In the first of our ‘In Conversation With’ series, photographer Bex Day sits down with Anita Corbin to discuss the celebration of women inherent to her work, and her iconic series Visible Girls, which is on show at the Photographer’s Gallery this weekend.
Bex Day: So you were only twenty-two when you shot Visible Girls?
Anita Corbin: Yes, a third-year student. I’ve done quite a lot of interviews recently with third-year students studying photography, journalism or the arts; the work they’re doing now, at twenty-two, it’s a fruition of three years of study. It will be one of your most powerful bodies of work because it’s the foundation of your career and the beginning of your ideas – you have no dependents, you’re pretty much free to do what you want. In those days we were given grant aid to study! They paid me to go to university and I used to have a budget for free film and free processing.
BD: So you studied photography at university?
AC: Yes, at what was the Polytechnic of Central London and is now the University of Westminster. When I went it was a poly, which was seen as slightly second rate and not a proper university, so there was a bit of a stigma about it. The good thing was we had some of the best studios, darkrooms and technicians in the UK. The course was also very theoretical and tended towards Marxism which was interesting! But it could also be very practical if you wanted to the make the most of the resources.
Badger and Maria at the White Swan, Crystal Palace, November 1980
BD: How did First Women come about?
AC: In a dream almost. I was involved in something called ‘action learning sets’ with a group of women in Somerset where I live, called a ‘Bee Group’ (Business Enhancing Experience). We all had different businesses, all self-employed, you know – one woman businesses. One was a personal coach, one did colour therapy, one had a restaurant, one did ‘colour me beautiful’ where they dress you in the right colours and textures. Cottage industries, apart from the restaurant, and I had a commercial photography business. We were all in our forties and fifties, I was fast approaching my fiftieth. You’re at that stage in your life where you’d either had kids or you weren’t going to have kids – but what was coming next? What was next for us as women?
I have twins, Daisy and Louis, they were 14 years old at this time, I love being a mum and spending time with my family, but I now had time to think about my career again and where I wanted to be in ten years’ time! As well as my wonderful offspring I wanted to be remembered for a body of photographic work, First Women was to become my legacy.
Ann and Char at home in Southfields, November 1980
BD: What did you want next?
AC: Well I had this fantasy that I wanted to have some work in the National Portrait Gallery, and I kept thinking – what can I do that will get me in the NPG? And then I had some pictures bought by the NPG the next year. It wasn’t First Women, but a series of twenty-four portraits of Great British scientists I shot back in the 80s with my partner, John O’Grady. They’re not people that get photographed much, they’re not like celebrities, and so there aren’t that many archive works on the individuals, so they (NPG) bought twelve of the colour prints from us for the national collection. I approached them, because you have to go knocking on their door, and they then selected a set from the series, that felt like a real milestone in our careers. Collected for the nation, settled in history.
BD: What were your motivations for starting First Women?
AC: My photography style has always been about spreading ‘the love’ – positive images and powerful messages about what we can achieve in our lives as individuals. I saw the centenary of ‘Votes for Women’ on the horizon of 2018 and I wanted to mark this momentous occasion with a series of one hundred iconic portraits of first women of our time. I kept hearing about first women in the news and thinking to myself, how are we going to remember all these wonderful firsts!
I thought – somebody must have done it, somebody will have already photographed the first women, but I started looking around and nobody had. I’m a woman photographer born in the UK and I’ve been a photographer all my life, so why shouldn’t I be the one? I approached Thatcher first, seven times through different personal contacts, friends of friends, letters to her press officer, to her right-hand man, to someone who saw her regularly at the Chapel. Every possible way. No one responded. I came to the conclusion that she didn’t want to be remembered as a woman Prime Minister. Well, that was her thing wasn’t it – don’t think of me as a woman. I’ve met a few women like that.
Angela Strank, First Woman to be Technology Vice President for Lubes and Fuels of BP
BD: So who was the first woman you photographed?
AC: Sarah Outen, the first woman to row solo across the Indian Ocean at the age of twenty-three. I got in touch with her communications team whilst she was in the middle of the ocean at the time. Sarah blogged every day that she could, and it was so fascinating to read her story and her challenges. It’s intense being on your own for a hundred-and-twenty-four days – she capsized twice, her water pump broke, and I thought. ‘God if she can do that, then I can do this’.
Getting through the gatekeepers: the press officers, the PRs, the nosey person that wants to tell you what to do – that’s the difficult bit. I’ve got a brilliant ‘someone’ that does that for me now and it’s such a relief. She’s an ex-journalist, and because she’s not doing it for herself, she doesn’t feel personal rejection so much. If I wouldn’t get a reply I would think ‘Oh God why don’t they want me? But that’s just me projecting onto it because 85% of women said yes straight away. Suzi Quatro, the first woman to front and play bass in a Glam Rock band in the early 70s, came back to me straight away, and I thought bloody hell, this is really good! They’re not even asking me questions of who I am, they want to take part because it’s a really good idea. And now I’m up to ninety-four portraits with six to go.
BD: How long has the project been going for?
AC: I took the first picture in November 2009, after I registered the project. I was very nervous that the idea, or at least the name and logo, would get pinched, so I patented it. Then I felt safe coming out. I was really cautious to start with, you know what it’s like – even the most honourable newspapers and magazines will steal your idea!
Helen and Emma at home in Wimbledon, August 1980
BD: Has that happened to you a lot?
AC: Not a lot no, you get wise after a while. Apart from a bit of paranoia maybe, but I thought, this is me doing it – I am the person destined to do it. It’s my image, my vision, some other photographers can do it but it won’t be the same. In fact, there was another set of great images taken by another woman photographer and it was one hundred portraits of leading ladies – 100 Leading Ladies. But they were all over fifty-five so that automatically changed the demographic. My youngest First Woman is eighteen and my oldest was one-hundred-and-two – you can be a First Woman at any age, and all walks of life: multi-class, multi-racial, multi-sexual orientation.
BD: Have you shot anyone that you couldn’t include?
AC: No, not knowingly! You need to be quite clear – the first to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing, to be the House of Commons speaker, the first to be an underwater mine detection officer in the Royal Navy, the first woman to ride at the Grand National. They are quite definite firsts.
Shelley and Di at The White Swan, Crystal Palace, November 1980
BD: When will you be launching the final project?
AC: Our intention is February 2018, as that was the month when women were given the vote in 1918, it’s a celebration of how far we have come in the last hundred years. We have plans to travel First Women around the country. We’re looking for a publisher to collaborate in a beautiful book. There’s also an archive section where the public can get involved, and there’s an educational package in development for children and teenagers, encouraging them to look at what it is about them that’s special because everyone’s unique. Often we’re not encouraged to look at that, we can be all pigeonholed, stereotyped. We don’t really nurture the individual in education. So this is promoting pioneer thinking. To develop young people to be the best they can be, whoever they might be, and to not be a clone of their best friend.
BD: I feel like we’ve grown up in a culture where we are encouraged to do anything we want and that just leads to unhappiness because there’s no restriction and your expectations are so high.
AC: I think the pressures on young people now are far greater than when we were your age, definitely. There were more opportunities then; when I was a young photographer starting out on my career in the early 80s there were so many magazines and newspapers and you could pretty much go to anybody’s office with your portfolio.
Bellatrix, First Woman to win the Beatboxing World Championships
BD: Did your parents encourage photography?
AC: Yes, both of them, I am an only child and they had me late. My father, Bob Corbin was a trailblazer in his own field of photography, what he didn’t know about horticulture wasn’t worth knowing and he pioneered the ‘how to do it’ style of gardening photography in the early 60s, alongside working full time as the Horticultural advisor to the London County Council (now Greater London Council). Dad’s turning a hundred-and-one this year, he’s a brilliant example of how to fulfil your dreams!
My mum Alda came from a long line of humanists and was really arty. She died after a two-year illness aged sixty when I was twenty, and that was a huge motivator for me as well, because you can easily just go into a massive slump at that point, or you can turn it around and fight your way out of it. I was in my first year of University when she died. By the second year I was as ‘okay’ as can be expected, you never completely get over the death of a parent, and by the third year I was doing ‘Visible Girls’, and I was like – this is what I want to do. I was totally motivated and totally focused. I was in college every day at 8:30am in the darkroom printing. I really made the most of college, in the two years after she died, I really got into it, photography became my salvation, my sanctuary. In March 1981, I started to freelance for the Sunday Times magazine after receiving an honourable mention in their Photojournalism Competition for the under twenty-fives in collaboration with Nikon. I was the only woman in the final selection.
I left PCL and went onto the Royal College. So by my third year at PCL, I was working as a freelance photographer and studying. And then I did an MA in Photography at the RCA and worked all the way through that as well. In 1981 I met my husband, John, was selected for the scholarship with Sunday Times, secured my place at the Royal College, and was awarded a First class honours degree for ‘Visible Girls’. It was amazing. It was such a good year; it was payback time in a way.
BD: What made you start Visible Girls? Were they friends of yours?
AC: I was becoming increasingly interested in how clothes and uniforms inform and misinform us. As part of my ‘Women in Uniform’ project, I was in the process of photographing the Putney High School girls. That was an easy in for me because I was an old Putney High School girl. They (Helen and Emma, the subjects of the first Visible Girls photo I took in August, 1980) said come to my house on Saturday and we can do some shots at home, so I went to their house and did some shots outside their gate, sort of rebellious looking but with uniforms on, and I said what do you normally wear? So they got changed into stripy t-shirts, punk boots and jeans, not that dissimilar to what people wear now, and that was the beginning of Visible Girls. One project always links to another. Visible Girls developed out of ‘Women in Uniform’, The idea of subcultures, identity, teenage rebels, girls in subcultures that hadn’t been photographed before – not much anyway, certainly not girls on their own. And definitely not in colour, and high-quality colour. I was really obsessed with getting good colour, so I had to take my lighting into these pubs and clubs. I had a powerful Braun lighting kit, enough power to get high-quality images with good depth of field, mixing the light, bouncing the flash. That was really my style – getting good colour, good composition. I was using very colourful negative film, Kodak Vericolour 100 ASA and hand printing the images myself.
People would say “100 ASA in a dark night club are you mad?! Why don’t you take some fast B/W film?” to which I’d respond “No I want proper colour!”
I could have made it a lot easier for myself really…. But maybe that’s partly why ‘Visible Girls’ is so interesting to people now, the 80’s colour palette, not just the dress, but the decor as well.
Rosalee and Deborah at The Tabernacle, Nottinghill Gate, April 1981
BD: Did you know the girls before you shot them?
AC: No, not really. I went out every night and usually had a couple of girls that I knew that would be at the club, and then I’d get in past the doorman. They quite liked it because it was a bit of entertainment. I’d often take the girls into the ladies’ toilet away from the boys, because boys always want to be in pictures, photo-bombing them. There was such a different environment with the girls on their own, I felt they came out of themselves much more; they were more relaxed, not showing off in front of the boys.
It’s just about who they are, and that’s what I was trying to capture. Who are you? What’s your identity? Young Women in 1980 – what do you want to show the world?
Punk Weekender is on show at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, from Thursday the 23rd until Sunday the 26th of June.
Learn more about First Women
Photography © Anita Corbin