Born in Chiswick in 1950, his forty-year career has made Derek Ridgers one of the most influential street photographers of club culture. His lens has documented the progression of the British music scene amidst the twilight of the ‘70s and the dawn of the punk era. His photographic style has always been unwaveringly direct, which allows him to capture the raw individuality of each of his subjects. 
Hailing from a West London estate, this self-proclaimed “chancer with a camera” did not take no for an answer. His career is intertwined with the music scene. From encounters with Hendrix, The Who, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, and Bowie, Ridgers has been there and done that. His recent publication of Ku, Ibiza 1984 via Ojos de Buey provides an inimitable glimpse into the electrifying Ibiza nightlife and Ridger’s unwavering commitment to capturing the essence of diverse subcultures. In this interview we discuss the forces behind his creative vision, the evolution of youth culture, and the enduring spirit of punk rock rebellion. 
Hello Derek, thank you for speaking with us. How are you today? To get to know you better, what does a normal day in your life look like?
I feel great, thank you. My normal day is split between caring for my severely disabled wife, sorting out my photographic archive and working on an array of personal projects. I’m still shooting for magazines but it’s mostly fashion these days. I only shoot nightclubs now occasionally. I also work as a design consultant for a retail furniture company.
I understand that you initially entered into the world of work as an art director. How did your background in advertising influence your approach to photography?  
Influence is not really the right word here. My experience in advertising helped a great deal but mainly it made me realise I didn’t want to shoot advertising campaigns. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job as an art director and, had advertising loved me a little more in return, I would never have become a photographer in the first place. But advertising photography is always about a brief. And outside of the context of that brief, the photograph itself will often not have much meaning. 
For instance, as soon as I left my job as an art director, virtually my first commission came from the agency I’d just been fired from. They wanted a photograph of a van without any wheels. These days that’s probably ten minutes’ work with Photoshop. Back then the job had to be done long hand, as it were.  I had to rent a van plus four jack stands, find an empty car park somewhere, take the wheels off the van, lay on the ground about 30 feet away, take my photographs and then put everything back to how it was. It was the hottest day of the year and, at that point, I didn’t have an assistant. The car park at Hanworth swimming baths was deserted but if anyone had seen me doing this, they’d have definitely thought I was mad. 
After that job, I decided advertising photography was probably not for me. But I used to think being an ad agency art director was the best job in the world. Ad Agency people back then thought they were the masters of the Universe. Which was funny really. I lived on a really bad council estate in West London, I had holes in my clothes and I probably earned less than a bus driver.
Is it true that some of your first published work was taken on a second-hand Nikkormat? Tell us about the experience of starting off as a budding photographer. 
Yes, it was true. The Nikkormat was a great workhorse camera and extremely simple to use. And I can’t lie. I found it really easy to start out as a photographer. I even had a couple of regular commissions whilst I was still working in advertising. All you needed to become a photographer back then was a professional camera (or thereabouts, the Nikkormat was not quite that) and enough chutzpah to ring people up and knock on doors. I don’t have it now, sadly but I had chutzpah in spades back then. I was the sort of person who would never take no for an answer.
But one obvious reason why I found it easy to become a photographer was that I’d already had ten years of working with other photographers. I’d watched how they worked and seen how they did it. And what I would also like to say is that all the professional photographers I knew back then were helpful and supportive. There wasn’t any of this aspect of wanting to pull the ladder up behind them, which you do see a bit of these days. I certainly had a lot of help and advice.
Your early work captures the emergence of punk rock in the late 1970s. What was it about this scene that fascinated you? 
Do you want me to be 100% honest here? The truth is, once one looked past the aggressive reputation of the punks, wondering whether they were going to spit at you or whatever, they were very easy to photograph and almost always friendly and polite. Most of them just loved the attention. And I loved the do-it-yourself creativity of a lot of the clothes and make up. Some of the punks had their life story written on their faces (sometimes literally) and often also on their clothes. 
How did your perspective as a photographer change through this period?
At that point, it didn’t really. During the punk era I was basically just a chancer with a camera. I didn’t take what I was doing seriously at all. It took a meeting with the journalist Jack Schofield in about ’78 or ’79 to really make me stop and think about what I was doing for the first time. He liked the work and pointed out how my photos fit into a tradition of documentary portraiture. He put an eight-page portfolio of my images into a hugely prestigious European photography magazine called Zoom. It was issue number 9 alongside Hiro and Helmut Newton. However sheepish I do feel about inserting myself into a paragraph with those two, I did nevertheless think I should start to take myself a little more seriously. It took a few more years for my work to evolve into a proper style though.
A lot of your work is focussed on the music scene. Could you pinpoint a concert you attended where your interest in music was sparked? 
Wow, what a question. Where do I even start?  My first ever gig was Jimi Hendrix at the Ricky Tick club in Hounslow in December 1966. It was a tiny club and I was right at the front. So close that I could have operated his wah-wah pedal for him. I saw him again the following year when he played Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in front of the Beatles at the Saville Theatre. I can’t remember if it was the same night The Who supported him but I saw that gig as well.
In 1967 I was sat on the back of the stage for one of Syd Barrett’s final gigs with Pink Floyd at the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream and later the same year, I saw Fleetwood Mac when they were still being billed as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. In 1969 David Bowie did a lunch time show at my art school and I had to walk about 40 feet from my desk to see him. Cost price - sixpence. In the same year, along with about 400,000 other people, I saw the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park and in front of slightly fewer, Nick Drake at the Caius College May Ball. I had a roadie pass for that night because my best friend accompanied him. How long have you got, I could write a book.
Speaking of parties, you’ve just published Ku, Ibiza 1984. This new photo book centres on your experiences and fascination for the massive night club, which you first visited in 1983. What do you recall from your first time there, and what was it in the air that made you fall head over heels?
I first went to Ibiza on holiday with my family in 1983 and I was gobsmacked by the amazing nightlife scene in Ibiza Town. It was like one big, hot night club right there on the street. Lots of people looked like they’d gone there straight from the beach. I’d never seen so many bronzed buttocks, both male and female. When we went back the following year, I took a camera.  
I only visited Ku once and that was in 1984. It was the night Divine played. It was a bit like Camden Place transposed to the Med. The building itself was like no other club I’ve been to before or since, insofar as it was more like a James Bond film set than a club. Half of it was in the open air, there was a swimming pool and a water slide in the shape of the neck of a dragon.
Gazing through the photos, we see incredibly outrageous and flamboyant outfits and makeup looks. I wonder, were you dressed like that as well? How was your personal style back then?
No, I was definitely not dressed like that. My personal style has been described as being like a “provincial geography teacher in the 1980s”. Getty have a live photograph of The Damned taken at the Roxy club in 1977. You can see me standing on the stairs watching, dressed in an open neck shirt and a cardigan. I suppose I always dressed like this so that I wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. But of course, if one dresses in this way in some clubs, one will stand out even more.
As a photographer, you play the role of the outsider documenting a scene, but at the same time, you want to be an insider as well to make your photos depict reality as honestly and genuinely as possible. How do you balance these two states?
I’ve never wanted to be an insider. The old Groucho Marx quote about never wanting to be a member of any club that would accept me as a member, fits me like a glove. If you compare my skinhead photographs to those taken by Gavin Watson, who was a skinhead himself, the perspective is entirely different. When I was a teenager, none of my friends were skinheads and I did all I could to avoid running into any of them. My friends were all hippy music nerds like me. I really admire Gavin’s work but I could never have walked that road myself.
You first presented this series to The Face, but they rejected it. And now, it is finally being published. Do you believe that everything has its own time and space? A kind of cosmic poetry? 
The Face rejected my photo story in 1984 but by 1985 they put the Ibiza club scene on the cover. So I was just a shade too early with that story. And anyway, mine weren’t great photographs and they were almost all shot on one single night. If I’d have been there all summer, I promise you my photographs would have been 100% better. But it was essentially a news story anyway.
And no, I don’t believe things will happen if they have to and I don’t believe in cosmic poetry. I wish I believed in something but when you look around at everything that’s happening in the world today, it’s hardly possible to believe in anything.
I’m sure you have had some pretty crazy experiences in Ibiza during the night time (which might have turned into day time). Is there one that stands out particularly, and that you can share with us?
Very much so, yes. The night I shot at Ku, I got back to my hotel at about 5:30 a.m. When I walked into the lobby, it was already light and I found my wife sitting there in her dressing gown, with my two kids and several policemen. Apparently there had been a thief in the hotel and the police had been trying to find him. He’d tried to hide in some of the rooms but they were all locked apart from the one my wife was in.  She’d left our door unlocked for me, as we only had one key.
My wife was asleep on top of the bed in the nude but with the light on. As soon as the thief got into our room he turned off the light, which woke my wife up. As unlikely as it seems, she got up in the dark, walked over to the door still half asleep, felt someone standing there, assumed it was me and simply turned around and went back to bed. Who knows what would have happened next if the police hadn’t tried the door as well, come into the room, turned on the light and apprehended the suspect thief. Shortly afterwards, I rocked up having missed all the fun. It was a memorable night for us all.
Ibiza was the paradise for ravers, hippies, and other youngsters escaping their realities; today, it has turned into a luxury-driven market that is extremely expensive. Most locals are getting evicted because they can’t afford to live in their own island. When was the last time you were there, and how have you experienced its change or evolution over the last decades?
People are always liable to be saying things were better in the past aren’t they? It was ever thus. I distinctly remember, when I first went to Ibiza in 1983 some local people were saying that the Island was being spoiled by all the tourists and Ibiza Town was much better when it was a little fishing village. I haven’t been to Ibiza since the ‘90s. Once I went over to interview and photograph the porn star Sarah Young. And I also went once in the late ‘90s to shoot at Manumission. I found I just couldn’t do it. The Ibiza rave scene just wasn’t for me, my approach has always been to shoot amazing looking individuals, one to one. Even in a loud nightclub, when you can’t even hear yourself think, you can create a quiet contemplative moment in a photograph.
You have documented the witching hour escapades of a variety of subcultures such as skinheads, fetish, ravers, goths, mods, and all sorts in between. What drives your interest in these underground scenes? 
I suppose one could say that I’ve always sought to express my own feelings of otherness via my choice of subject.
What challenges did you face gaining access and acceptance within these communities? 
Back then, I thought that if I was polite and respectful and if my interest was a sincere one, then people would be open to letting me shoot them. This was mostly the case but not always. With the skinheads, I was extremely lucky but I was also very naive. The vast majority of them were fine but a very small proportion of them were very dangerous people indeed. The problem is, if you go into a room with 10, 20 or 100 skinheads you won’t immediately know which are the ones to avoid. And they don’t necessarily announce themselves. So, as I say, I was very, very lucky and could have been beaten up, or worse, more than once. I owe my guardian angel quite a lot.
And in the early months on the Skin Two club in Soho in 1983, I was threatened with physical violence a few times. Once they found out I wasn’t going to sell my photographs to The Sun or some such, they were generally as good as gold.
The underground scene allows for an abundance of individualism, be that through fashion, music, make-up, or love. What do you think it is about clubbing that allows for such a profound exploration of self-expression and desire? 
I think the answer is that forty odd years ago nightclubs were about the only places individualists could meet like minded people, in a safe space and express themselves. But none of the clubs were really underground (they let me in, after all). What I think you could say was that they were not mainstream.  With the gay clubs (as they were called then) and the fetish clubs, they just had to be a bit careful who they let in. Despite a few small difficulties, which I spoke about above, all the clubs were friendly and welcoming once you got in through the door.
How did your career change when you began working for music and style magazines like NME and The Face? How did this affect your creative authority?  
As soon as I started working for the NME and The Face, life got so much easier. For the next 20 years or so, I never had to tout for work because people always came to me. My work was being seen every month in The Face and every week in the NME.
Despite what people say these days about there being no value whatsoever in exposure, it certainly wasn’t true then. Asserting my creative authority took a little longer. As I developed a stronger style, people gradually knew what to expect a bit more and they were less visibly surprised when I brought my prints in. But for a freelancer, it can always be a bit of a struggle. I’m sure most creative people would agree that periods of self doubt are never that far away.
You have left a trailblazing line of subjects through your photoshoots. How do you foster an environment that allows you to capture each subject’s personality? 
This is a really interesting question and I could probably waffle on for hours about the subject. The short answer is, certainly with my editorial portraiture, I try and keep out of the way of the process as much as possible. It’s really about recording what I see on the day and not making it all about me all the time.
I’ll give you an example. In the mid-eighties, I got a commission from Time Out to shoot portraits of the parents of murdered children. I was a little apprehensive about how to tackle such a sensitive subject but it turned out to be incredibly easy. I really didn’t have to do anything at all (other than keep a stiff upper lip and try not to tear up). Their sad, sad stories were written on their faces. To insert myself into the equation or to do any sort of direction would have been asinine. So I kept quiet, listened to them talk and let my camera do all the work. It was a very profound experience and it’s one that I’ve never forgotten. 
That’s obviously an extreme example but I like to use a similar method with all my portraiture. Most of the time I do very little direction. Obviously you can’t take that approach into shooting rock bands or fashion. That’s another kettle of fish entirely. In those instances you have to take charge.
As someone who’s portrayed so many subcultures and incredible individuals from the 1970s ‘till now, how do you see the state of the youth nowadays? What do you see as the most interesting movement, trend, or even people?
I’m 73 so when something interesting and new happens nowadays, I usually read about it first in a magazine or on the net. And I’m definitely not one who says “everything was better in my day”. One of the great things about living in the 21st Century is, creatively, one has almost instant access to so much and the reach of social media is incredible. One could shoot an interesting photograph in the morning and by tea time half the world will have had a chance to see it. A student can produce and publish their own photo zine for less than £20. The creative opportunities nowadays are amazing.
When I was a 17 year old art student in 1968, I made a silk screen of Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, with his face appearing out of the type.  You couldn’t just download his speeches from the net in those days. I had to import a vinyl record of them from the USA, transcribe it myself, get my mum to type it up and then I had to typeset every single letter and every single space by hand. Even back then, I knew I couldn’t just copy someone else’s photograph of him so I drew his likeness using many different photographs. I then combined the type and my drawing, made four stencils with a mercury vapour lamp and ended up with an edition of about 12. All that took me four months. Nowadays the whole process from beginning to end might take you a couple of hours.
You are able to compare the kids from the 1970s to now. I personally think that as time progresses, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a young person. Do you see many differences between the youth from the 1970s or ‘80s to those from the 2000s and 2010s? 
My generation, the baby boomers, had the best of it really. We had a lot of great music and we even got paid by the government to go to college or university. Thatcher’s children, the punks and others from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s sang about “no future”. Has it really changed for the better for the kids of the 2000s and 2010s? I don’t really think it has. 
Having to pay for further education is a huge impediment for most kids and especially for working class ones. Even relatively well off young people find it hard to live in London nowadays and ever owning one’s own home is becoming more and more unlikely. On the plus side, there’s an enormous amount of talent and creativity in the youth of today. Probably a whole lot more than the baby boomers who had it all handed to us on a plate.