THIS month sees the launch of a photographic celebration of women, which has been 10 years in the making. The project charts the unique ‘firsts’ of some 100 exceptional women throughout the UK. Eloquently Her chats here to its creator, Anita Corbin.
“Have you ever wondered what you’d be remembered for, when you finally leave this earth?”.
It’s a challenging question, perhaps uncomfortably so, and it’s one which Anita Corbin asks of me as we come together to chat about the exceptional artist project, First Women, which she is ‘finally’ unveiling this month in the UK.
Anita is, for those who know the arena of photographic storytelling, already a hugely accomplished and respected artiste.
She’s spent her professional career capturing the portraits and the human-interest elements of women the world over.
For years, she was known and admired as one of the few leading female photographers for The Sunday Times and the Observer.
It’s an impressive resume, by anyone’s standards, but even that legacy of work had not filled the soul of this driven creative.
It is this latest project, so she tells me, which is her greatest life’s work. It is the very thing she feels she was put here to deliver.
“I’m so incredibly proud of First Women, and I absolutely know that this is what my entire career and life has been leading to,” she says.
“I have been photographing people all of my life, but particularly women, having been fortunate enough to win a scholarship on to the Sunday Times.
“When I found myself nearing my 50th birthday some years back, I started to wonder ‘what would I be remembered for?’.”
It was this musing, now some 10 years previous, which set Anita on a journey to create a record of 100 metre-high prints of women between the ages of 18 and 102.
This month, in the centenary of the first UK women receiving the vote, and, touchingly, launching on what would have been the 100th birthday of her late mother, Anita gets to see her hopes and dreams for the project spectacularly realised.
“I always knew it would be a huge scale assignment, both in terms of cost, time and energy,” she says.
“It was one I was so motivated by though, and one which I saw as being able to capture 100 women who were all ‘firsts’ in their field of achievement.
“This means a really diverse and extraordinary collection of women, from those who accomplished in sport, science, education, politics, and the arts.
“Each one was a remarkable woman in her own right, and I feel privileged to have been able to capture them on camera as part of this work.”
It is not, so it transpires, Anita’s first foray into legacy-style projects relating to women in particular.
This formidable creative is well known in the photographic world for having produced the internationally acclaimed Visible Girls series, back in 1981.
That impactful project saw her capturing pictures which told the story of female ‘subcultures’ in London in the early part of the Eighties.
She said at the time that she was exclusively choosing to focus on photographing girls because she believed ‘girls in subcultures have been largely ignored’.
So is this latest project, perhaps, a more matured chapter, following on from that original storytelling piece?
“It feels very different,” she says, candidly.
“It’s been hugely immersive, in that I’ve had to travel all over, spend lots of time hunting down these women, and largely fund the entire thing – to the tune of about £250,000 as things stand today.
“It’s felt exceptionally personal and important to me throughout, because I wanted it to be something which would speak about my passion for the world of women, long after I’m gone.
“It’s also meant a very difficult process at times, who to include and who to leave out, and that’s before you try and track them down.”
Initially, the project saw Anita photographing about 15 of her targeted women each year, although the timeline ebbed and flowed over its decade duration, whilst she continued other outstanding creative work in her field.
She is, after all, a woman in hot demand, having photographed the likes of Bob Hoskins, Joely Richardson and Peter O’Toole.
Today, as the project’s launch and tour begin, Anita is clear that this legacy adventure has so many tentacles, and she’s eager to help those expand far beyond her earliest visions for the initiative.
“I think when you set out to do something of such magnitude, it’s inevitable that you have one intention, and that it shifts,” she admits.
“That’s particularly true for something which has now been 10 years in the making, and which, in that time, has seen far more happen in the world of women than I might have predicted back at the beginning.
“What it’s meant, however, is that it’s been possible to create even more dialogue around what First Women is, and to therefore get more and more great women and organisations wanting to ‘support’ the undertaking in some way.”
Much more than a mere ‘art gallery exhibition’, indeed the project is now an entire ‘tour’ with plans for educational resources and much more.
She says: “The show itself has its official launch on July 20th, and will then be open to the public until August 22nd, but that’s not the end.
“Beyond that, we have our book of portraits, which has been created via crowdfunding https://chuffed.org/project/100-first-women-uk
activity, and I’m looking at different ways in which this collection can become something of real education value, perhaps as an online package fore schools
“It’s about the questions and stories which sit beneath the images of each of those exceptional women and how these portraits can trigger questions in the viewer.
“What does it tell us about how far women have come? What does it mean for women of the future? What more can be achieved? What did these women have to go through and conquer?
“To have been able to get to the heart of all those really meaningful questions and issues is just so incredibly exciting, and it feels very fulfilling to me as a woman.”
As a woman who has reached the very pinnacle of her artform, has brought two children into the world, been a campaigner for the stories of female comrades the world over, and now seeks to influence and educate the future generation about the accomplishments of women, one could argue that, perhaps, the camera lens should have been capturing Anita’s own portrait.
She, however, is only too happy to make her 100 selected women the deserving focus of this huge piece of pictoral work.
“I’m so incredibly happy to be at this stage in the journey,” she says, cheerily.
“Yes, it’s been a challenge at times, and has obviously been a whole decade of work, but I neither wanted to rush this, nor compromise it in any way.
“With the launch now precisely coinciding with what would have been my mother’s 100th birthday, I just hope – and believe – she would have been really proud of my part in telling the stories of so many incredible women. FIrst Women is a tribute to her and her generation of women that saw so many changes in the status of Womanhood.
“If this is the project I’m remembered for, then I’m delighted. It’s an incredible legacy.”
July 20th until August 22nd
The 100 First Women Portrait Exhibition is open from July 20th until August 22nd and runs daily from 12 noon and 5pm. It is held at The Dyson Gallery, Royal College of Art, Riverside, Hester Road, London, SW11 4AN. Free Entry.