Capturing choice

Forty years after leaving Putney High School, acclaimed photographer Anita Corbin returns to mark its contribution to a world in which women can increasingly choose their own futures

Tell us about your professional career so far.

I trained as a photographer at university from 1978–81, and during 1981 I actually won the Nikon/Sunday Times Scholarship. This moment was the beginning of my career.

I started freelancing as a photographer while still studying, and my first published pictures in the magazine – of girls in sport – were on International Women’s Day in 1981, which was quite an appropriate start!

I freelanced for The Sunday Times and went on to The Observer and various other editorial magazines, gradually expanding my client base. I then went to the Royal College of Art to do a postgraduate degree from 1981–83, and I was freelancing throughout that time as well, so it was very busy but exciting.

London in the ’80s was the place to be for graphics, photography and all things to do with design – it was considered the best place in the world to be, so I was very lucky. There was a lot of money sloshing around, especially for commercial work. From the mid-’80s, my now-husband John O’Grady and I set up Corbin O’Grady Studio in Central London doing portraiture, magazine work and projects for blue-chip company annual reports. I also did a lot of travelling with The Sunday Times and The Observer, and in the mid-’80s I flew all over the world with the British Council for their annual report, so you had to be ready to pack a bag and go at short notice. I started working at 22, I’m still working now and I can’t see myself retiring any time soon!

What drew you to photography?

Apparently when I was four I told my cousin that I wanted to be a photographer. My dad was a horticultural photographer in his spare time, showing people how to plant their onions and that kind of thing.

I used to stand there holding the potatoes in a row or whatever and he’d take the picture. Now I love meeting and connecting people, being the catalyst for their message or story – their essence, if you like. For me it’s all about bringing out the best in people. Everybody has something special. Sometimes it takes a little while to tease it out but I think that’s part of the excitement. It’s important to me to create an image that the subject sees as themselves and not just a manufactured artefact.

Why did you decide to put together the Alumnae Portrait Exhibition for Putney High School; what were your highlights?

I was always taking pictures when I was at school with my Instamatic. When I went to a reunion in 2016 – having left 40 years ago – I had a really strong reminiscence of taking pictures around school.

I hadn’t imagined being a photographer then, because I didn’t really do art, I did science.

I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to find all those women who have left Putney High and made a mark? Did they know they’d be a writer from the minute they set foot through the doors at the age of 11, or that they’d be a scientist the moment they entered the biology lab?

That really triggered my interest and I suggested a project based on that to the headmistress when we met at the end of the day.

Last year I had a call: “Right, we want to do it now to mark the 125th anniversary of the school by celebrating the diversity of our women and who they are now.”

Looking at the photographs you see such a huge range of talent: you’ve got Jenny Beavan, an Oscar-winning costumier, and Sophie Simnett, one of the youngest Disney actors in the world. There’s Mary Coombs, one of the first women to work in IT, who’s in her eighties now – that was an eye-opener. Thinking about what’s happened in these lifetimes, and things change in such a short period of time now, really motivated me. Taking still photographs really draws a line in the sand; everything is distilled in that split-second that the shutter opens.

Former RAF Wing Commander Sophy Gardner

What do you consider your biggest achievement so far?

I think being able to be a photographer for 40 years, through feast and famine, has been quite an achievement! The whole of the last 10 years around the First Women exhibition that I’ve been creating and curating has involved a massive amount of organisation, logistics and tenacity. To capture 100 portraits of women around the UK, I have travelled around 100,000 miles! Thankfully, I managed to pull it together in time for the centenary of women getting the vote this year. It was to celebrate that: how far we’ve come as women over the last hundred years. I wanted to capture the possibilities of our lives today. Women have a choice – we can be everywhere and anywhere and do anything and everything.

What was your experience in independent education like at Putney High School?

One thing I feel I’ve taken from my time at Putney – and I’ve noticed this especially over the past 10 years doing First Women – is the conviction that everyone has something to offer and can contribute to a group project, even if one person is leading.

That sort of collaboration was very much focused on at Putney, even though cherishing independence and individualism was also a feature – they really liked it when you came out with another angle on a story or questioned an experiment.

That thing of allowing us to be a little bit rebellious was really important. There was discipline, but it wasn’t heavy-handed, and I think our year group was quite a challenging one. In the mid-’70s there was quite a lot of independence for women.

The pill had only just come in and there were opportunities to go see gigs, out dancing and get into all sorts of trouble really. But Putney allowed a kind of flexibility – they’d let you get away with it so long as it wasn’t too ‘in-your-face’. They didn’t play on guilt, they just made you think about how you could learn from mistakes.

I suppose the school really set me up for life in any avenue that I chose. It was the broad skill-base that we were taught, and the idea that you shouldn’t just accept whatever was on the paper, you should always question it and ask why.

I hope Putney High has a bit of a name for non-conformism because I think often that’s a character that can be squashed in education; you’ve got to have that for ideas to develop, even if it leads to some mistakes.

I hope Putney High has a bit of a name for non-conformism because I think often that’s a character that can be squashed in education; you’ve got to have that for ideas to develop, even if it leads to some mistakes

How else are you keeping in touch with the school?

After the reunion in 2016 we set up a photography competition, the Anita Corbin Award. There were about 12 or 13 entrants for the first award. They had to write an essay and include two or three pictures. I and a couple of teachers were given the chance to choose. The winner wasn’t an art student, which I found interesting because I wasn’t an art student either. That was Antonia Cheema-Grubb, who’s in her final year now.

She was able to come out with me on a few of the assignments when we were photographing the alumnae, and then she had to take a photo of me to make up the dozen, which I thought was excellent. I helped her with the lighting a little, but she knew what she wanted to do, where the location would be and what the composition would be like.

It was a big deal for her to make those decisions and to follow them through.

Her dad is an artist actually, and her mother is the first Asian woman to be a High Court judge, so she’s a first woman herself! Antonia is going to join me for a reception at Speaker’s House, it’s good that she can get involved in one of the more high-profile events to round off this year.