Visible Girls: Revisited Exhibition

Visible Girls: Revisited Exhibition

In the '80s, photographer Anita Corbin captured portraits of young women from different subcultures. This year, she’s tracked down the original subjects and re-captured them. V speaks to the photographer about photographing the subjects 35 years later, female identity, and more.

In the '80s, photographer Anita Corbin captured portraits of young women from different subcultures. This year, she’s tracked down the original subjects and re-captured them. V speaks to the photographer about photographing the subjects 35 years later, female identity, and more.

Text: Isabella Rose Celeste Davey

Visible Girls: two charged words that when interconnected are both strong and soft. The term visibility is both powerful and hard - evocative and penetrative.  Girls, on the other hand, holds its heart in naivety, discovery, pre-pubescent innocence. These two words paired together, however, succinctly summarize what Anita Corbin captured 35 years ago.

In the 1980’s, Anita Corbin photographed teenage female duos in their respective environments, immersing the viewer in a flash of their subcultural leanings and associative surroundings. Revisiting her subjects 35 years on, Anita delves back into the past and pulls their dreams and aspirations into the present, revisiting the freedoms they associated with these alignments.

Subcultures don’t exist in the way they did in the 80’s, a time when tribes roamed the streets with their cultural, social and political alignments proudly worn. The choice to capture women in pairs further highlighted the female solidarity oft ignored in images of these country-wide collectives, where male dominance was highlighted and annotating female presence was often neglected.]

The images capture more than girls: they capture a feeling, a sensation, a sound, an almost deliriously positive snapshot of the wiles of youth. 35 years on, the women may have evolved from the tribulations of fashion, but they nonetheless have carried on or learned from the notions they once held dear. Visible Girls: Revisited, juxtaposing strong wills with gentle dreams, is a celebration of female identity amidst the crossroads of youthful revelations and reflection.

Left: Helen de Jode (left) and Emma Hall in Finsbury Park, London, in August 1980 Right: Helen de Jode (left) and Emma Hall in Finsbury Park, London, in May 2017

36 years ago you embarked on a photographic endeavor to capture young women in their familiar surroundings and respective sub cultural alignments. What made you choose to photograph these young women and what made them visible to you?

I was approaching my 22nd birthday in the summer of 1980, I was also about to enter the final year of my BA degree in Photographic Arts and I was beginning to find my passion within photography, to create dynamic, positive, colorful images of my generation of women. Up until this point, there had not been a standalone series of portraits of Girls in Subcultures on the London Scene... most images of mods, punks and skins etc were taken by men, and usually in black and white. As a Londoner born and bred I felt I was in a good position and the right person to capture these Visible Girls, I was part of the scene and I knew that these were significant times.

A uniform often signals a specific function/role/calling. For the young women you captured, their ‘informal uniforms’ imply a community, passions and a sense of belonging. How important were these informal uniforms for these women?

The informal uniforms of youth are a key part of the development of us as young women, new found freedom from parental control and a little bit of money in your pocket allows teenagers to choose their own clothes and start to find their own style and identity.  Back in the 80s before computers, the internet or mobile phones, being recognized as part of a subculture was an important part of belonging to your tribe; being a Mod, skin, rocker, young lesbian, Rasta, punk, new romantic, rude girl was not just a pastime, it was a way of life.

Subcultures have carried a stigma in external circles, being seen as different, strange and intimidating. How did you try to capture the spirit of these subcultures rather than highlighting their points of contentious difference?

I was a young feminist at the time so It was important to me to create images that would not only challenge people's options of young women at the time but also of the subcultures. The personal is political!

You inject a new layer into your imagery: the relationship of the female subjects to one another. Why was capturing these relationships important to your photographic compositions? 

The very first portrait of the series instantly set my style — all of the Visible Girls portraits are double portraits. By focusing on the relationship of the two girls within the portrait I was able to create something more than just a picture showing a cult member. This is one of the reasons why the images are still so pertinent today, that and the glorious 1980s color palette! Whether they were friends, sisters or lovers there was an energy within the portrait, with me as the third corner of the triangle, which captured the spirit and energy of us as young women, ready to take on the world!

More often than not, the representation of subcultures in the UK was dominated by male imagery – the women almost seen as sideline participants or partners of lead male figures. Why do you think this was this the case? 

The simple answer would be to say: because the majority of photographers at the time were men, maybe their interest would lie in capturing a more male perspective of the subculture. From my perspective, as a young female photographer, I was naturally more interested in what my contemporaries were getting up to and I had the advantage of being able to move in their circles, visit their homes and share quality time with them in "the ladies"!

Left: Linda Robinson (Left) and Susan Stecker outside Southgate tube station, London, in March 1981 Right: Linda Robinson (Left) and Susan Stecker outside Southgate tube station, London, in March 1981

This exhibition explores your return to your subjects, decades later. By photographing 70% of your original subjects you allow your sitters the opportunity to reflect on their sense of self then and now: what was the most overarching revelation of these women?

It has been a series of amazing and often emotional reunions, not just with their partners in the original portraits but also with their younger selves — and the same for me too. I think it's safe to say that we all feel a sense of completion, knowing what we know now as women in our 50s and reconnecting with the dreams and hopes of our teenage years has helped some of the Visible Girls to find themselves again.

One of your subjects, Carol, makes an interesting point when she says sub cultural visibility can also depersonalize the individual: what are your thoughts on this, reflecting on the range of women you have photographed?

Yes, Carol is right in some ways if you are a young person and you are searching for something, an identity or a sense of belonging, becoming part of a subculture can give you a structure and a philosophy, some conformity within the nonconformity! As we get older we tend to become more sure of ourselves and our thoughts so we don't necessarily need that strong and recognizable cloak of the tribe.

What was it about the cultural and political climate in the 1980’s that allowed for so many sub cultures to foster compared to today?

That's the title of a dissertation, isn’t it?! Simply put, I would say that back in the 80s there was huge political unrest in the U.K. with struggles between the establishment and the workers, Punk had thrown everything up in the air, all conventions had been challenged, there was a strong sense of people power. In London, we marched in protest virtually every week for something... we were vocal and visible as young people who wanted change; we were flexing our political muscles. If you wanted to meet your mates you had to go out to a club or a pub and hang out, if you wanted to listen to music and dance you had to go out to a venue or a club — some people didn't even have phones at home! We were much more in our bodies and physically in a place, you had to make choices of where you wanted to be and with who you wanted to be with.

Today, I see this with my children who are 23. I have twins, Daisy and Louis, [and] they communicate in a different way, they are more in their heads, they don't have to be together in a space, they can socialize from the comfort of their own room if they want to, and download music and films and entertainment. So they don't need to be recognized in the street, they can mix and match their music and cultural tastes from a huge global smorgasbord!

Left: Carrie Kirkpatrick (left) and Gill Soper outside the toilets in Crystal Palace, London in November 1980 copy Right: Carrie Kirkpatrick (left) and Gill Soper outside the toilets in Crystal Palace, London in April 2017.
Credits: Photos courtesy of Visible girls

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