“At no stage did I think I could do a better job than they could,” he says. “Far from it.”
But one day his boss told him to bring a camera home and get a feel for taking pictures of his own.
The agency had taken on work for a camera company, so the idea was that if Derek could learn how to use one he would come up with better adverts. Instead it changed his life forever.
One night in January 1973, Derek went to see Eric Clapton perform at London’s Rainbow Theatre with a Miranda SLR slung over his shoulder.
The place was heaving and the 22-year-old was stuck at the back, unable to see anything clearly. So when the band came on, Derek ran down to the front and pretended to be a pro photographer.
Forty five years later, one of the pictures he took that night is in new book Derek Ridgers – Photographs, a career-spanning monograph that gathers the best of his portraits – encompassing punks, skinheads and goths to superstars such as Nick Cave, The Beastie Boys and Samuel L. Jackson.
It charts Derek’s unique trajectory from documenting youth subcultures at ground zero to profiling some of the biggest names in music, film, sport and politics – all of it sparked by the buzz he got that one night, pretending to be something he wasn’t.
Was there a particular point in your career where you were conscious of finding your own voice and thought, ‘Hey, I’m onto something here’?
Well, not really… In terms of documentary portraiture, I found a simple, straightforward style early on and just stuck with it through good and bad. That part of my work is exactly the same today.
But with my commissioned editorial portraiture, it took me several years to find my own style. I think I got there in the end but for the first 18 months or so my work was terrible. I can hardly bear to think of those photographs now, let alone look at them.
I think I was trying too hard. I used to sketch out ideas and take a sheaf of choices along to try and discuss them with my subject. Of course, many of my subjects weren’t really interested, they just wanted to get the shoot done with as quickly as possible.
I soon abandoned that method anyway because it wasn’t really working. It was more the approach of an art director, not a photographer. The creativity was always in the idea beforehand not the photograph.
Of course, one has to have ideas; plenty of very good photographers work this way. I found that it didn’t suit me though. I soon found that I only really enjoyed portraiture if the ideas were spontaneous and thought up in the moment.
When you are observing, what kind of thing catches your eye? How do you know when you are about to capture a special moment?
I don’t think I’m a ‘special moment’ type photographer. If I see something really photogenic happening right in front of me, I’ll take a photo of it, obviously. But I’m not really looking for that. Almost always I’m just looking for people. People who look really different or just great faces. Or even just a great expression or beautiful eyes.
With my documentary portraiture, I think I know when I’ve caught something special. When my subject is grinning or looking ill at ease, shuffling about or looking over at their friends, it’s going to be unlikely. I’m always just looking for a moment of stillness and quiet contemplation. It may only be a moment but it’s enough.
And I should add, for a photographer, I’m notoriously unobservant.
But much of your career has been in the role of an outsider observing from the margins. How did that make you feel? Was there ever a feeling of missing out?
Yes, I’ve spent a lifetime of being outside looking in and feeling that I might be missing out on something. I’m usually on the margins of everything though, not just photography.
But, on the other hand, I’ve happily spent a lifetime ploughing my own furrow too. You can’t have it both ways, can you?
When I was an art student, I think worked as hard as anyone. Anyone, apart from the illustrator Alan Lee. He was often there in the morning when I arrived and he’d be there when I left in the evening. I think he was the only one that put in more hours as a student than I did. Whatever else, I knew then that I wouldn’t fail by not trying hard enough.
When you began what would become The Dark Carnival, you had very little money, a young family and we were living on a council estate in a bad area. What did photography offer you at that time? Was it simply a hobby? Or were you pursuing it in the hope that success in that field would provide a feasible way out of those circumstances?
When I began shooting in clubs, it was simply a hobby and at that time. I was convinced I was on the road to becoming a rich and successful art director. I thought that would be my passage out. It didn’t work out that way, obviously. And what happened was far more prosaic.
We decided to move away from the council estate because my family had became the target for a gang of delinquent kids. Nothing too dreadful but it was extremely stressful. Eventually I managed to stop it but by that time we’d already put a deposit down on a house.
What impact did success have on you personally and stylistically?
Simply in terms of having shows and getting my work published, success came very quickly. My first set of properly exposed images (about 30) were shown at the ICA and published widely, including in the international art magazine ZOOM.
That was in 1978. I didn’t give up advertising until 1982, by which time I’d had several other one man shows including The Kiss at the Photographers Gallery.
And all that time, my darkroom was in a tiny larder at home. A cupboard, really. It was so small that there was only just enough room to stand up in it, if one didn’t move. I put a lock on the inside to prevent myself leaning back slightly and accidentally pinging open the door.
I did my developing in cat litter trays because they were cheaper than photographic developing trays. This was why, for the first four or five years, my prints so small. Never any bigger than 10 x 8 and often smaller. I didn’t have a proper darkroom until I was well into my forties.
Virtually as soon as I started photography full time, I was able to support myself and my family from that income. And I was very, very busy, running around everywhere like a blue-arsed fly. I didn’t really look back for close on 25 years.
But there are other measures of success, aren’t there? I’m still working on those.
Stylistically, not much really changed but that was intentional. As soon as I had any sort of body of work, I wanted to improve and refine my technique rather than change anything.
What image of yours do you feel most connected to? And what is the story behind it?
Actually, if I were to tell you the absolute truth here… all the photographs that mean most to me are family photographs. I’ve never taken a photograph that I value more than the ones of my family. But that would probably be the same for all of us, wouldn’t it?
I don’t suppose that’s what you meant… In that case probably the one of Babs, the skinhead girl in Soho in 1987. She had the saddest, most soulful and beautiful eyes I think I’ve ever seen. I saw her out walking her dog and it wasn’t until some time later that I realise I’d actually photographed her once before as well, in a nightclub.
I only ever saw her twice and we hardly spoke, either time. Recently a friend who had been in the same children’s home as her told me her that real name was Diane.
Somehow I think we had a connection – even if it was only for 1/125th of a second. I think we were probably both outsiders.
Is there anything that you have learned about yourself or human nature in general from taking photographs?
In recent years, I’ve come to learn that my compulsion to photograph the young people around me was related to what I saw as gaps in my own life growing up. It wasn’t for nothing that I spontaneously found myself doing what I did. At the time I didn’t know what my motivations were or even really think about it. It just seems quite clear looking back. All my subjects were people I wished I could have either been or been with.
I suppose there must be some of that in humans in general. Given a completely free choice, we pick vocations based on impulses buried deep in the psyche, though we won’t always realise it at the time.
What about the trends and cycles of youth culture – what things change and what stays the same?
Teenagers the world over are desperate to express themselves and this can be very photogenic. About the only thing that’s changed during my lifetime is that there are different platforms now, mainly the internet. Once upon a time, when you bought a new outfit, you couldn’t wait to get out and show yourself off in it. Nowadays you never have to leave the house; you have Instagram .
And this can be very useful in making connections around the world with like-minded young people who might never have had the chance to meet or interact at all in past times. Matt Lucas’ Only Gay In The Village character in Little Britain alluded to a time when this could have been a problem. But we live in a global village now.
Although… I do realise the joke. He never was the “only gay in the village”; he just liked to imagine he was.
In terms of working with superstars, what is the biggest challenge or turn-off for you when you’re trying to take someone’s portrait?
With many famous people – rock stars, actors, filmmakers, sports people, authors – many of them just don’t want you there at all. And although many of them will be nice enough and occasionally even quite accommodating, they really want you out of their hair as quickly as possible.
Many surround themselves with an entourage and none of them want you to be there either. So you have to make sure the first exposure you make is a good one because you may not get the chance to get another. Celebrities can have brittle, very highly strung egos. Even the nice ones. They may just up and walk out at any moment.
What do you think is your most underrated shot?
I don’t think any of them are underrated. If some of my photographs are not considered to be much good, then that’s something I’m going to have to live with. I consider myself to be my own harshest critic anyway, so I’d probably agree.
On the other hand, if some of the images have managed to gain a little traction, there must be a reason. Disraeli once said that, “Tthe world takes you at your own estimation.” I’m not so sure. I’ll go along with the court of public opinion.
You obviously have a knack for timing. Were there any moments you didn’t capture on film that felt like a missed opportunity?
Yes, almost every time I take camera out I feel that I miss things. Every single moment of every day is an opportunity.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Going back a few decades, long before I’d thought about becoming a professional photographer, I learnt a great deal working for one of my ad agency bosses. A bloke called Kim Mukerjee. I could learn more working for him in a week than I learnt from all my other creative directors put together. He was an incredibly quick and inventive thinker.
Eventually he sacked me, although… he eventually he sacked everyone. It was inevitable. But I had a fabulous time working for him and I learnt so much.
Including the usefulness of a USP [unique selling point], which is very translatable into professional photography. Nowadays more than ever.
Have you ever felt like you have something to prove as a photographer, even if just to yourself?
Yes. Every time I take a camera out with me. You can’t rest on your laurels, not ever. Every day is a test and that’s exactly the way it should be. There are some great young, awesomely talented photographers coming out of college every year and no one owes me a living. That pressure is what drives you on. And to some extent, you’re really only as good as your last photograph.
As to the “why” part of your question, this is simply a fact of the creative life. If you become self-satisfied, there’s no real incentive to push on further. I’ve never really felt photography was work, so if I can’t be pleasing myself, why bother?
What would your life be like without photography?
I’m sure I’d be fine. I’d probably be an ageing art director or designer or something. I never really left that life fully behind anyway, as I still do a bit of art direction and copywriting for a retail company. It’s nice to keep those mental cogs oiled.
Derek Ridgers – Photographs is published by Carpet Bombing Culture. A pop-up exhibition of the work can be seen at Artblock, at London’s Old Truman Brewery, until 7 October.