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Then and now: Norwich exhibition catches up with Visible Girls 30 years on

PUBLISHED: 16:53 07 February 2018 | UPDATED: 17:03 07 February 2018

Margie & Samantha at The Orchard Youth Club, Slough, in March 1981. Photo: Anita Corbin

Margie & Samantha at The Orchard Youth Club, Slough, in March 1981. Photo: Anita Corbin

Anita Corbin

In the early 1980s photographer Anita Corbin explored clubs, pubs and social hangouts capturing young women from different subcultures on camera. More than 30 years later she has re-photographed many and a selection of new and old portraits are going on show in. Emma Lee met her.

Helen de Jode (left) and Emma Hall in Wimbledon, London, in August 1980. Photo: Anita Corbin Helen de Jode (left) and Emma Hall in Wimbledon, London, in August 1980. Photo: Anita Corbin

Whatever cultural tribe they belonged to – whether they were Mods, punks, skinheads, Rastas, young lesbians or rockers, the young women all had one thing in common. Emerging out of adolescence, they were searching for identity in pubs, clubs, friends’ homes and social hangouts.

It was the early 1980s. They were defying the mainstream and flying the flag for individuality, bonded by music, fashion, politics and sexual orientation. They were living in the moment and had dreams for the future. And photographer Anita Corbin wanted to capture this spirit – and the significance of their unity – on camera.

Her portraits of pairs of friends, sisters and lovers became Visible Girls, a ground-breaking exhibition, which toured the UK in the 80s and 90s, on show in youth clubs, town halls and libraries – ground-breaking not only because the focus was solely on a generation of young women, but because of Anita’s use of slow colour film and a portable flash.

Helen de Jode (left) and Emma Hall in Finsbury Park, London, in May 2017. Photo: Anita Corbin Helen de Jode (left) and Emma Hall in Finsbury Park, London, in May 2017. Photo: Anita Corbin

Now, coming up for 40 years later, through a social media campaign, she has brought the original girls back together to view them through a modern lens and find out about the women they became.

And this month a selection of now and then portraits will go on show as Visible Girls: Revisited at Norwich Arts Centre as part of a national tour.

“I started the original Visible Girls project when I was just going into third year,” says Anita. “I set myself some quite strict guidelines. Every picture had to have two girls in it.”

Shelley Spencer and Di Sage, The White Swan in Crystal Palace, London, November 1980. Photo: Anita Corbin Shelley Spencer and Di Sage, The White Swan in Crystal Palace, London, November 1980. Photo: Anita Corbin

Thanks to the social media campaign and other coverage most of the Visible Girls have been found. The portraits will be accompanied by original tape recordings from 1981 of interviews with some of the girls – and written interviews with the women made in 2017.

The stories behind each image are revealed, exploring how women’s lives have changed since the original shot was taken.

The Norwich exhibition will see two new double portraits taken by Anita in 2017 revealed for the first time. The first is of Claire and Lisa, originally photographed at the British Museum in London and rediscovered via a Buzzfeed article about the project.

Shelley Spencer and Di Sage, Les Passeroses Angouleme in France, May 2017. Photo: Anita Corbin Shelley Spencer and Di Sage, Les Passeroses Angouleme in France, May 2017. Photo: Anita Corbin

Claire says: “As soon as I saw the title of the Buzzfeed article [the first shout-out for the original Visible Girls in 2014] I recalled having our photograph taken by Anita in 1981. Seeing that picture again was a bit embarrassing – but also kind of cute. At the time the music was the most important thing to me and I dressed to let people know that. The politics that went with the 2Tone scene were part of who I was and have, in part, shaped who I am now. Myself and Lisa stayed friends through all those years.”

The second portrait is of Liz and Jan who were originally photographed at the Blitz Club in London – the legendary epicentre of the new romantic scene where Steve Strange ran the door. You had to look the part to get in, and Anita recalls securing her entrance by wearing an American Air Force flight suit.

Liz was discovered when her husband, a volunteer for Hull UK City of Culture 2017, Googled Visible Girls: Revisited after hearing about it at a party. They were shocked to see Liz’s picture as part of the show – and even more shocked to discover that the exhibition was on display less than 500 yards from their house. After a search through an old address book, Liz found a number for Jan and they were reunited for the first time in 33 years at the shoot for their Revisited portrait.

Kate and friend, The Royalty, Southgate, March 1981. Photo: Anita Corbin Kate and friend, The Royalty, Southgate, March 1981. Photo: Anita Corbin

Anita says that bringing the women back together and photographing them again can be a very emotional experience – they were originally photographed at a pivotal time of their lives with very vivid memories attached to it.

In some instances the new portraits were shot in their original location – one portrait was taken in a derelict toilet in Crystal Palace which has now been ingeniously turned into a home. But in every new portrait, you will find references to the original shot, whether that’s in the clothing or the colour palette.

“There has to be a connection with the old picture, says Anita.

Kate and friend, Radisson Blue Edwardian in Seven Dials, London, December 2014. Photo: Anita Corbin Kate and friend, Radisson Blue Edwardian in Seven Dials, London, December 2014. Photo: Anita Corbin

• Visible Girls: Revisited by Anita Corbin is at Norwich Arts Centre, from February 7-March 14, Mon-Fri 1pm-5pm, Sat 10am-6pm, free, 01603 660352, norwichartscentre.co.uk

• Anita Corbin will be giving an artist talk on February 24. Find out more about the project at visiblegirls.com

Liz and Jan, The Blitz in Covent Garden, December 1980. Photo: Anita Corbin Liz and Jan, The Blitz in Covent Garden, December 1980. Photo: Anita Corbin

Debbie and Mandy at Macdonalds, Crystal Palace, November 1980. Photo: Anita Corbin Debbie and Mandy at Macdonalds, Crystal Palace, November 1980. Photo: Anita Corbin

Red Ladies, The Blitz in Covent Garden, January 1981, Photo: Anita Corbin Red Ladies, The Blitz in Covent Garden, January 1981, Photo: Anita Corbin

Claire and Sarah at The British Museum, March 1981. Photo: Anita Corbin Claire and Sarah at The British Museum, March 1981. Photo: Anita Corbin

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