1980s female punks, skinheads, mods and rockabillies recaptured on camera

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In the 1980s, Anita Corbin captured female punks, skinheads, mods and rockabillies on camera. She tells Sarah Freeman how she tracked them down for a new exhibition.

Carol Holmes doesn’t remember much about the night her portrait was taken by Anita Corbin for her landmark collection Visible Girls. It was April 1981, Carol was with her then partner Nicola Griffith and it took just a few minutes for the photographer to do her work. “Nicola and I had gone to London to attend the first meeting of the first UK Lesbian Conference,” says Hull-born Carol. “It was quite a political event, but we were also there to enjoy ourselves. It was a great day and at night they put on a disco. That’s where Nicola bumped into Anita. She took our picture out in the lobby and then we went back to the party. Honestly, I’d never thought much about it. Or at least I hadn’t until Nicola rang and said: ‘You’ll never guess what. I had a call from that photographer who took our picture down in London.”

A couple of years ago Anita had begun to wonder what had happened to the subjects of that first collection, which she had put together while still a student at art college. It was a thought she’d had before, but the advent of social media meant she now had a better chance of tracking them down.

“The website Buzzfeed did a piece and within minutes of it going online I started getting messages from those who had taken part in Visible Girls,” she says. “It was incredible. For the first time I thought: ‘You know what, this might just be possible’.”

One motivation behind the original collection was to give a voice to those who are normally sidelined by mainstream society and as she went in search of Northern Soul fanatics, rockabillies and mods, it took her on a tour of a London she never knew existed.

“As a teenager I wasn’t affiliated with any particular sub-culture,” she says. “But I knew lots of people who were. I was also pretty sociable, so would just go along to club nights, meetings and socials and more often than not people were happy to have their photograph taken.

“The early 1980s were a time of huge social and political upheaval. There was a lot of direct action directed against the establishment and so many different, visible groups had begun to emerge. In the media there seemed to be lot of photographs of the men who were New Romantics, punks and mods, but I just felt that women were underrepresented.

“In 1975 the Sexual Discrimination Act had been brought in and these were the first generation of women to really feel the benefits of it. That first collection really stands as a time capsule, not just of my last nine months at college, but of Britain in the first years of a new decade.”

Anita admits that when she began tracking down the women of 35 years earlier she couldn’t be sure how their lives had mapped out or whether that optimism of youth had been crushed by the need to pay bills. However, 18 months on she is buoyed to report that most had not become conservative with a small c and when former mod Tessa Morton says: “I don’t have cushions that match my curtains, I don’t follow recipes, and I don’t force my children to go to ballet”, she speaks for many.

“When I first thought about revisiting Visible Girls it was the early 1990s,” adds Anita. “I was working at a commercial photographer, my children were still little and I couldn’t really justify spending so much time on a project when I wasn’t sure where it would lead.

“By 2014 the kids had left home and there was a definite feeling of an empty nest and a desire to catch up with my past.

“Me and the original Visible Girls are of a similar age and now we are at time of our lives when there is a tendency to take stock.

“When I created the series we were in ‘the morning of our day’, in the process of adolescent, early womanhood. Today those same women and me are in the ‘late afternoon of our day’, we are post-menopausal and reflective and that’s what I wanted to weave into this new collection.

“It was lovely reconnecting again and I do feel like the third person in each relationship. Some of those who had been best friends back then had inevitably drifted apart, but to have a role in bringing them back together and reigniting friendships was a wonderful thing.

“One of the underlying themes of Visible Girls: Revisited is about staying in touch with our past, not to relive it, but to stay connected with who we are.”

While Carol and Nicola had remained in touch their lives had taken different paths. Nicola now lives in Seattle where she is a successful novelist, while Carol had remained in Hull working in the mental health and social work sectors. Both now have different partners and so Anita decided to photograph them separately.

“When Anita mentioned that she wanted the exhibition to go on tour, I mentioned that Hull would be a good place to start, given this year it is the UK’s City of Culture and here we are now just a week from opening.”

Visible Girls: Revisited, which runs at Artlink, Princes Avenue, Hull, from July 6 to August 11, features then and now portraits of 35 of Anita’s original subjects. Hull2017.co.uk. A fundraising campaign has also been launched to take the exhibition to more venues. Rewards include a limited-edition catalogue, signed limited edition prints and T shirts. For details go to visiblegirls.com.