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Revisiting the Wild Nightlife Scene of Late ‘90s UK

Ewen Spencer looks back at the start of his career documenting British nightclub culture for Sleazenation magazine.
Ewen Spencer
“While you Were Sleeping” © Ewen Spencer

Back in 1982, Prince gave the call; foreseeing judgment day, he decided to party like it was 1999. For the next two decades, the world breathlessly awaited the turn of the millennium, ready to live out their wildest dreams on the dance floor. 

By the late ‘90s, the UK had reached a feverish pitch as a flurry of subcultures, including Teds, Skinheads, Northern Soul, Acid House or Jungle, and Garage burst onto the scene. A new sense of optimism was in the air with the defeat of the Conservatives in 1997 and the rise of a Labour government under Prime Minister Tony Blair. Youth culture, always seeking independence, reinvented itself with a blast of subversive new styles of music, fashion, and art. 

As fate would have it, British photographer Ewen Spencer was in the mix, having just graduated from art school and then launched his career shooting nightclub culture for Sleazenation magazine. “Here in the UK we know how to throw a party, we work hard and play hard, it’s grace under pressure, street style into high fashion,” Spencer says in his new book, While You Were Sleeping 1998-2000 (Damiani), which revisits this fabled chapter of British nightlife. 

Ewen Spencer
“While you Were Sleeping” © Ewen Spencer

The Future Sound of London

Coming of age in 1990s UK, Ewen Spencer was equal parts observer and participant in the nation’s vibrant nightclub scene. While enrolled in art school, Spencer could be found practicing his craft documenting the Northern Soul scene of the West Midlands. His studies of British social documentary photographers such as Chris Killip, Paul Graham, and Mark Power informed his approach, as did Wolfgang Tillmans, who famously got his start photographing British nightlife. 

Drawn to the punk attitude of Sleazenation magazine, Spencer eschewed the bright and shiny energy of mega pop stars like the Spice Girls in favor of an edgier take on youth culture. Shooting on assignment for the listings sections of the magazine, Spencer was tasked to “fill in the gaps,” finding the iconic moments of hedonism and abandon that defined the era. His photographs offer a subjective perspective as an insider looking out, rather than an outsider looking in, exquisitely conveying what a party feels like, rather than merely how it appears.

Ewen Spencer
“While you Were Sleeping” © Ewen Spencer
Ewen Spencer
“While you Were Sleeping” © Ewen Spencer

Steering clear of the megaclub scene dominating nightlife at the time, Spencer sought out under-the-radar parties that drew the most dedicated and devoted revelers. As a result, there’s a level of realness and authenticity to his work that captures the extraordinary spirit of inclusivity and acceptance that characterized the times. 

The book’s title, While You Were Sleeping, comes from a conversation between father and son. The very year Spencer began working as a professional photographer, he became a father. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and now Spencer’s son is the same age he was making these pictures. 

“I was going through all the old images early last year with my son, who works with me,” Spencer told Vice. “He was like, ‘What the hell’s this about? What was going on?’ And I was like: ‘This is what was going on. This is what people did.’ He asked me where he was [while I was making these pictures] and I said, ‘You were sleeping.’”

Let the Music (Use You)

With While You Were Sleeping, Ewen Spencer looks back at UK nightlife during the last decade of analog culture. Before social media and digital technology created an endless stream of content, by and large subcultures remained under the radar, only to be witnessed by a select few on the scene. Magazines like Sleazenation provided a bridge between communities, playing a pivotal role in the transmission of underground British fashion, music, and youth culture across Europe.

Ewen Spencer
“While you Were Sleeping” © Ewen Spencer

Spencer, who had been going to clubs since he was 15, was the perfect insider to document the scene, understanding the ways in which nightclubs helped foster a sense of community and a space for innovation among a new generation of youth. “Style has always been important, definitely. But in these pictures, I did veer towards different subcultural moments to emphasize that point,” he told The Face.

“I’d go and photograph the rock scene in Camden, and the guys and girls were authentic rockabilly. Or I’d go to Club Metro on Oxford Street, which was a nu-metal hang out with guys in huge black jeans and piercings. I wanted to capture all those different elements of British subcultures, as well as something that was probably a little bit more hip or mainstream as well. I’d go to clubs in Clapham and photograph very, very working-class people that were just cutting loose at the weekend, because that all made sense to me. I was from that.”

While You Were Sleeping 1998-2000 by Ewen Spencer, Damiani, $50.

Ewen Spencer
“While you Were Sleeping” © Ewen Spencer

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