1980s London was a hotbed for bold and subversive subcultures. Punks, mods, rockabillies, and new romantics emerged from a burgeoning underground club culture, where clothing styles were often louder than the music that inspired them, and non-conformity was all the rage. Among the young trendsetting crowd in 1981 was 21-year-old student photographer Anita Corbin. A “soft punk” herself at the time, Corbin was drawn to photographing the unique styles of the women around her. “I have chosen to focus on girls, not because the boys (where present) were any less stylish but because girls in ‘subcultures’ have been largely ignored or when referred to, only as male appendages,” Corbin wrote in a 1981 introduction to her work.
Corbin’s series, aptly titled Visible Girls is an eye-catching collection of portraits that serve as a study of how young women in subcultures showcased their identity as individuals, and as part of youth tribes. Alongside a rejection of mainstream society, Corbin’s photos also convey her subjects’ longing to belong. “I was intrigued by the girls’ colorful and extroverted appearance, and their desire to be recognized as part of a larger tribe, and a smaller tribe too: that of sisters, best mates or lovers,” wrote Corbin in an email interview with Women in the World. “I loved how they expressed this solidarity through their external appearance.”
Immersed in the scene, Corbin saw many of the women, some her close friends, come together and forge bonds in support of one another. “Typically we are led to believe there is competition between women, but these girls were all about partnership, about creating an environment together in which young women could express and be themselves and be creative in their dress — away from fashion mainstream and stereotypes. Their ‘subcultures’ gave them the opportunity to be subversive in their femininity,” Corbin wrote.
From her success with Visible Girls, Corbin has gone on to lead a successful career as a photographer. She’s photographed for The Sunday Times and Observer, and is now embarking on a lengthy and ambitious project, First Women, which profiles 100 British women who were “first” in their field of achievement.
But Corbin’s “visible girls” have stayed with her, so much so that 35 years later, she’s set out to find the women she photographed. “I was interested in how far they had come; had their lives developed as they wished? Had their dreams come true and how had world changes affected them, their careers, their families? Were they still alive even?” she wrote.
Social media has played a crucial role in refreshing Corbin’s search for the women. When she previously sought them out ten years after making the series, she said she had trouble tracking them down with only the few old phone numbers she had saved. But now, thanks to Facebook and press, Corbin has managed to locate around 50 percent of the women she photographed years ago. Their stories are as varied as their unique fashion choices. “I have had some very surprising revelations – the hard-nut Skinhead is now a TV psychic!” Corbin wrote. Just this week, one of the girls, named Quasi, surfaced. She’s since lived in 48 countries, contributed to the UN World Food Program, and become a grandmother.
Another woman, Nicola Griffith, pictured above right, is now a successful novelist, married and living in Seattle. “Seeing that photo again, taken nearly 35 years ago, gave me a vertiginous moment, like leaning over the edge of what-could-have-been,” wrote Griffith, who described her subculture in those days as “party-through-the-revolution lesbian feminist underclass.”
The search is still on for the remaining women in Corbin’s photos, more of whom can be seen here. Corbin is calling for anyone with information about the women to reach out. If you recognize any of Corbin’s Visible Girls, she’s requested that you send an email to email@example.com.
While some remain a mystery, it’s clear from the remarkable stories Corbin has come across that the audacity and energy she captured in her subjects has stayed with many of them over the years. “There’s significant overlap in the Venn diagram of past and present: my simultaneous willingness to seize the joy and find a way to make the world better,” wrote Griffith. “Anita caught that, I think.”