Everyone has those dreadfully embarrassing teenage pictures that you and your friends snapped in your bedroom at 14-years-old. Now you keep them under lock and key in a box in the bottom of your wardrobe because, for some reason, you just can’t get rid of them. Every time they resurface they bombard you with memories of intense laughter, overdramatic teenage angst and hopeless lovesickness for whoever the school heartthrob was that month. The memories are real and lasting but the photographs also remind you of just how far you’ve come. Photographer Anita Corbin’s national touring exhibition – Visible Girls: Revisited – embodies this spirit of reconciliation of past and present, reuniting women with their 1980s teenage selves, active in a variety of different subcultures, through portraiture photography.
Corbin was captivated by photography from a young age and, pursuing her dreams, she has been a photographer all of her life. In her artist’s talk for Exeter Phoenix’s Last Wednesday Series, Corbin explained that she had a particular affinity for photographs that could tell a story. And she did exactly that in her third year photography project in 1981, Visible Girls.
The original 28 Visible Girls portraits captured the stories of women in a diverse range of subcultures – skinheads, rastas, new romantics, young lesbians, women in women’s movements, rockabillies and punks. Corbin was mesmerised by these subcultures and sought to capture how the young women declared their loyalty to a particular subculture through their choices in style, music and the hangouts they frequented. The 22-year-old artist trekked all over London, stopping at pubs, clubs and youth centres, to photograph the girls. The portraits were often taken in the toilets, as Corbin found that the public bathroom’s had the best lighting available and also created a safe space for the girls to relax and truly be themselves. This granted the photographs with an authentic spontaneity and refreshing frankness that is undoubtedly apparent when you wander around the exhibition. The portraits were shot using slow colour film and a portable flash. Corbin was adamant that she used colour in a time when black and white photography was still favoured. In her artist’s talk she confirmed that she was, and still is, entirely obsessed with colour. It adds life and vibrancy to her photography and enhances the storytelling quality of her portraits
The avant-garde artist’s work was so successful that last year she embarked on a new photography adventure – Visible Girls: Revisited. It has been 36 years since the first Visible Girls collection and Corbin has now set out to find the the original girls and photograph them anew, placing their original double portraits next to their contemporary ones. Corbin says that Visible Girls: Revisited “allows the ‘visibility’ of youth to shine a light on the often-disregarded wisdom of the older woman”, establishing important cross-generational female bonds.
In her artist’s talk, Corbin spoke about the victories and trials of locating the women. To find them, the photographer instituted an international social media campaign and the women began to get in contact through Facebook, the BBC and Buzzfeed. Corbin revealed that she often reconnected women who had not seen each other since they had been photographed as teenagers. She also explained that in some cases you have to be thoughtful about how you go about ‘revisiting’ particular lives; one of the women had recently passed away, but her five daughters have agreed to be photographed for the project in their mother’s memory.
As I strolled around the Phoenix, taking in Corbin’s work, I really understood her need for the project to remain an entirely organic process. In the exhibition catalogue, she says that she couldn’t force the girls back into previously intimate situations solely to recreate a photograph. In 1981, she photographed a young lesbian couple at the first lesbian conference in London, but the girls have since broken up and married other people. With their consent, Corbin photographed the two couples and put their portraits alongside the girls’ in 1981.
I really appreciated the 1980s girl’s bedroom installation, created by artist Tory Turk, which is exclusive to Exeter. An atmospheric sound recording of an interview Corbin conducted with two of the girls in 1981 forms part of the installation. The girls were recorded discussing topics such as the gender pay gap and feminist issues that are still of relevance today. Corbin has also produced a timeline of significant feminist, political and technological milestones from the 1970s to the present day, helping to place the project in context, and included an interactive element where the exhibition-goers can share their feelings on how they felt when they were young, and how they feel now.
Corbin’s fascinating photography, past and present, really works to explore the production of individual identity, overturn the destructive aspersions on ageing, examine contemporary modes of communication and provide an overall thought-provoking commentary on today’s society.
The exhibition will run until 21st December at Exeter Phoenix and you can get involved with the project by taking your own double portraits of the visible girls in your lives and posting them on social media with the hashtag, #VisibleGirls.
– Laura Ferris
Featured image from: http://www.exeterphoenix.org.uk/events/visible-girls-revisited/