Ewen Spencer’s Electric, Optimistic Portrait of London’s 90s Nightlife

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While You Were Sleeping
While You Were SleepingSonik Mook, upstairs, 1998. Photography by Ewen Spencer

“We had a lot of optimism because things were changing. And, this sounds absurd to say, but I think we felt responsible for that,” Spencer tells AnOther of his new book and exhibition, While You Were Sleeping

After graduating from art school in the 90s, Ewen Spencer got his start in photography documenting London’s then-exploding nightlife scene for Sleazenation. Channelling the sharp, confronting style of photography greats like Chris Killip and Mark Power, but in London’s underground nightclubs, Spencer’s images from these years capture a city at the epicentre of a cultural boom – clubs were popping up in every corner of the city, and young people were out in hoards every night of the week. “It was a very unique time,” he tells AnOther.

Nearly 30 years on, these images are brought together in Spencer’s latest book and exhibition at Laz Emporium, While You Were Sleeping. Featuring never-before-seen photographs, the images in Spencer’s book capture the carefree spirit of the time, with beautiful shots of crowded venues which reverberate with energy, sweat, sexual tension, and drug-fuelled abandon.

Unlike Spencer’s previous books, such as Open Mic (2005), which focused on the UK’s grime scene; UKG (2013), which captured venues that were home to garage music; or Hardcore Soul (2019), which shone a light on the northern England’s hardcore movement, While You Were Sleeping doesn’t capture a specific music community, but rather celebrates the immense diversity of London nightlife in the 90s, and a particular sense of optimism shared between the city’s young people at that moment.

Here, speaking in his own words, Spencer tells the story of While You Were Sleeping:

“During lockdown, I was working with my son, who at that time was 22, and we came across these pictures whilst rescuing a digital hard drive. He was going through them and he just said, ‘What the hell is this group of pictures?’ It was quite unusual to someone of his age, and I found that interesting. He asked me, ‘Where was I while you were doing this?,’ because he was born in 1998, and obviously, my response was, ‘You were sleeping.’ So we called the folder ‘while you were sleeping.’ 

“This book captures a time that was, I think, quite special in London. It was special to me … These pictures were in clubs that we inhabited socially, amongst peers and people that I was meeting at that time, through fashion mags, the music industry, but also the creative industries … we all would congregate in these places. And then beyond that, I started to photograph outside of [these clubs], but it all started happening around Shoreditch, Clerkenwell and Hoxton. And at that time, these were fairly dangerous places to be, compared to what they’re like now.

“Our world was a nocturnal world; we were out clubbing a lot, and the clubbing scene was changing. We grew up in a generation that was all about going out, being extroverted, and just being part of a moment. I came from more of a documentary photography background, and I wanted to apply that to something that was more contemporary. So I took the application of people like Chris Killip and Tom Wood, and Paul Reas, Mark Power, who was my lecturer at Brighton, who are now really well established, icons of serious art photography, and applied that approach to the world of, initially, Sleazenation Magazine. It was the first place I wanted to work because it had quite a punk attitude. It was very irreverent. 

“[London] was very different at that time. And I guess, in a weird way, these pictures sort of discuss how London was changing as a landscape. London itself was filled with strange little rooms above pubs that were great nightclubs, that would start off as a very underground clicky little thing, that would, within a few weeks, have a queue sort of around the block for it. People were constantly looking for the next great thing.

“Sometimes you might just get something that was very retro. I would go to WKD in Kentish Town, right behind the Sainsbury’s on Camden Road, and there was a tiny little bar that was just dedicated to hip-hop pretty much; lots of very interesting little sort of hip-hop and open mic MC nights. Less than 500 metres from there, the Elephant’s Head on a Saturday afternoon on Camden High Street had a rockabilly sort of scene, just full of leather and Levi’s. The lights were just glowing and there was condensation on the windows … It was intense in there, great for photos. I loved it. But that’s just a little idea of the sort of diversity of [London at the time].

“[One of my favourite memories was] the Beautiful Octopus Club, which was this club in New Cross that was run by disabled people, for disabled people. I think that was quite a special moment, just because that probably wouldn’t happen now. And that’s probably a fine example of the optimism, hope and self-belief that was existent then, you know. That was a lovely moment – people who were quite severely disabled raving together, with their carers and families, and one another. It was an amazing experience going places like that. 

“We had a lot of optimism because things were changing. And, this sounds absurd to say, but I think we felt responsible for that – so we were celebrating, and we were very excited …  I’m not from an entitled position or not from a seat of privilege, my opinion was always to sort of photograph what I knew, which was a kind of working-class culture. I wanted to photograph that in a celebratory manner, and I felt I had a responsibility to make sure that what I knew was fun. It was good, and people are good intrinsically. I just wanted to capture that, really … There was just amazing convergence of acceptance in people. I think we, in more recent times, sort of forget about that quite a lot. We’ve been very good to each other for a long time. And hopefully, those sort of pictures show that.”

While You Were Sleeping is published by Damiani Books and is out now. An exhibition of these photographs is currently on display at Laz Emporium in London until 9 June 2022.