Art Interview Interview

Top image: Sylvia and Titch at home in Sudbury, March 1981. Photo by Anita Corbin.

In 1981, Anita Corbin was just 21 years old in her second year of her photography studies at the Polytechnic of Central London. Searching her local streets, bars and clubs for interesting and intriguing pairs of girls to photograph, she became enamoured by their stories and styles, capturing the colours, subcultures and friendships of 80s subculture; from punks to rockers to skinheads.

What emerged from the project was a stunning reflection on the freedom of youth. “I became aware that these were the informal uniforms of youth,” says Corbin below. “I really wanted to say, we are here, we’re amazing and we can be who we want to be.” With the success of the double portraits came Visible Girls, a travelling exhibition in 1981, pulling back the curtain and showcasing adolescence in it’s truest form.

Now, 36 years later, Visible Girls is returning in a new travelling exhibition titled Visible Girls: Revisited. After reflecting on her work, Corbin decided to track down the girls in the original images and reshoot them, giving us an insight into their current lives; comparing and contrasting then and now. Here Corbin discusses the past and the present, offering us a peek into her latest project.

Natalie Walsh: Take us back to 1981, when you originally shot Visible Girls. Where did the idea come from?
Anita Corbin: It really came out of another project. I was doing portraits of women and girls in uniform such as Brownies, shop assistants, air hostesses and schoolgirls, and I went to photograph the girls at the school I used to go to in their uniform. I ended up going back to one of their houses and photographing them at home in their uniform and that led to them changing into their weekend gear and that was the first portrait I did of the series. Helen and Emma, who were the schoolgirls came out of their bedroom dressed up in their stripy punk gear and that was the catalyst for the series and it took off because I became aware that these were the informal uniforms of youth.

Natalie: The original images are really vibrant and colourful, was this a conscious decision?
Anita: I wanted to get the bright colours and that was very much about the 80s colour palette. As you can see a lot of the photographs are taken in toilets and a lot of them have got bright colours on the walls and that was very much an early 80s thing. Post-punk had torn down all the conventions and even if the loo was old and tatty, they’d come in and put some red paint on the walls to tart it up. The fact that technically I was focused on getting the colour to be as accurate as possible meant that I had to carry heavy portable flash unit with me, and had to use slow colour film to get the colour depth and the reproduction right.

In the Ladies' at Scandals in Soho, February 1981. Photo by Anita Corbin

Natalie: The girls in the images were young, possibly teenagers at the time. Was there a message about life and freedom within adolescence?

Anita: The youngest was 14 and the oldest was 24. It was the early 80s and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 had only been passed five years beforehand, so when I was 17 we had the law on our side that we should be treated equally as women. I was riding that wave of the confidence and the buoyancy of having that legal backing. At that time there was a lot of women’s liberation, feminist activity, young women getting involved in direct action, reclaiming the night, protesting about abortion law changes so that was very much a flavour of where I was coming from as a young woman and I wanted to reflect that freedom and independence in my work. I really wanted to say, we are here, we’re amazing and we can be who we want to be.

Natalie: What sparked the idea for you to revisit the project?

Anita: When I was in my mid 50s I became quite reflective of my time, my kids left home when they were 18 and went off travelling. There was the empty nest syndrome and of course they went off at the same time because they’re twins and my husband and I were like ‘what are we going to do now?’ I had more time to think about my work and what I wanted to leave behind which was a body of work looking at women of my age.

Nicole Le Strange (left) and Sue Lenham at the Royalty in Southgate London in March 1981. Photo by Anita Corbin

“I could see the Blitz club from my bedroom window when I lived in Covent Garden therefore I went down there quite a lot and it was fantastic. Completely over the top, beautiful outfits. “

Natalie: Obviously all of these women are living different lives now, how did you go about tracking them down?
Anita: Buzzfeed did a big article on it and social media also played a part in finding the women and then last year we had the exhibition in London of the original shots reprinted by Metro Imaging. That was a huge support for me as a catalyst to getting the pictures back out onto the walls. Somebody actually saw one of their portraits up in a restaurant somewhere that I’d sold the portrait to maybe 30 years ago and they tracked me down. Alexa Chung regrammed one of the skinhead shots which was amazing and we actually found the woman in the shot. We’d been looking for her for a long time and it was her niece that saw it.

Natalie: Are there any that you haven’t found who you’re desperate to find?
Anita: There’s still around 30-40% of the girls that we can’t find because some of them travelled all over the world, some are in Australia now and America and all over Europe. They’re mainly the Blitz Kids. I could see the Blitz club from my bedroom window when I lived in Covent Garden therefore I went down there quite a lot and it was fantastic. Completely over the top, beautiful outfits. We’ve found one of the women from the Blitz but the others we’re still looking for.

Natalie: Can you describe the moments you met with these women again after so long?
Anita: What’s wonderful is when I’m able to bring the two friends back together and see that relationship rekindled. Squasher, who’s one of the rockers, and I went to Slovenia to meet up with Quasi who she hadn’t seen for twenty years and as we came through the arrivals in the airport it was just fabulous. I think they were a bit apprehensive and nervous of seeing each other again but gradually they started to reminisce and had a few more drinks and started dancing and talking about music that they were into and all the shenanigans that they got up to as young women. And they’re back in contact daily which is wonderful.

Red Ladies at The Blitz in Covent Garden, January 1981. Photo by Anita Corbin

Natalie: What message do you hope to send out with Visible Girls: Revisited?
Anita: The message is really for everybody to stay connected to their past and to not feel like you’ve lost that energy of youth and to value those years that you had when you weren’t tied down and you didn’t know where you were going. It was more of an adventure. For women around my age in their late 50s to be encouraged to spread their wings and find themselves and don’t be conformed by society. Reach out and be wild and do what’s in your heart.

Visible Girls opens on 7th July at Hull, Artlink. For more info on Visible Girls and current exhibition tour dates visit http://visiblegirls.com.
Help Anita tour her exhibition across the UK by donating to her crowd funding site.