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

A Brief History of British Subcultures

From Northern Soul to Grime, look back at the defining styles of five youth movements from the last 70 years

Skins & Punks by Gavin Watson
“People said subcultures died with punk, teds, mods, skins and new romantics but that’s ridiculous,” says Jim Stephenson, founder of photography organisation, Miniclick. “You have rave and hip-hop, you have garage and grime, and they are equally as energetic as any of the subcultures that have gone before them,” he continues.
“Fashion is arguably the most significant element of all these scenes as that is the outward way of expressing the group these young people are choosing to identify with. When you say ‘punk’ you have an image immediately of what that means. Subcultures encompass a style and a language.”
Presented as part of Brighton’s Fringe Festival, Stephenson has curated Behind the Beat, a group photography exhibition exploring British subcultures from 1955 to 2017. Running every weekend throughout May, the show and a programme of talks are investigating the fashion, music, politics and stories that have defined subcultures in the UK. Ten photographers including Elaine Constantine, Derek Ridgers, Ken Russell, Dean Chalkey and Olivia Rose share their work documenting some of these iconic youth movements.
Here are five of Port’s favourites.  
Teddy Girls
Teddy Girls by Ken Russell

Ken Russell’s 1955 photographs of one of the first female youth cultures to exist are some of the only documents of the teddy girls from the time. Russell photographed them on the streets of Notting Hill, at funfairs, on derelict East End bomb sites and outside the Seven Feathers Club. 

Teddy fashions were inspired by the Edwardian period during the early years of the 20th century, their dress included loose fitting, velvet-collared jackets and narrow trousers. Some teddy girls would put a feminine spin on the typical teddy style with straw boater hats, brooches, espadrilles and elegant clutch bags. They collected rock’n’roll magazines and records, attended dances and went to the cinema with the teddy boys. Most would also carry closed umbrellas but often would not open them, even in the rain. 

Northern Soul
Northern Soul by Elaine Constantine

Northern soul was a music and dance movement that grew out of the British mod scene in northern England in the late 1960s,  largely inspired by the faster tempo and darker sounds of mid-60s American soul music. Records emerging from the Northern Soul scene became known as ‘stompers’ for their soulful vocals and heavy beats. 

Early northern soul fashion included strong elements of classic Mod style, including button-down Ben Sherman shirts, blazers with centre vents and an unusual numbers of buttons, and brogue shoes. Later northern soul dancers began wearing lighter, loose fitting clothes for easier movement on the dance floor. This included high waisted baggy Oxford trousers and sports vests with leather-soled shoes. 

Skins & Punks

Skins & Punks by Gavin Watson

Gavin Watson grew up in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire taking photographs of his friends and acquaintances. As a result, Watson captured two of the most iconic subcultures in 1980s Britain, which have become some of the defining documents of this period. Director Shane Meadows cited Watson’s photographs as an inspiration for his film This is England.

Ripped T-shirts and safety pins became a punk staple, as well as zips, studs, badges and armbands that were being used to make political statements. Towards the 1980s, punk fashion became even more politicised with mohawks, tattoos, studded chokers, Dr. Martens boots, and tartan. Women would wear leather skits and ripped fishnets, writing slogans and band logos on their t-shirts. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood took punk to the mainstream with her fashion designs in the 1970s. 

78/87 London Youth 
78/87 London Youth by Derek Ridgers

Derek Ridgers started photographing London’s youth in the early 1970s with his documentation of the new romantics and the Blitz kids  in London streets and clubs. His series of images 78/87 concentrates on the decade after punk, when youth culture in London was full of diversity. As the punk rock era developed in the late 1970s, Ridgers devoted his time to the photographing London’s decadent club scene in its prime, capturing ravers, goths, punks, skinheads and fetishisits and various fashions that developed from these subcultures. 


This is Grime by Olivia Rose

Grime music emerged in the early 2000s and has now become one of the most prominent British music subcultures. Grime evolved from previous electronic music such as UK garage and jungle, and is also influenced by hip-hop and dancehall music. As a new genre, it spread through pirate radio stations and underground scenes until the mid 2000s, when prominent artists brought their music into the limelight. Fashion is often minimal, and tracksuits and trainers are kept sharp and clean. Nike Air Max trainers have been a defining item in grime style and are still worn by many grime MCs. 

Behind the Beat is open every weekend in May, 10am to 6pm at Spectrum Photographic, Brighton