually find time for a chat, which I would enjoy because, like me, he was a professional observer (even if only one of us was actually a photographer).
Always polite and never pushy, he was able to effortlessly put his subjects at ease, and this shows in his work.
When I took up event photography myself in my last few years at Skin Two before leaving to launch The Fetishistas, I found myself often copying Ridgers’ wall-based waiting approach.
Why not? When your targets are the kind of exhibitionists that frequent fetish clubs, you don’t have to find them — they will find you if you’ve got a camera and a photopass.
Martin, Camden Palace 1982 (Derek Ridgers)
So thanks for that, Derek. And thanks so much for The Dark Carnival too. Because for me, it very satisfyingly performs dual roles.
For me it’s not just a fantastic photographic record of London fetish nightlife and its immediate antecedents. It is also a visual accompaniment to the story of my own progress through those same worlds.
Leafing through the book’s 200-plus oversize-A4 pages of black and white images, I see so many people I know, or knew, from those scenes and those times.
There are people here I still count as friends, and many faces I recognise but would not have been able to name today, were it not for Derek’s efforts to identify as many of his subjects as possible in the index.
But you don’t have to have been there to appreciate the value of The Dark Carnival. Any student of modern subcultures, and especially anyone with an interest in the development of the modern fetish clubbing scene, needs to own a copy of this book.
Derek has arranged his pictures in more or less chronological order so if you start at the beginning and work through to the end, you come away with a strong sense of the evolutionary timeline that began with Punk and ended (so far) with Fetish.
You can see in these pictures how Punk’s look metamorphosed into New Romantic style, and how New Romanticism took a left-turn into Fetish when ex-Blitz Club staffer David Claridge and his mate Billy, aka Daniel James, started Skin Two.
Leigh Bowery, The Fridge 1989 (Derek Ridgers)
And along the way you can enjoy doing plenty of celebrity and mover’n’shaker spotting.
See if you recognise Nina Hagen, Pam Hogg, Steve Strange, Marilyn, Patti Bell from Kahn & Bell, Murray and Vern, Leigh Bowery, Pigalle, Vanessa Upton and Esme Bianco, Lucifire, Viktoria Modesta, Debbie Griffin, Yusura… the list goes on.
In this era of vivid digital photography, The Dark Carnival’s 200-plus monochrome images are both a strongly individual artistic statement and an accomplished feat of photo-journalism.
Even if you weren’t part of the London life the book depicts, I defy you not to be entertained, enlightened and seduced by what you find between its covers.
Published December 15, 2015
Ari, Nina and Pam, Brixton Academy 1992 (Derek Ridgers)