Ewen Spencer: UK Garage

In 1998, when the UK Garage scene was starting to make noise across the UK, Ewen Spencer was in the thick of it, spending his nights amongst the label emblazoned, Champaign swilling club goers. More then a decade later Ewen looks back with a new publication from GOST: UKG. Gregory Barker recently caught up with Ewen to find out more. 

GB: Gregory Barker

ES: Ewen Spencer

GB: We'll start at the very beginning. How did you first become interested in making pictures? 

ES: I've always had an interest in pictures. Ever since I had posters on my wall as a kid music, films etc.. I used to make drawings from books and cut out photos, however I hadn't conisdered making pictures until I was in my early 20s. I had the good fortune to be accepted onto an Art foundation course at the local college in Newcastle. This is where I discovered the idea of making pictures to communicate with other people. The first book I loved was a large format William Klein retrospective. I then became fascinated by the New Documentary work from the 80s in Britain. Paul Graham, Paul Reas, Tom Wood and Chris Killip. 

GB: What is it, do you think, that draws you to photographing largely youth culture? 

ES: My interest in youth culture is biographical. Growing up in the 80s people more often than not would associate them selves with a youth or style or movement of some sort. I associated my self with slightly smarter looks and mostly black music. Soul, dance music etc.. Years later as a University student studying photography my interests where still mainly style and music. I learnt early on to photograph what interests you and not to try and fit into any pre conceived mould i.e. reportage, war etc.. I began to photograph the Northern Soul scene, something that I was very involved in. That series of images became my portfolio and as soon as I graduated I began to receive commissions on the strength of the work from magazines that I'd been interested in since I was young titles like The Face and i-D. The magazines commissioned me to make pictures of Youth and Subcultures their style and musical interest. 

GB: What drew you to photograph these club nights originally?

ES: In 1998 I was asked to go to twice as nice at the Colosseum club in Vauxhall by the picture editor at Sleazenation mag, Steve Lazarides. Steve had a connection with some mutual friends from the Soul scene and was keen to get me making pictures around various club nights for him. Most places at that time I found incredibly dull. Same music same styles. As soon as I walked into the Colosseum I realised this was the place for me. The clientele the decor the sounds. it instantly reminded me of the soul scene. They had a main room playing Garage that was a pretty new sound that was very soulful and a second room that was playing R&B and hip hop. The folks had style dressed up for the evening and it was a Sunday night. Everything about it felt right. Needless to say I returned many times over the following 2 years. 

GB: You've made photographs of a variety of musical genres, from the likes of The Streets to White Stripes. Is Garage something that regularly would find its way onto your turntable, or was photographing it purely academic exercise for you? 

ES: I listen to pretty much everything with the exception of Pink Floyd and have done for a long time now. Garage echoed the soul scene for me and in a way was a progression for the London side of that scene. I listened to the music and enjoyed the clubs but I don't think I own many UK Garage records from that era. I have my original House music and Hip Hop records from the late 80s but most of my purchases since and before then have been rare Northern Soul 45s. 

GB: How do you think the project differs to your 2005 book Open Mic? 

ES: This project is the precursor to Open Mic. the UK Garage scene predates the Grime scene by around 5 years. It informed Grime and is seen as its older cousin. Garage was about the dance floor, it was about escapism on a weekend despite the drudgery of your weekly existence. Grime was younger and was more introspective. Grime discussed the street and young peoples experiences. It wasn't party music to begin with and therefore uncommercial. The majors record companies didn't know what to do with it until a lot later on. I think my pictures reflect these differences. 

GB: In the book, as well as image of people dancing, drinking Champaign and smoking, you capture quite tender moments. How did the peope in the clubs react to you taking their picture? 

ES: In the three years that I photographed in UK Garage clubs I had only one, brief negative experience. the majority of people reacted in a positive way. I don't think I saw any other photographers whilst I was on the scene either? 

GB: How do you think the people who's faces grace the pages of UKG would react if they were to see the book? 

ES: I think they would feel a sense of pride and pleasure in being associated with such great times. Most of the pictures were made at Twice as Nice. That was a very hard club to get into. It was super exclusive because it was completely over subscribed. The place was exceptional in so many ways that the queue wound around the block every weekend. The styles, music and dancing were informing popular culture within a couple of years. So if you were in there, you were special and you knew it. 

GB: As time goes on, and the age gap between yourself and the participants of the various youth cultures that you photograph grows, is the way you view your subjects beginning to change? 

ES: No, I feel more aware and understanding of youth culture as I grow older, and possibly wiser. My experiences have informed my progress so my insight is better now than ever. My son is almost 16 so that also helps a little. 

GB: The book is spotted with inserts of flyers for club nights. I always wondered in the days before search engines where people got the photographs for them, and who designed them! Are they real? What made you keep them? 

ES: I love those flyers, a genius touch from the fellas at Gost. They re removable. But who would remove them?! We, (Harry Watts) and I sourced the flyers from a lady called Juliette Hedoin who has the most astonishing collection of flyers, mix tapes and original Moschino, Versace and D&G clothing. She is an incredibly meticulous person who has kept everything from that period in pristine condition. She features in a short documentary I've made about UKG for Dazed. I love and share elements of this kind of obsession. 

GB:  The images were taken between London and Ayia Napa, was there a distinct difference in the clubs? 

ES: The main difference between London and Ayia Napa is that the London clubs were earlier on so the clientele was more mature. People were working professionals etc in the very early days. They spent a lot of money going out and enjoying themselves. Everyone else was just trying to keep up. By the time Ayia Napa had become popular the destination in 2000 the clientele was younger a bit more wild and unpredictable. It was a little more 18-30. 

GB: You made the images in the book over a decade ago, why publish the book now? 

ES: My studio has been in the process of archiving around 10 years worth of editorial and commercial commissions. Lots of this work I made for magazines like the Face and Sleazenation so there are lots of stories that are beginning to become more coherent with the benefit of reflection. One project that jumped out immediately was the UK Garage work. I showed it to Gordon MCDonald at Gost and he seemed interested. Eventually he convinced himself (I think) and next thing I knew we were in Italy printing it. A very smooth and painless process. 

GB: What are you working on now? 

ES: I'm working on a series of zines called Guapamente featuring youth culture around the world. The first issue was released October 2013 the second issue is due in January 2014 and features the youth of Marseille. 


All images from the series UKG © Ewen Spencer (courtesy GOST books)


— Gregory Barker