“I had a rite of passage in 1999,” says Ewen Spencer. “I got a phone call from Details magazine in the US asking me to go to NYC and shoot the nightlife. They sent me to two or three different clubs or parties or strip clubs every night, it was really good fun.
“After the first night I went to Joe’s Basement [the lab], which was open 24/7 in Times Square, and dropped off 10 rolls of film. The guy from Details called at 8am and was like, ’10 rolls of film? Listen man, we expect 40 or 50 per night.’ I thought ‘Wow, I’ve hit the big time!” At Sleaze they always said ‘Don’t shoot more than five rolls, we can’t afford it!’.
“So I started shooting 50 rolls per night, and by the time I got to The Face I was shooting an awful lot. Other photographers would be quite surprised how many images I’d made. I didn’t stop making pictures, but I was still very careful what I was pointing the camera at.”
It was a trial by fire for Spencer, who had graduated from the University of Brighton just two years before with a BA in Editorial Photography. But, having cut his teeth photographing Northern Soul nights, and having already blagged his way into shooting for the hip magazine Sleazenation, he was ready. The commissions from style bible The Face soon came his way.
Now, nearly 20 years later, he’s built up a world-class archive on youth culture, and shoots for publications such as Arena Homme + and Dazed, and brands such as Adidas, Reebok and Nike. He’s self-published numerous books and zines of his personal work, and has also published with well-respected outfits such as GOST Books, who turned some of his archive work on UK garage into the book UKG in 2013. They had, Spencer says, a lot of images to choose from. “It’s 96 pages long but I could have made another one!”
Spencer stopped shooting UK garage in the early 2000s, when the scene became “very commercial and ugly”; inspired by the turn of the century, he suggested to The Face that they do something to mark it. “They had a different theme every issue and were planning an issue on sex, so Graham Rounthwaite [the art director] said ‘Can you photograph in clubs and sixth form parties and get an idea of young kids’ idea of love?’”says Spencer.
“Then I started to go to under-18 discos, not on commission just because I was interested to see what was going on. I was making a bigger project. I became aware of things like Mass Observation later, but at the time I was just looking at what it meant to be young and enjoying that.”
Spencer shot on a medium format film and nearly always in extremely variable light, but by this time, he says, he was so used to shooting in clubs, he “didn’t even consider the technical side of it”. Perhaps surprisingly, he also found the people he shot perfectly happy to be photographed, though he muses that the cachet of appearing in The Face might have helped.
“The Face was definitely known and being associated with it was considered cool,” he says. “That may have made it easier. But people were also less aware at the time, less bothered about you being there. It was a time when you could do that. People are more fearful of cameras now – I would be questioned a lot more now, though obviously I am also a lot older now.
“Often I’d spend time talking to people, chatting and explaining. I was just interested, I’d find out all about them. A lot of the time people would want to photograph me, I’d give them my camera and they’d shoot.”
Spencer, then in his late 20s, was still close enough in age to his subjects to relate to them, and says he drew on his own experience when shooting, “thinking about how I spent my youth, and how that translated when looking at different groups”. At the height of the project he was shooting for it every week, and he built up a huge archive of work that extended far beyond what was published at the time. Teenagers, as the series was long known, quickly moved beyond its editorial beginnings at The Face, with images from it included by Ekow Eshun in a show at The Barbican in 2001, and going on to be exhibited at Arles and the Musee d’Elysee, and added to the collection at Open Eye.
Now images from it have been published in a book called Young Love by Stanley Barker, accompanied by a show at London’s fashionable KK Outlet. Spencer has self-published many projects but says he was flattered to be approached by Stanley Barker for this one, impressed by their previous work on Tod Papageorge’s Studio 54; he adds he was also happy to get someone on board for the edit.
“I left it to Gregory [Barker], I handed over all the contact sheets and he went through them and found pictures about love, and using love and the communication of love as a theme,” he says. “He did a good job – he found quite a few things I hadn’t even looked at in the first place.
“Someone else can be more slow and deliberate [when editing work], and a fresh pair of eyes,” he adds. “I used to make a lot of pictures, it makes the editing hard!”
https://ewenspencer.com/ Young Love is published by Stanley Barker, priced £35 https://stanleybarker.co.uk/books/young-love/ The exhibition Young Love is on show at KK Outlet until 30 September https://www.kkoutlet.com/exhibitions