Visible Girls: an interview with Anita Corbin

Visible Girls: an interview with Anita Corbin

In 1981, Anita Corbin exhibited Visible Girls – a photo series that delved into female relationships and the subcultures of London. Now, almost 40 years later, Anita is bringing the women back together in a series of revisited photographs – rekindling friendships for some, and marking a shift in times for others.

 Red Ladies, The Blitz in Covent Garden, January 1981.

Red Ladies, The Blitz in Covent Garden, January 1981.

Anita, how did you first get into photography?

I have always been surrounded by photography. My father and grandfather were both keen amateur photographers, and as an only child I often found myself studying albums of old photographs or helping my dad with his horticultural photo archiving.

Interestingly enough, I was told that I ‘couldn’t draw’ by my art teacher when I was thirteen – and it was true, I couldn’t. But what I did enjoy was human science, and so photography seemed the perfect marriage of art and science.

Was there a eureka moment for you and your photography?

Yes, I’d say there was definitely a moment where my vision was focused very acutely.

When I was 18, after leaving school, I travelled to India to find myself, I suppose, armed with my Olympus Trip camera and colour transparency film. This was the first time I’d used this, and the camera gave me a reason to connect with strangers. It was that communication that drew me further into the photography; I was capturing moments from another person’s world.

My mother was very ill when I returned from India, and from then I learned to make the best of life – and make my life count. She passed away when I was in my first year of university, and I channelled that loss into photography, it was my sanctuary. I was always the first into the college darkrooms in the morning and definitely on a mission to define myself.

 Kate and Friend, The Royalty Southgate, March 1981 (Left). Kate and friends, Radisson Blue Edwardian in Seven Dials, London, December 2014 (Right). Found via Buzzfeed

Kate and Friend, The Royalty Southgate, March 1981 (Left).
Kate and friends, Radisson Blue Edwardian in Seven Dials, London, December 2014 (Right).
Found via Buzzfeed

"Women – their subcultures, their existence within photography, their sociological status – were still very much an appendage to men 40 years ago

 

Tell us more about Visible Girls, and how the concept came about

Women – their subcultures, their existence within photography, their sociological status – were still very much an appendage to men 40 years ago. As a young female photographer in 1981, I wanted to not only express myself, but to also bring to light the relationships and backstories of these different women in different subcultures. I am a Londoner born and bred, so I felt at ease going into London pubs, clubs and hangouts. My images always feature two girls, friends, lovers or sisters. Regardless of who they were, these young women welcomed me taking their photograph – no matter whether they were a mod, punk, Rasta, skinhead, rockabilly… they allowed me to be the third point in their relationship triangle for that brief moment in time.

I found that I loved engaging with people, and so had already decided I was going to be a portrait photographer. Previous to the Visible Girls, I had worked on a project on women in ‘formal’ uniforms. This developed and merged into the idea of studying informal uniforms, looking at how we are both informed and misinformed by appearance; I was fascinated by what our clothes tell us about each other. I wanted to challenge stereotypes and break down the prejudice and preconceived ideas that prevailed when looking at subcultures.

Colour was of utmost importance to me; I saw myself as a colour photographer. So many photographs back then were still of men in grainy black and white. It was still a novelty to see images from dark nightclubs in glorious technicolour, and you needed both the equipment and the skills to be able to capture it. Using slow colour film made for a challenging discipline. Not only was I meeting and photographing pairs of young women, I was capturing them in full colour and striking composition. This was very visually pleasing to me and I loved that it pushed my technical comfort zones!

Why was it important to you to highlight these women?

I was a young woman photographer, who was part of the scene and the same age as a lot of these women. I would be able to create images from an equal viewpoint in a way that would not be accessible to men, especially as I was often shooting the girls in the privacy of the ladies loos! 

I wanted to represent as broad a cross-section as possible of young women, living and playing in the city.

 

"I wanted to represent as broad a cross-section as possible of young women, living and playing in the city

 

What prompted the decision to revisit?

I had entered a reflective phase of my life as my children (I have twins) started to make their own way in the world and leave home, and it got me thinking about myself when I was their age.

I shot the pictures when I was 22, so it seemed only right and timely that my first contemporary outing of Visible Girls images was spring 2017 at Metro Imaging, Clerkenwell – a week after my children had turned 22 years old.

The reason to revisit came from my own curiosity to know where the Visible Girls are now. At the time I took the photographs, it was often a fleeting moment in a pub or club, yet now through social media these connections can be made more permanent. Social media has allowed contact with about 75% of the girls, thirty-six years later, and I have become friends with many of the Visible Girls. Social media has given us the opportunity to build relationships more easily – an interesting juxtaposition compared to the time the photographs were originally taken, when you had to physically be there with your mates to know what they were up to!

What is your view on the landscape of women in photography – as muses, models, photographers?

Wow, that’s a massive question!

I do get very bored of seeing nude women as muses – the predictable pose, the head tilt, the full pouting lips and lack of identity beyond a muse. There is nothing wrong with photographs of nude women (we should celebrate our bodies), but we need to see more images that challenge and demonstrate a woman’s body beyond the male gaze.

Sex, in itself, is a taboo – especially when it comes to a woman’s perception and her expression of it. 

Women are powerful, sexual beings. Independent. Confident. Let’s make images that say that.

I would like to see more, at least equal, representation of women photographers in shows and collections at museums and galleries. It is still a very male-dominated world, and although things are getting better in the landscape for women photographers, there is still a long way to go.

We need more women curators, and then it will happen.

 

"Women are powerful, sexual beings. Independent. Confident. Let’s make images that say that

 

Lastly, what makes you feel most badass about being a woman?

What makes me feel most badass about being a woman is believing that women will be the catalyst for the much needed positive changes in the world, as predicted by the Dalai Lama a few years ago.

We have to step up to the plate, to collaborate with each other; it’s not about competition anymore.

I can help to promote that vision through my photography.

 Shelley Spencer and Di Sage, The White Swan in Crystal Palace, London, November 1980. (Top) Shelley Spencer and Di Sage, Les Passeroses Angouleme in France, May 2017. (Bottom) Found via BBC

Shelley Spencer and Di Sage, The White Swan in Crystal Palace, London, November 1980. (Top)
Shelley Spencer and Di Sage, Les Passeroses Angouleme in France, May 2017. (Bottom)
Found via BBC

From the editors: Anita Corbin's work reminded us of our first print issue: WE ARE WOMEN, celebrating women in their every form. We would highly recommend visiting Anita's exhibition. More details can be found on the Visible Girls website