Thirty-odd years ago, when photographer Anita Corbin was in her early 20s, she embarked on a project to “ensure that a generation of young women were represented in a photographic genre that was almost entirely dominated by men”.
Hitting London clubs, youth groups or following tips from friends and acquaintances she went in search of young women from different subcultural tribes. She captured mods, rockabillies, punks, skinheads, rastas, young lesbians – “young women everywhere were defying the mainstream, flying the flag of their individuality in clearly defined tribes characterised by music, fashion, geography and sexual orientation”.
Her landmark Visible Girls exhibition, featuring photos of 56 young women, toured the country in the 1980s with great success. Since then, Anita has continued her work as a photographer and has been featured in a range of publications including The Sunday Times and The Observer magazines, Time Out, ELLE and New Society. The National Portrait Gallery has also purchased 20 of her photographs for its archive.
The photos of the Visible Girls have always been around, even used as a teaching resource, but in the summer of 2014 an online article brought them back into the spotlight. It was then the women in the pictures began getting in touch with Anita, updating her on their lives since the photos were taken.
With the support of Arts Council England, she has been re-photographing as many of the women as she can find (and who are still willing) which has led to the Visible Girls: Revisited exhibition, currently at Norwich Arts Centre. It features the original works alongside the new photographs.
My running buddy and I went along last Saturday (pre-snow) and were lucky enough to hear Anita give a talk.
I know I would have enjoyed looking at the photos anyway but having her there was brilliant. I would have loved to have interviewed her in my newspaper days. She’s so passionate about the project, even after all these years, and it was really inspiring to hear the stories of how she came to take them (many of them were in the cramped toilets of the venues where the light was a little better) but also learn a bit about what was going on at the time from a cultural point of view. And then, of course, it was wonderful to hear how the women have changed in all those years and what it was like photographing them (on a digital camera rather than film) again.
It also made us think about our own tribes. I can’t say I really identified as anything specific, I went through a very minor goth phase, which mostly meant wearing a lot of black and my much loved DMs. I don’t think I would have stood out in a crowd though.
Another interesting part of the project is that Anita spent three days on the streets of Norwich looking for the Visible Girls of today. As the mum of a girl I’m especially interested in subcultures of today’s young women. I really want to take Freya to see the exhibition (she actually cried that she couldn’t come on the Saturday but she’s not one for sitting still or being quiet so I thought it best to let her have some fun with Mark instead) but the snow has got in the way so far.
If you fancy a look, the exhibition will be at the arts centre until March 14th. Please check the website for opening details. You can learn more about the current tour here and there’s a fab feature in The Guardian that’s worth a read if you want to find out more about the women now.
Did you/have you found your tribe? If Anita was photographing you back then (or now) what tribe would you have identified with?