Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

The eponymous British photographer’s new book provides a nostalgic snapshot of 90s club culture

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Conjure up an image of a club goer – the type who sways, dances, gropes, kisses and sleeps without a care in the world – and it will most likely be one of Ewen Spencer’s. Synonymous with exposing the antics of British nightlife, the photographer and filmmaker has carved a reputable name for his work documenting (and revealing) youth, fashion, music and subculture, particularly that which depicts a time when smoking in clubs was allowed and people were a lot less tied to their phones. In fact, phones weren’t really a thing back then. Could anything be more nostalgic?

While studying at Brighton School of Art in the 90s, Ewen began photographing topics in tune with society – snapping people having a 20-minute break at a service station on the M4, for example. This is where his interest in subcultures arose and, having attended Northern Soul all-nighters at the time, he decided to start bringing his camera in tow. It was the perfect subject matter. Then, upon graduating in 1997, Ewen took his imagery to Shoreditch-based Sleazenation magazine and launched his career capturing nightclub moments for the publication. He proceeded to document the UK’s garage and grime scenes and worked with NME, The Face, Dazed, Nike, Apple among others – he also took the inner liner photographs for The Streets’ album Original Pirate Material, and has released a handful of books including Open Mic, UKG, Open Mic Vol.2 and Young Love.

A flourishing career so far, it seems only right for the photographer to look back at his archive. Doing just that in his new publication titled While You Were Sleeping, these very pictures – featuring those previously unseen – are an enjoyable reminder of a bygone era, a time when clubbing and clubbers were oblivious to the photographer’s lens. Will nightlife and club photography ever be the same again? Below, Ewen tells me about these prolific pictures. 

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

What inspired you to start photographing nightlife, and why make this book now?

I began making pictures around youth scenes out of my own interests. I was involved in the northern soul scene and the many off-shoots from that: modern soul, rare groove, house and garage throughout the late 80s and 90s. I just began to apply what I’d been researching and testing out while studying photography in those places that I loved. It blossomed into a visual language that made sense to me and discussed a myriad of social and perhaps political concerns and considerations at a time, when that was still conceivable in a club or around a dance floor.

Who caught your eye back then?

If you have an interest in people I think you probably gravitate towards interesting characters. In the late 90s, I was going into spaces that would hold no more than 200 people in some instances – in a basement in Brixton, let’s say. I’d look for characters interacting together, begin working around them and at times integrate myself with them to the extent where we’d have a drink and become friendly. I might stay with these people for a while and then work around the room; I might stay a couple of hours and shoot 10 rolls of film, and then move onto the next place. Unless it was a bigger club, or somewhere I was particularly interested in hearing a DJ or a particular sound, I’d stay and work all night and maybe know a few people in there. Sonic Mook Experiment was a place where I knew folks who were working in fashion, music and art. I photographed Jerry Dammers, DJ-ing here for Sleazenation in 1998.

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

The photos are an incredible record of the past, where smoking in clubs was legal, people wouldn’t be glued to their phones; everyone seems less aware of themselves. How does it feel looking back on a time like this through your imagery? And has your process changed now that people are more self-conscious?

I think it all depends on where you go. I was at Guttering last weekend in Bermondsey and the folks were really up for the evening, dancing hard, mixing it up with one another. I love to see it; there were some real faces in there. 

I’m always surprised by kids approaching me who know my pictures and are maybe more sussed to the dynamic, and that is in someway making the act of shooting around scenes a little more performative, in that the consent seems quite immediate. I had a few acknowledgments of satisfaction from people I’d photographed and a few kids came up and shared their pictures they’d been working on… Photography is obviously far more accessible and democratic now. However I’m not encouraging people to come and show me your pictures at parties, thanks x

Ewen Spencer’s While You Were Sleeping is published by Damiani at £40

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Super Sharp

Helena Fletcher explores an exhibition celebrating the styles of the jungle and UK garage scenes, and the first instalment of RTRN II JUNGLE

Archivist and curator Tory Turk and DJ, producer and one half of Chase & Status, Saul Milton, first crossed paths in 2014 when Turk was curating 89:14 – A Street Style Journey. For the street style exhibition, Turk enlisted Milton in styling a jungle mannequin for the display, as she recalls of time: “It was then that Saul told me about his impressive Moschino collection and that he was interested in putting together an exhibition incorporating it.” Four years on, a selection of pieces from Milton’s collection form the centrepieces of exhibition Super Sharp on display at London College of Fashion’s Fashion Space Gallery, delving deep into the subcultural styles of the jungle and UK garage music scenes.

Jungle and garage fashion definitely wasn’t for the shy or faint hearted – the clothes were bold, brash and bright, and worn with a large helping of bravado. With raves no longer taking place outdoors or in crusty warehouses, the club venues germinated a new uniform. Still holding on to the colourful look that first defined rave culture, the style became a more dressed-up amalgamation of urban combat gear, coupled with fantastically flashy designer fashion.

In no way understated and completely at odds with the Berghain-ian black that has swept the London underground scene for the last few years, logo-heavy Italian luxury designer labels like Versace, Iceberg, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana ran rife across the dance floors. Moschino printed jeans, jackets and shirts (often all worn together) became synonymous with the look of the epoch, and were known as ‘off-key Mosch’, ‘pattern Mosch’ or ‘crazy Mosh’; depending on where you were in London.

“In the jungle scene peacocking and showing your worth by the designer label on your back went hand-in-hand with the time,” says Milton. “Designer labels certainly weren’t the norm for youth to wear so having Moschino and Versace for all to see was a big statement. The loud, garish colours and patterns were also very much in sync with the music and the vibe that was happening at the time.”

What started with the jungle scene became even more exaggerated and famous with garage. The use of soulful house and R&B vocals in the tracks attracted a more female audience, which changed attitudes within the club. Door policies and dress codes tightened and dancing became sexier. It was all about flaunting affluence – the drink of choice was either brandy or champagne (a Moët & Chandon official once paying a visit to Twice as Nice due to the suspiciously high champagne consumption). Looks would be accessorised with a fresh pairs of Gucci loafers or Patrick Cox Wannabes, and clubbers would leave the cardboard swing tags on their clothes to show that they hadn’t been worn before.

Milton’s own obsession with Moschino, which now fills a room in his home, started in 1998 when his grandfather bought him his first Moschino shirt: “That was what really began my love for Moschino and wearing clothes of that ilk,” he remembers. “When I was younger, I used to go to jungle raves; everyone would be head-to–toe in Moschino, Versace, D&G, Gucci loafers and the rest. That is when I guess, in my life, I was most inspired and when I had the dream of being a DJ, to make tunes and be part of the scene – that stayed with me for many years.”

Whilst working on the third Chase & Status album in 2012, Milton became eager to reignite his passion for making music again. “I really wanted to get inspired, and I thought when was I most inspired? When I was young, seventeen/eighteen years old, going out wearing head-to-toe Moschino,” he continues: “I really wanted to re-discover that passion again, so I rummaged through my wardrobe, found some of my old pieces and went on the hunt looking for other old pieces, just to recreate what I had.” From then on his collection grew: “The next thing you know, I’ve got 1,500 pieces of vintage Moschino. And now I dress and look exactly the same as I did when I was eighteen; I am inspired and still making jungle.”

Super Sharp is just the tip of the iceberg and Milton’s extensive archive of both men’s and womenswear forms the core of RTRN II JUNGLE, a series celebrating 15 years of Chase & Status with an array of events and exhibitions focused on exploring the music and fashion that made 1990s British rave culture, and culminating in DJ tours and new musical releases. “The next exhibition will house my entire 1500 piece vintage Moschino collection and will delve much deeper into the story we began with Super Sharp,” he enthuses.

Alongside Milton’s archive pieces, magazine spreads from Dazed, i-D and The Face, documenting the fashion and culture, pepper the display. Magazines would often turn up to club nights just to photograph the style of the people waiting in the queues to get in. “Magazines such as i-D did catch on to the posy nature of the jungle and garage scenes,” Turk explains. And the style is captured in a selection of never before exhibited photographs taken at jungle raves such as Helter Skelter, Roast and One Nation by Tristan O’Neill, who shot for underground dance magazines such as Eternity, Dream and Atmosphere. “It was amazing to unearth imagery that features jungle ravers wearing the designer label style that was made famous by the media representation of garage,” says Turk.

It is almost impossible to ignore the wave of nineties nostalgia that is currently sweeping the internet, and with it comes a revival of countless aspects of pre-millennial culture, including renewed interest in jungle and UK garage sounds and style. “Today, there is a special nostalgia for these pre-social media pockets of history, and millennials have been referencing the style for quite a few years now,” notes Turk. While on the internet the lines between the two genres are often blurred or confused by hindsight, Super Sharp aims to document and examine the nuances of the two styles not only through the fashion and printed media but through the recollections of those who experience the scenes first hand. The clothes are contextualised by quotes, testimonies and memories of key jungle and garage musicians, journalists, academics and enthusiasts including Goldie, PJ & Smiley (Shut Up & Dance), MC Nyke and Fabio & Grooverider.

Two decades on, why is the style and sounds of jungle and garage making a comeback both in the clubs and on the catwalk? “I think we’re in a very similar climate to the 90s – uncertainty, unrest and a feeling that a change is in the air. In these times people always turn to music and fashion and that’s usually when the most ground breaking and forward thinking music is made,” offers Milton. “The kids today look back at the 90s and want to experience ‘it’ themselves and they put their own twist on it; they see the style and they make it their own. Everything’s come back around.”

Super Sharp is on at the Fashion Space Gallery, London until 21 April.