London Youth

Derek Ridgers tells us the stories behind his most defining portraits
By Ella Joyce | Art | 27 May 2024

Babs, Soho, 1987 © Derek Ridgers

A veteran of the London club scene, a serial observer of subculture and a photography trailblazer, Derek Ridgers has been at the core of British culture for the past five decades. As the tectonic plates of Britain’s cultural landscape continued to shift in the 70s and 80s, from the height of punk to the birth of acid house, Ridgers was documenting its culture and community. Cataloguing this subcultural evolution, the list of Ridgers’ regular haunts serves as a whistlestop tour of London’s most iconic nightlife: the gothic glamour of Batcave, 100 Club’s pinned and studded punks, Leigh Bowery’s debauched mid-80s club night Taboo, Blitz Kids, New Romantics, Siouxsie Sioux on a Saturday night at The Roxy, and then fast-forward to Charles Jeffrey’s ongoing East London Loverboy scene.

Having provided the portrait for multiple seminal eras in British subcultural history, the photographer has curated a new monograph loosely based on his now-out-of-print book, 78/87 London Youth. Bringing together a selection of never-before-seen archival images alongside a selection of his most iconic shots, The London Youth Portraits is a visual ode to adolescent freedom and self-discovery. Below, Ridgers takes us through some of the photos featured inside The London Youth Portraits – recounting the stories behind the images.

Tuinol Barry, Kings Road, 1983 © Derek Ridgers

Photo above: Tuinol Barry, Kings Road, 1983

“I suppose this is the photograph that changed my life. It was also on the cover of my book 78 – 87 which was published in 2014. I would never have chosen it for the cover image myself but the designer Rupert Smythe must have seen something that I didn’t and it’s now become probably my best known photograph. I photographed Tuniol Barry a few times in the early 80s, the first when he was still a skinhead. He was a perfectly sweet, friendly bloke but is sadly no longer around. I’m friends with his daughter and she’s proud of her dad and thinks it’s great that he hasn’t been forgotten.”

Helena, Chelsea, 1982 © Derek Ridgers

Photo above: Helena, Chelsea, 1982

“People often say to me about my subjects “I wonder whatever became of them.” Well, I don’t always want to know. I caught all my subjects at a moment in time, in their youth, when anything was still theoretically possible. That’s the great thing about being young, all the possibilities. But almost all of them were on a very sharp trajectory. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. All young people deserve the very best out of life but it doesn’t always work out like that. So I’d much rather remember all of them as they were.

Sometimes, with social media, I get to find out how my subjects are doing and when they do well I’m obviously very pleased, but it’s not something I want to delve into – it might keep me awake at night. Helena has done very well, according to her Wikipedia page she’s written a string of novels and is a columnist for The Sunday Times.”

Debbie + Caroline, Brighton, 1980 © Derek Ridgers

Photo above: Debbie + Caroline, Brighton, 1980

“This is probably my most infamous photograph in the sense that Morrissey used it as a backdrop during his show at Madstock in Finsbury Park in 1992. He waved a Union Flag in front of it and some sections of the media (mainly NME) took him to task. It was also used on the cover of the tour programme and backstage passes for his ‘Your Arsenal’ tour in the US. They were also selling t-shirts with this image on at gigs – without any sort of permission from me, I might add.

I worked for NME at the time so I was also banned from attending the shows. Luckily that ban didn’t extend to his support group so I snuck in with them for one of the shows at the Hollywood Bowl. I used to like Morrissey. If he’d ever asked me, I probably would have said yes (but he’d have had to change the name to Your Spurs). Incidentally, Debbie and Caroline didn’t know anything about this at the time either.”

Babs, Soho, 1987 © Derek Ridgers

Photo above: Babs, Soho, 1987

“I suppose if you were to twist my arm, this is my favourite photograph in the book. I saw Babs one afternoon walking her dog at the corner of Dean Street and Carlisle Street in Soho. I had also briefly photographed her a couple of years previously, in the Pleasure Dive in Westbourne Grove before her facial tattoos. I know very little about her other than, from the tattoos, she was a West Ham supporter. A friend, who said she’d been in the same children’s home, told me her real name was Diane. Most people assume the negative has been flipped but I think she must have tattooed the name KEV-O herself with the aid of a mirror. I’ve no idea who KEV-O was, KEVO-O was also tattooed on her left hand but the correct way around.”

Regine, Zeetas, 1987 © Derek Ridgers

Photo above: Regine, Zeetas, 1987

“Regine was French and this photograph, which has never been published before, was taken at a ‘Skin Two” night at Zeeta’s in Putney. Regine had been the singer in a fairly short-lived synthpop band called Hard Corps in the 1980s. Regine was a bit of an exhibitionist and, apparently, her disrobing on stage didn’t always serve her band much. Wikipedia suggests they lost a support slot on a Depeche Mode tour of the US because of it but I don’t think Regine could help herself. Somewhere along the line, in the 1990s, she and I became good friends, she was a very beautiful soul but had her demons. She died of cancer in 2003 and I definitely still miss her.”

Purchase The London Youth Portraits by Derek Ridgers here and check out Derek’s book signing at The Photographer’s Gallery on May 23rd here

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