24 March 2023

Following on from END.'s shoot with Ewen Spencer for Y-3 with Alfie Kungu, we sat down with the lauded British photographer to discuss the appeal of documenting niche subcultures and Britishness at the turn of the century.

With a longstanding tradition of documentary photography in the United Kingdom, Newcastle upon Tyne has birthed a surprisingly large number of photographers carrying on the mantle. From Tish Murtha’s social realist images that captured working class life throughout the region to Mik Critchlow’s documentation of his hometown Ashington, the North East of England has been a fertile environment for photographers looking to cut their teeth on capturing the daily lives and habits of British people.

When we think of documenting modern British culture through image, Ewen Spencer’s name comes to the fore almost immediately. For the past 30 years, the Newcastle upon Tyne-born photographer’s imagery has been within public consciousness, whether you’ve realised it or not. From capturing heady UK club nights to shooting Skins promotional material, the Brighton-based image maker has continuously been at the vanguard of contemporary culture throughout the UK. Embodying the essence of reckless abandon that often comes hand in hand with British subculture, Spencer’s lens has shot a wide variety of subject matter from the Northern Soul scene of Northern England to the early days of Grime, detailing the uniqueness of these subcultures through capturing them at their most private.

Building a body of work documenting subcultures as vast and wide-ranging as Spencer’s throughout three decades is no mean feat, with the photographer utilising his talents for embedding himself within niche scenes as a means of peeking behind the curtain to lift the lid on what few people – apart from those directly involved in these scenes – are able to see. Capturing moments of sincerity, of burgeoning talent and of often overlooked British culture, Spencer has been able to illustrate an idea of what modern Britishness is and can be.

Sitting down with the celebrated British photographer following the release of his recent book While You Were Sleeping, END. and Ewen Spencer delve into the appeal of documenting subculture and Britishness means in the 21st century.

What initially compelled you to take up photography? Was it something that you had always been interested in from a young age?

Ewen Spencer: I didn’t really try photography until I was probably about 21 or 22 years old - I went to art college to do a foundation course as a mature student at the time, in the early ‘90s. I’d grown up in a period when the visual language was magazines and record covers, and occasionally you’d get these subcultural, interesting little books about pop culture from the 60s. That was it, really. Being in Newcastle, I don’t know if I was starved of culture, but there were definitely things being passed around – I remember a VHS of Quadrophenia doing the rounds, and that famous documentary from around ’77 about Wigan Casino. There were things like that knocking about, so if you were into music and style – an industry I was working in before I went to art school – there was a visual language of subcultural context that was portrayed and published monthly in publications like The Face, I-D Magazine, Arena Homme Plus and Blitz. That was what my visual world was all about – there wasn’t a great deal of advertising directed at people my age. The only place you saw things like that was in these sort of magazines, and it would’ve been quite rudimentary visual merchandising or advertising from brands like C.P. Company, Liberto or Chevignon - that whole era of European menswear, sports casualwear. I was working in a small shop in Newcastle on High Bridge Street in the late 80s opposite where END. first started years later – I didn’t leave Newcastle until about ’92/’93 – that street was full of little boutiques selling C17, Chipie, Valentino – the continental clothing that was becoming very popular, what would’ve been called Paninaro in Italy. I wasn’t a casual at that point, but we were selling to kids who’d been into that look in general, that was my visual language. When I went to the Art School, I realised that I could make that kind of thing with a camera. Before that, it was like this kind of imagery in magazines etc had just fallen out of the sky. You couldn’t really contextualise where it came from. Maybe a little bit later on you could start to understand how these things came to be through advertising agencies, but that was pretty abstract idea at the time, most people weren’t really thinking about those things. Now, everyone knows what these things are.

With that context, and those wheels of industry becoming more ostensible, I went to art school and understood what I could feasibly do with a camera and the whole process of photography and what it could lead to. You could be sitting in a position where you could make those images. That became apparent and it was where I really fell into that world of photography and what it meant. So, I started to really study it – I was very driven by the idea of photography and the capabilities of it and what I could do. I hadn’t really felt that in any other disciplines that I had learnt on that course – graphic design, 3D or fashion. Because I was visually motivated in that way, photography just suited me. I really enjoyed going out and taking pictures in the street, of people I knew. That life I’d been living, working in those boutiques in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, and then going out raving, those things just fit in with the idea that I could photograph these things if I needed to, if I wanted to. The pictures I made in the streets of Newcastle, going back to where I was working, photographing those people around that area, some of the characters, when I submitted those pictures, the stories of these people were really intriguing. That was when I really got into photography, and I never really faltered from that. It was a pivotal moment, where I realised that this was what I was meant to do. It felt powerful.

"You had to ask what are you into? What do you love?"

The art of photography is capturing a moment that tells a story beyond the immediate frame – was storytelling through documentary photography something that you had always been passionate about? How does your documentary work connect to your commercial work for music, fashion and film?

ES: I like to think that all of those things come from the same place, they all come from the same book of learning, and I apply it to all of those things. I’m quite proud to say that a lot of the images that I make for big fashion brands sit quite comfortably next to the images I’ve made in raves or on the streets of Leytonstone with Grime MCs. They all live in the same world and are of the same vernacular.

When I was first starting out at College, they had a wonderful library at the Mandela building in the West End; I spent so much time in that place. I disappeared, so my friends didn’t see me for about a year. My pals were wondering where the fuck I’d gone. I’d stopped doing what we were doing – I’d fallen foul of it anyway, I was very bored of what was going on at the time – so I threw myself into that. I really enjoyed spending time in the library there, looking at the books. The first book I photocopied from front to back was William Klein’s New York. I would spend hours looking at it, trying to figure out why he made those pictures in that way and what was so exciting about them to me. What was exciting was that they were visceral, and engaging and immediate, and they referenced the things that I loved – 60s pop culture and counter-culture. They captured the modern world forming in the ‘50s and ‘60s, America and Paris, Moscow, Rome, Tokyo. Amazing black and white, high contrast pictures of people’s faces very close up. Shooting through crowds of people to focus on someone in the mid distance, looking for characters. At the time I was wondering why it appealed so much, but now I can articulate what it was that caught my eye. I looked at other people who were a bit closer to home and more contemporary, like Paul Rees, Chris Killip, and Paul Graham - what is called British Documentary of the 1970s/1980s. People who were photographing in the North East, who were capturing a world that I could see, that was around me at that time. I understood the Miner’s strike and the deindustrialisation of that area because of where I’d grown up and the people I’d grown up around. I recognised this, but it was photographed in a way that was not only poetic and beautiful, but it is was critical by its subtraction of content. I thought that was really clever, that it was an amazing thing to use your camera as a tool for change. I started going down to Side Gallery at that point, and another gallery in Newcastle on Pink Lane at that point called Zone. They showed work by Michael Ormerod, who’d been a teacher at the college, who made this incredible body of work about America. It was a magical time for that part of photography. Martin Parr was a part of that, too, and he was becoming very popular at that time. His work was becoming discussed nationally. These guys were shooting for the weekend magazines, that we were being encouraged to look at every weekend by the tutor, because the photography is excellent, and it was predominantly based in the documentary aesthetic, or principle, so I took that and felt very encouraged by it and enjoyed the aesthetic and approach. It’s quite a solitary approach, I suppose, you’re just walking around by yourself with a camera, really, but I quite liked that, and I was ready for it. It was quite a silly, romantic notion, but I wasn’t exactly wanting to go to war. When I went on to University in Brighton, we were taught quite quickly to photograph something that was about yourself, autobiographical in a way - what you were feeling and thinking. You had to ask what are you into? What do you love? That’s when I went off to photograph the Northern Soul scene.

The subject of your work has often aligned with music and youth culture, as seen in your seminal books UKG, Open Mic, and more recently While You Were Sleeping – why do you think you are particularly drawn to documenting subcultures and youth culture more specifically? 

ES: I was just thinking “what do I love? What am I into?” I was off photographing things like motorway service stations in my first and second year, because I found them to be interesting spaces. I remember being at one with my dad, when we were travelling to see relatives, and found them quite strange, suspended places. I quickly realised, though, that I wasn’t that enamoured with shooting these places, so I ended up hitching to Northern Soul all-nighters, because I knew where they were and I knew how they worked, and some of the sort of people who would be there. But it was my world – I’d been going to these places since I was a kid in Newcastle, it was part of what I loved. So, then I could photograph it with more clarity and insight. I spent about a year photographing on that scene – it’s very much a summer scene, I don’t think a lot of people realise that. There’s all-nighters every weekend throughout the summer, so I went to some that I’d never been to before that were huge and some more familiar ones. That became a series, my first real body of work, whilst I was at the art school in Brighton. That was a moment where I realised that I’d been photographing historically what I’d been into, which was music and style converging into a subcultural scene that had been going since the late 1960s, and was essentially born out of a mod/skinhead aesthetic movement, and it was still going strong. A lot of kids there dressed like me, so I really understood what was going on. 

"I wanted something that reflected the UK and talked about it in a historical way while also looking to the future, that discussed where subculture is going."

While You Were Sleeping, released earlier this year, offers a comprehensive personal account and document of UK club culture from ’98 to ’00. What did you find so appealing about photographing clubbers at this time? Was there a certain attitude that made them such compelling subjects?

ES: The Northern Soul pictures formed my graduation show at Brighton, and I’d put together a nice little package of images and made a photobook of those pictures from the Northern. I’d targeted specific art directors at magazines and record companies with that work, sending them packages with postcards and images of mine, then I’d call them up to see if they’d received the postcards and if they’d be happy to receive me with a portfolio. I spent a good few months doing that, seeing a lot of people at magazines, record companies, and creative agencies. The creative agencies were less inclined to work with a kid straight out of art school at that time. Record companies took a bit of interest because of the nature of the Northern Soul images, but the magazines were very interested - one in particular, a magazine called Sleaze Nation, which was a very cool, irreverent fashion/culture/art title, which was being received really well within that world. They sent me out to photograph at clubs and parties throughout London, which I was familiar with anyway as I was always travelling through from Brighton, throughout that era of guitar-based music exploding in the UK, mixed with house and garage. It was an exciting, heady time. I began to photograph that, in the aftermath of Britpop, as well as the house and garage scene, soul, punk kids in Camden, rockabillies in Chalk Farm, hip-hop kids in Kentish Town. I went around all these places that the magazine might suggest to me, but also had some spots I knew about already. I put together a huge amount of images in a very short space of time, a two-year period. These were the places that subcultural groups gathered – you’d see kids down the street, but they weren’t hanging out in certain areas necessarily – they were going to clubs and bars. There was a huge clubbing scene at the time – you could just find people who were in quite extreme situations. I wanted a very broad stroke of what was going on in the UK at that time. I was photographing the metal kids at Rock City in Nottingham, then a year later it was Nu-Metal kids in Soho. It kept me very busy for two or three years, but it also honed my discipline in photographing and making pictures, understanding how to make pictures in certain places, looking for characters and really looking at what people were wearing. I might’ve just taken a photograph of someone’s jeans – it didn’t have to be their face covered in sweat. It was finding the ability to take photos in a way so that people didn’t really acknowledge you, because at that time there was very cheesy club photography in magazines like MixMag, where everyone is posing for the camera, which was something I found cringey. I wanted something that reflected the UK and talked about it in a historical way while also looking to the future, that discussed where subculture is going. We’re very good in the UK at going out and having a good time, that’s what we do! So I was basically extending the Northern Soul pictures into something that made sense to me, in places that I understood and recognised. It was being published in some very hip and fast moving magazines at that time, and it was generating attention for me in that world – it led, very quickly, to be commissioned by magazines like I-D and The Face, magazines that I’d been looking at four years prior as a consumer, so all of a sudden I was being published in the magazines that were bibles of style and music. Then you get into the politics and culture of publishing, where you ask yourself if you’re doing the right kind of projects for these magazines, are you going to become a “good” photographer that is well respected and regarded making good quality work, and I very quickly had to learn about that and how it works. If the pictures weren’t good enough, you’d have to go back and make more if you weren’t 100% satisfied. Then you’re just in the mechanics of it all, you don’t even think about anything else really, you just think about making great pictures and how you can improve your practice.  

Photographed over twenty years ago, the images in While You Were Sleeping have never been published, until now. Why was now the right time for you to publish this selection? 

ES: I’d made my book UKG at a time where UK Garage was experiencing some sort of revival, or a renaissance, which I didn’t anticipate. It hit at the right time in 2013, but I remember some people at the time, wishing that they’d been there, as they thought that that sort of movement would never happen again, in the same way at least. Of course, Garage clubs are still a thing, and they’re still exciting, heady places, but it wasn’t anything like it was in 1998/99, the excitement was just through the roof, which you can see in those pictures. With the convergence of different kinds of people in those clubs at that time, there are so many elements that can’t be repeated, and nor should they - it should change, it should be different. What I realised was the power of that capturing of an era, that a lot of people look back and are so excited about what the 1990s were. I loved having that time in the ‘90s, it was fantastic, and I was very lucky. So much of it is being replicated now, in the same way that in the ‘90s we were looking at the ‘60s and trying to replicate what was going on then in a way. – I had a vintage Vespa and was wearing Duffer of St. George in the early ‘90s. Now, people are looking at the ‘90s and doing the same thing. When I was going through that series of images 2 or 3 years ago with my son, who was 23 at that time, he was asking what the fuck was happening in these pictures, where is this, what’s going on? I always loved those pictures but it was that his and my daughter’s experiences of partying and going to clubs was so far removed from that, because people are more self aware, that made me really reflect on them. London was changing and the UK was changing massively at that point. When you look at what was happening after 2001, we’ve kind of been in a panic since then. Life was simpler but more exciting in the late ‘90s into the early ‘00s. There was a big change in technology and the way we communicated with one another on so many different levels after that time. My daughter is someone who has grown up with the internet, she’s never had any experience before that, everything is Apple devices now. In a similar way, in 2003/04, photographing Grime and what was going on there was a way of photographing a British subcultural moment that was happening in real time, but it wasn’t about the dancefloor, it was about being on the street in London, in stairwells, people’s basements and bedrooms, on the back of a bus or in a car driving round to drop off records at little stores. Being a part of that world was about photographing a world that was changing rapidly because people were taking the power of what was around them in terms of the autonomy of self-publishing and the internet and applying it to a business acumen and a creative world. I was simply photographing that. All I wanted to do when I was photographing Grime was photograph a subcultural moment but it was a working class moment – the classic British working class preoccupation with grace under pressure, which has occurred since the 1950s with British youth culture. We’ve always been kids where if we haven’t got a lot, we’ll try to turn it into something good and find some entertainment. Grime was just another part of that. Grime just moved away from the dancefloor because it wanted to stay autonomous and fiercely independent, and it could do that because of technology. I didn’t really realise that I was also photographing the changes in technology and the emancipatory benefits of that. Now, subcultural moments seem smaller, but they’re probably not. They just don’t have time to grow. If we take Garage as an example, Garage had begun out of the house and garage scene in 93/94, and it had developed as a very underground scene in East and South London. It grew through pirate radio, mixtapes getting handed around and word of mouth. These were the things that enabled us to exchange culturally. The three R’s – raves, records and radio. That still applies now, but also now we have all the different medias of the internet, showing us and telling us. If you want to research something, it’s right there. You can find specific radio shows about new Garage and new artists like Interplanetary Criminal, who has made one of the biggest Garage hits since T2’s Heartbroken. But things blow up and pass over so quickly now, people would still be talking about that track in three months’ time if it was 20 or 30 years ago because it took a lot longer for things to really hit home. It would take a long time to become a household name like Craig David or So Solid Crew, but people like that were the beginning of the end of Garage. Then it sort of filtered into the mainstream with pop stars doing garage versions of their songs, and that was it, with every Tom, Dick and Harry going to the raves, which ended up causing trouble. As soon as that happens, it’s over. When I first went to a garage rave in ’98, it was all love, like being at an old school rave or a soul night, with all kinds of folk. Now, these subcultural moments explode so quickly and then they’re over as we have it all at the touch of a button. Then on to the next thing.

To me, your work captures a certain element of Britishness – one that shirks the strait-laced stereotype – a free, hedonistic, and creative culture, something referenced in the synopsis of While You Were Sleeping; “here in the UK we know how to throw a party, we work hard and play hard”. What does Britishness mean to you and how do you go about ensuring your photographs reflect that attitude? 

ES: That strait-laced conventional Britishness plays into it, that idea of self-discipline and certain values, but what a lot of people disregard is that people in the UK like to party, to create our own fun, and have a great history of that too. Other nations might do that, but do other nations embrace other cultures as quickly as we do? At the moment, there is a lot of critique that we’re “little Englanders” on a small island – we are – but we do embrace other cultures. We celebrate them but also make them our own in a way. That’s art, that’s creativity. If you’re a painter, you’re going to look at other artists’ work and see things that inspire you to paint in a certain way, to develop your own approach. You have to take it from somewhere. We’re very good at that in Britain, taking things and turning them into our own. Jungle, for example, is a great amalgamation of hardcore, post-acid house, breakbeat mixed with ragga, which was going on in tiny parts of the country and developed into this different kind of sound that developed into jungle. But that wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have this approach to life. The working-class communities were the first places that embraced these sort of exchanges, from the way people dressed and danced to the music people were listening to. Building a Soundsystem for instance, that’s taken from Jamaican culture and after applying that in a British context it became something else, which became hugely popular in its own right. There is a huge history of irreverence and subversiveness in British culture - we’re a nation of pirates not shopkeepers. We’ve got all these regional disciplines that feed into that, too. We’ve had some of the best clubbing scenes or party scenes that will ever be recorded or discussed.

writerChris Owen
|photographerEwen Spencer