❚ SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE as extrovert as their famous sitters, but Derek Ridgers has captured the essence of British street style and achieved a uniquely influential status by tip-toeing through the margins of life, feather-footed as the questing vole. Anyone who has followed the Punk and New Romantic scenes recognises the Ridgers types — “transient beings moving across an urban landscape, experimenters, flamboyant souls who cared more than anything about how they looked and whose greatest fear was of being ordinary”, as writer Val Williams noted in the Ridgers photobook of 2004, When We Were Young: Club and Street Portraits. His straight-up photographic style pinned those clubbing butterflies like curios into the display case labelled Swinging 80s. They trigger the involuntary remembrance of the texture of an era as readily as cake did for Marcel Proust: each image has the potential to become the “vase filled with perfumes, sounds, places and climates”.
Throughout April and May we may relish the Ridgers back catalogue in a new exhibition titled Unseen at Soho’s Society Club. The selection documents celebrities and street stylists from 35 years of commissions by music mags and national press. Here is an engaging mix of concert shots and powerfully intimate portraits in which eye-contact is key: Nick Cave, David Lynch, J G Ballard, Boy George, Leigh Bowery, Tom Waits, The Cramps, Mick Jagger, plus the image of Keith Richards which is currently touring in the Sunday Times Magazine 50th anniversary show.
Another exceptionally striking portrait has the singer Morrissey eyeballing the Ridgers lens with an intense gaze that definitely says misunderstood but could just as easily be saying cussed. It was shot in London in 1985, year of The Smiths’ second album, Meat Is Murder, when Moz began raising the temperature with political views about the Thatcher government and the monarchy.
Ridgers said: “He’s a bit of a strain to photograph in the sense that there is so little of his personality coming back at you. Or at least there wasn’t in those days. Maybe he was very shy but he seemed taciturn in the extreme. The two times we met, he gave the impression of not wanting to say boo to a goose. He honestly hardly said a word to me. Nothing at all like the extremely opinionated personality that comes across in interviews these days.”
The two characteristic Morrisseys of then and now — the one taciturn, the other curmudgeonly — bestride three decades which completely reinvented British notions of youth culture, music, sexuality and success, yet at last night’s preview it was salutory to be pulled up by a 26-year-old illustrator among the guests who had to ask: Who was Morrissey?
All the more reason to buy ourselves a cool black-and-white print as a Proustian trigger, either directly from the Ridgers Archive or from an earlier catalogue viewable at the Society Club. Titled Previously Unpublished, this takes us from an iconic 1982 lineup of the ever-evolving band The Fall, through Culture Club, John Galliano, Roddy Frame, Tim Roth, into the 90s of the Charlatans, Ray Winstone, Lee Scratch Perry and a pensive Kylie Minogue to a raunchy Boo Delicious and more in the new century.
Ridgers has published three books of photographs, has exhibited frequently, and was a judge in How We Are Now, an online photography project launched by Tate Britain in 2007.