In 1981, Anita Corbin captured a moment in time when she took photos of young women from a variety of subcultures for her final year photography degree dissertation. Now an acclaimed photographer, with 20 portraits purchased for the National Portrait Gallery’s archives, Anita has used social media to track down the original girls and photograph them again. Caragh Medlicott sat down with Anita as she finished installing the show, Visible Girls: Revisited, at Life: Full Colour Gallery in Caernarfon.
Caragh Medlicott: So, how’s the installation going?
Anita Corbin: Yeah, good. We’ve worked for about ten solid hours, so we’ve got all the pictures up on the walls now – I’m doing the captions after this. Once that’s done, we’re just tidying up. We’ve got tomorrow to light it and tweak the last bits of the show and get ready for the launch.
Caragh Medlicott: I guess you have to approach installing a bit differently with the pandemic.
Anita Corbin: Well, I think we’re restricted to six people – there are two galleries, so six in each. But that’s quite good because that’s enough people anyway. You know, it’s nice, in a way, I think the whole restriction of numbers, it’s much better for galleries. If you’ve been to any big shows, like David Hockney or something, you’re in there with hundreds of people – it’s quite unpleasant. You really want to be able to have a good look and stand back and you know, meditate. You can’t in that situation, unless you go backwards around it!
Alongside the photos, we’re also going to be playing the original recordings of the girls that I made in 1981. I was 22 and a final year student at the Polytechnic of Central London. The Visible Girls exhibition was my final year’s work; I recorded the girls talking about being a mod or a rocker or a punk or whatever tribe they belonged to.
Caragh Medlicott: That was some good foresight.
Anita Corbin: Yeah, and I’ve got the original recordings that were done on a reel-to-reel. In fact, on one occasion, I was interviewing the punks, Shelley and Di, and the battery started to die – so the tape started going slower and slower and slower. When you play it back, it almost sounds like laughing. It’s quite fortuitous, for punks, because it does sound in keeping with what they’re talking about.
Caragh Medlicott: I think this exhibit feels especially timely, in a way, because over the last year we’ve all had to put life on pause to some extent, you somewhat inevitably end up looking back. I’m not sure if you’ve watched the Channel 4 series It’s A Sin, but that seems to have brought back a lot of ‘80s nostalgia. It did make me wonder what it felt like in the moment, especially as you were documenting it – could you sense it was a point of change?
Anita Corbin: Very much so. I mean, It’s A Sin, is five or six years later, it’s late ‘80s. I was taking these photos in the early ‘80s, I was a young woman in London, and you know, there was a lot of women’s liberation action and there was this punk feeling that you could – as a young woman – wear anything you liked, and nobody could tell you otherwise or judge you for it. In some ways it was more liberated then. I feel there’s much more pressure on young women today to look like one thing, like these Instagram models. There was no social media then – people didn’t even wear logos!
The girls that I was photographing were especially outside of the norm. They were nonconformists. We were all kind of searching for an identity, at the time, and there were a lot of social tribes and subcultures. A lot of political activity. Partly I think it was because it was quite a poor time, you know, a recession. Thatcher was in and there were a lot of protests, a lot of marching; Reclaim the Night, Embrace the Base, Women’s Right to Choose. All of that was at the forefront of our lives. When I decided I wanted to concentrate on photographing the young women in subcultures, it was really a bit of reaction to what I was being fed, which, as a photography student, was black and white pictures taken by men, of men. I was like, Well, hang on a minute – what about us? How are we going to be remembered?
Caragh Medlicott: That’s one thing that struck me looking through the original images, just how confident these young women seem, in themselves and in their outfits. Even from a statistical perspective, we know that young women today are more anxious. What do you think it would be like – pandemic aside – to go out and try recreate the same project with young women in their own spaces today? Would you approach it differently?
Anita Corbin: You know, back then, I actually went to my first skinhead pub with Mandy, the girl that I used to babysit. She was fourteen and she took me along to this pub and introduced me to all the skins. After that, I would go into these places on my own, with all my equipment. Aside from those in women’s lib and the young lesbians – the women-oriented women, as they were known– the women were often in the minority in these clubs. And there weren’t many photographers around, partially just because it was technically very difficult. It was so dark, the clubs were often painted black. I had my own flash equipment and I’d do a semi-studio setup, most of the pictures are actually taken in the Ladies toilets. One reason for that is that it was private, the girls could relax and express themselves without the boys watching.
Obviously, all the photographs are double portraits. It was all about the two girls – whether they’re sisters or friends or lovers – about the communication between them, and me as that third point, making this powerful triangle. Today, with every exhibition space, I try and get out and about in the streets with a camera and – if possible – with somebody local like a journalist. It’s not a quick shot, because I’m posing the people I find, and that means there’s a dialogue between us. I approach by making contact, by getting names and addresses so I can send them the files after. When I was doing the original series, I gave all of the girls prints after – which is like, wow, I don’t know how I managed to do that. Often, I’d only have met them for ten minutes. Today, people are used to being photographed, so, in some ways it’s easier, but it also means they have a preconceived idea of what they should look like, however I want them to look like themselves – not like a photoshopped model.
Caragh Medlicott: Do you think there’s been a reversal here, in some ways? Because the women you were photographing in the ‘80s were trying not to be like their mothers – today it seems more likely it would be the daughters who would be shocked, to see how their mums used to dress.
Anita Corbin: Well, we were very lucky as young women in that early ‘80s period. Of course, sexism was still around, but in terms of image, if anything, women in the subcultures were trying to look like the opposite of the women in magazines. It was a pretty radical time. Before that, you had the ‘60s and ‘70s, the hippies, it was all free love and peace, soft and lovely, but it was really when the Mid ‘70s hit, and the politics that came with it, that toughness began to be reflected in how peopled looked. Today you can see styles developing, but it’s different. Young people seem to be leaning more into things like permanent body fashion, with tattoos and piercings.
Caragh Medlicott: Obviously, politics was a big motivating factor in these subcultures, but music was also a huge part of it. Today, young people are a part of this playlist generation, it seems like there’s less need to identify with just one sound – could that explain how these tribes have faded or at least changed in the modern day?
Anita Corbin: Absolutely. I mean, when I was a teenager, if you wanted to hear music, you either had to go to the record shop and listen in a booth or you’d go out to a venue or a pub and see the band you liked live. And there were discos of course, there were a lot of discos where you could hear pop music and the latest records. But with the subcultures, people would go to the places that played their music and that all went along with the look – the fashion and make up, it was about devotion to that whole package.
There was still some movement – some people converted from punk to skin. It wasn’t all like with the rockabillies and the mods, they’ve always had a long-term approach to their subcultures, even today. I suppose those traditions were older, even in the ‘80s, so they were more established. I mean you still get subcultures on a smaller scale today; Northern Soul has had a massive resurgence recently, especially in Wales I believe. But yes, then it was really about going out dancing in the place that played the music you liked. Clubs would have a rockabilly night, then a skin night, and so on. It’s funny how the view of it has changed looking back, like the association with the skins, for example.
Caragh Medlicott: The association with racism?
Anita Corbin: Yeah, and they weren’t all racist. That’s just the stereotype. You know, one of the debates that came about when we started doing research on Facebook was with some skin girls, Carrie and Gill. One of them is wearing a union jack t-shirt in the picture, and they were saying – would we wear that now? It has different associations today, but at the time it wasn’t about affiliating with or showing support for the British movement. But it gets interpreted differently through hindsight because of other people and their actions. It’s like the symbol of the swastika, it was originally an Indian spiritual symbol, and then it was changed slightly and appropriated by the Nazis. That meaning associated with it changes it forever.
Caragh Medlicott: Speaking of the original women photographed, it must have been a huge undertaking to try and track them down, but you’ve had huge success, and you’re still going. How did you approach taking the updated images? Especially for the women who were reunited after numerous decades – I can imagine it was quite emotionally charged.
Anita Corbin: It was, it was. If you look at the pictures, you’ll see there are so many similar compositional features between the old ones and the new ones; that’s what I try and do I suppose, even if I can’t get back to the same location. I try and create a new image that’s linked in some way, by some little details, to show that they’re the same women. But then there’s also this element of how far they’ve come.
If you take the photo of Liz and Jan, they were new romantics, they hadn’t seen each other in 34 years when we took the revisited shot. The way we found them, and brought them together, you really couldn’t make it up! They’d lost contact after they’d gone to university because Jan had got married and changed her name. Liz had been married and had kids too, but she and her husband had divorced after many years and she’d recently married her university sweetheart Keith, and moved to Hull. Within six months of them reconnecting and marrying each other, he saw the original Visible Girls picture of Liz at the end of their road in the gallery where we were exhibiting, which was amazing. But then the issue was we still couldn’t find Jan, the other girl, but Keith managed to find an old address book with her original married name, and then they tracked her down through Facebook.
Caragh Medlicott: I read somewhere that you like to let your photographs ‘talk’ to you, giving yourself space as you go through the stages of editing. That breathing room often seems so important in art. Could you tell me a little bit more about that – how you approach the edits and curation?
Anita Corbin: Well, when I was editing the initial project, for my final year show, I was quite radical. I was looking for pictures where the women looked really empowered, strong and independent. I also wanted to capture the non-uniforms of the subcultures, in fact it’s part of the reason I selected subcultures as the focus in the first place. Whereas now, over thirty years later, I’ve softened. You know, now I’m looking for different things – and I see different things. It’ll impact the images I choose; I go with my gut and try not to ask too many questions because that can ruin it sometimes.
There’s also the collaborative element, too. I worked with my creative director at my lab, obviously he’s never seen the images before, so when he goes through them – he’s looking for different things because he’s a different person.
Ultimately, it’s a very rewarding experience. Metro Imaging Ltd – my photo lab up in London – they very generously did the original, high-resolution scans of the old pictures for me. And that’s another part of the process that’s really exciting, because in 1981 the film stock was only as good as the paper was, and now of course, you can get so much more detail from the hi-res scans. I’ve actually seen bits of the pictures I’ve never seen before through that process which is amazing.
Caragh Medlicott: It does seem like this project has a life of its own at this point, from new details emerging, to being able to track down more of the original women.
Anita Corbin: Yeah, it has, sometimes the reunions have come from people recognizing their friends, when the exhibition has been touring, but I’ve also had exposure, a BuzzFeed article kicked it all off in 2014– then in 2016 on the BBC, Radio 4 Today and on breakfast TV. These girls are all over the world now of course; they’re in Australia, New Mexico, New York, France, Spain, Slovenia – we’ve made contact in loads of places.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest things has been social media – we couldn’t have done this without it. I did try tracking them down in 1991, but there was no internet, it didn’t work. I had some of the numbers of the girl’s parents’ houses, but often they’d moved, or the girls had left. Anyway, I just couldn’t find them.
Of course, then I had my kids and was busy doing other things myself, but eventually Facebook came along and the opportunity just presented itself. Some of the girls still had their original prints, they were posting them online, debating who had taken the picture. That’s when I knew it was time. From there it just spread – social media is so global. Plus, people love a story; I think it appeals to all ages. In fact, our social media statistics showed that it was young women, on the whole, who were helping getting the message out there to help find the women in the pictures.
Caragh Medlicott: Looking at these updated images, most of the women have now shed their subculture identities, at least superficially. Do you think that’s just a necessity of growing up, or does it suggest that they’re now more at home in their identities, that as you grow up you opt to keep the friends but the not necessarily the tribe?
Anita Corbin: Well, for one thing, there is just literally more choice of clothing now – fashion has been globalized in a way that it wasn’t then. In the ‘80s, a lot of our clothes were from jumble sales. The new romantics used to make their own clothes. Mods wore second-hand stuff. Skins, they had a very specific palette, Crombie overcoats, 10 hole Doc Martens, Ben Sherman shirts, Levi’s, etc etc. I think now there isn’t as much need to be recognised as a part of a particular clan. Back then, these visible girls were expressing themselves in a particular, alternative way. Of course, at the same time there were hundreds of other girls sat at home doing their maths homework!
Caragh Medlicott: The subculture girls tended to be more political, I suppose – I saw in some of the interviews that a lot of them are still politically involved today.
Anita Corbin: Yes absolutely. Some are into animal rights, others are working to help refugees. A lot of them have stayed on that activism path in one form or other. In terms of style though, you just find as you get older that you develop your own unique style. You’re not worried about fitting in in the same way. It’s a wonderful thing.
Caragh Medlicott: It’s great you’ve been able to capture that, and the journey – that you’re still going on it.
Anita Corbin: It is – it’s been a really good time, especially here in the gallery in Caernarfon. You know, this exhibit has never been seen in Wales, and I’ve never shown anything in Wales personally – this is my Welsh debut! The gallery owner here is very supportive, she has a real vision and passion for encouraging artists, for making space for art. I can really see that there’s a community of artists here. I’m very honoured to be one of her first shows. This is the first commercial gallery that I’ve shown in, we’ve got the castle next door and there’s a Vespa Scooter downstairs. It’s all very special!
Signed Visible Girls: Revisited limited edition books and hand-printed tanks and tees are available for purchase at £15.00 each from Life: Full Colour Gallery until 26 June or can be ordered from Anita via email.
You can see Visible Girls: Revisited, showing until 26th June, at Life: Full Colour Gallery in Caernarfon.