Visible Girls: Revisited

Exploring female subcultures with photographer, Anita Corbin.

Helen and Emma

Helen and Emma

It has been 37 years since Anita Corbin captured Emma Hall and Helen de Jode, the first pair of women to be photographed as part of her Visible Girls series. The image, a vivid composition of tartan trousers against Wimbledon suburbia, provides a snapshot into the somewhat cloistered past of the female sub-cultures that roamed 80s London. Armed with only two rolls of film and a hefty Braun flashgun – the maximum amount of equipment a student budget could afford – Corbin took to the bathrooms of London’s underground nightclubs to mark the untapped lives of female Mods, Skins, and Punks in photographic history.

Fast forward to the 21st century – to an era in which photography is digital, appearing more often than not as part of an online newsfeed – and Corbin’s Visible Girls have started to find their way back to her. The new series, Visible Girls: Revisited, has emerged after a worldwide search from the photographer, today embracing social media’s modern influence as though it were second nature. “It’s all through Instagram now”, she says, later providing me with a verbal list of budding talent to look up.

Also capturing attention is Corbin’s more recent project, First Women, a collection of 100 portraits that captures women who were ‘first’ in their field of achievement. The photos serve to fuel a wider campaign led by Corbin and her team that is setting out to improve the lives of young women in the future.

Ahead of the former’s nationwide tour – beginning at Hull Artlink in July – the photographer talks us through all that has changed since she first started out.

(LEFT) Pat and Karen
(RIGHT) Quasi and Squasher

Pat and Karen
Quasi and Squasher

So can you start by telling me how you got into photography.

I’ve always been surrounded by photography; I come from a family of amateur photographers and we had a good archive of family albums. As a child I was always fascinated by who was in those albums, and I found that I could go back in time by looking at the pictures. It was a very physical connection. When I was about 10 I won first prize for a picture that I had taken, and I think that gave me the confidence to latch on to photography. I was also an only child, so I had quite a lot of time to amuse myself; I think photography gave me the opportunity to go out, meet people and make connections that maybe I wouldn’t have needed quite as much if I’d had siblings around.

When I left school I went travelling to India for eight months. I had a camera there – it was only a small Olympus Trip – but I found that I felt really at one when I was taking photographs of people. It enabled me to make connections and to communicate with people. When I got home and saw the pictures I really felt that something was pulling me into photography. Although I had a place at university to do a science degree, I dropped out, had another year out, and restarted in 1978 at what was the Polytechnic of Central London.

And what was is it about the subcultures captured in Visible Girls that initially drew you in?

I suppose it’s more about the fact that I just love people. I’m really interested in making connections with people and trying to understand what makes them tick. When I started photographing Visible Girls, the structure around it was the subculture, and that was great for me as a photographer because it was a very visual medium. And, as a colour photographer, being able to direct the women in a way that was visually satisfying meant that composition was key. I wanted to be the third point in that triangle, in their relationship. Their relationship was also what I was fascinated by; some of the women in the pictures are friends, some are sisters, and some are just in the same gang.

It’s very layered in terms of what you read into in each image. It’s not just about what they’re wearing or where they’re standing; it’s about what’s going on in the frame of the photograph. There are all sorts of other meanings that you can read into in each photograph. It’s not just a picture of a Punk on the street, it’s actually about relating to their lives and capturing that moment in history.

So would you say that there is a kind of historical aspect to your work?

What I like about portraiture is the freshness of the connection with the individual – you never quite know how it’s going to turn out because you’ve got an unknown quantity in front of you. You’ve got to make sure that they feel that they can trust you and that they feel that you’re understanding and interpreting the way that they want to be seen. I think that artists and photographers are a really important part of society because we mark a time in our history that can be looked on and interpreted later by others.

I know the dates of the pictures that I took and I can look back and see what else was happening on that day. The picture of Susan and Linda was taken about two weeks before the Brixton riots, so there will be a lot of people who will look at that date and also remember things around that time.

In the Ladies, Scandals

In the Ladies, Scandals

The Revisited collection features the women captured in Visible Girls over 30 years after you first shot them; has your approach – or the industry – changed much?

As a young, female photographer I was one of two women on the Royal Wedding Press Call in 1981 for the Sunday Times out of about 50. There I was on the top of the Sunday Times building with all of those male photographers and just one other female photographer! Today photography is really by the people. The public now is a huge resource of photography, recordings, and videos; people can be on the scene the moment something happens. It was very slow at the beginning, but at some point digital overtook film, and now you can take pictures and you’ve got much more access to the shadows, highlights and the details.

Because I’m an older woman now, and because the women in the Revisited series are also older women, we have more time together. I’ve also got more equipment now so I can probably take around 200 shots whereas before it would be five or 10.

You mention in a video about the First Women that you attempt to capture “the essence of the woman”. How do you go about that?

I don’t like to do too much research on a subject. I don’t want to know everything about them because I want to feel that natural connection when we meet. So I like to be really intuitive when I meet people and just try and absorb them without asking too many questions. It’s risky sometimes because some of the women are incredibly busy, and sometimes they kind of anticipate what you want, so you have to break that down a bit by talking to them and relaxing them.

For the First Women collection it’s single portraits, so I suppose in a way it’s a condensation of our relationship even though it might only be a brief relationship. I allow them to be themselves by creating an environment that is as calm and relaxed as possible. It takes a fraction of a second to make a portrait, but that moment in time is going to become timeless; it’s a significant moment in their life and that’s what I’m trying to focus on.

What is the driving force and central message of your work?

I’m an eternal optimist if you will, so I would say that my mission statement is to creative dynamic, colourful, positive images of life. That’s not saying that that is going to be true to everything, but it’s my take on life. I think there are plenty of sad, negative pictures that we see every day, so I want to focus on the positive things for once. That’s not to ignore the negatives, but I want to highlight the positives and see if that makes a difference.

(LEFT) Cockle Wagon
(RIGHT) Sylvia and Titch

Cockle Wagon
Sylvia and Titch

What other photographers inspire you?

I’d have to say Annie Leibovitz and Irving Penn. When I was about 16 I went to a photographic exhibition in the Hayward Gallery by Ansel Adams. I can remember how I felt in that exhibition to this day; it was a transformational day for me. The quality of that imagery and the quality of the prints had a profound effect on me, on my spirit, on my soul. That was a turning point.

Other artists that I would cite at this point are more abstract, which is interesting as I’m into ‘the real’. One of them is a filmmaker called Astrid Edwards who runs a company called Rock Mother Films. She’s actually doing a documentary series on Visible Girls as part of the project. She looks at details, just everyday things that you would just walk by – there is a creative magic in every corner of our lives.

Then, Ella May Bailey who is a friend of my daughter, and another young photographer called Jasper Jones. He’s 22, and he’s also really into self-portraiture. Self-portraiture is so much easier now, back in the day if you wanted to take a self-portrait you had to get the tripod out and find a mirror! Now you have selfies and selfie sticks you can easily take your own portrait; it’s part of daily life.

Other than the women that you photograph, who are the women that have influenced you in your life?

My mother was only 60 when she died but she was a huge influence on my life as an only child, and she was also a very creative woman, so she was a very strong influence. I guess I’d say that with all the women in my life really; I’m very lucky. I’ve got lots of friends, very close friends from when I was very young. I’ve also got a fantastic daughter, son, and husband, and I’ve got a lot of very strong women in my ancestry that were involved in developing the oldest free thinking society in the world at Conway Hall. They were also suffragists, so they raised money and crowdfunded, that sort of thing.

I also have a fantastic team. We’re all women and it’s lovely to be able to pass on the knowledge, to keep the whole thing going. You’ll see when you see the catalogue how much energy and effort that has gone in to it. I love it, this collaborative process. Everyone has got talent, it’s just about bringing it out of them and allowing people to shine.

And what’s next?

I’m working on First Women with my right hand woman, Deborah Willimott. We work really well together; she does words, I do pictures. That’s going to launch in 2018. We’ve got the website obviously but we’re working towards the exhibition and a publication, and also an educational pack which is being developed to provide food for thought and resources for the secondary education market. When you go to school now, mostly there are no women on the walls. Why aren’t those women there? There were women doing things but they just haven’t been credited or researched.

We’re going to be touring around the country to places with galleries that have a community context; those hard to reach areas of the country – Hull, Exeter, Bristol, and Norwich so far – and we’ll do pop-up Visible Girls days where Deborah and I will go into the city to seek out Visible Girls to interview and photograph. We’re also asking the public to contribute to our Instagram feed with double portraits of themselves tagged as Visible Girls. There are lots of ways the public can get involved – not just girls, boys as well. Although we’re focusing on young women, it’s all about identity, expression, and being who you want to be.

(LEFT) Carrie and Gill
(RIGHT) Red Ladies

Carrie and Gill
Red Ladies

Kath and Em

Kath and Em
Anita Corbin
Rosanna Dodds
Visible Girls: Revisited

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