“I’ve always known what I’ve liked and I’ve always gone in the opposite direction of everyone else. I get bored easily of seeing the same thing over and over.” – Corrine Day
Few women have changed the face of fashion like the late, great Corrine Day. Beginning her 20 year career as a self-taught photographer in the eighties, Day grew to become one of fashion’s most celebrated, prominent and well-loved characters – not only for her groundbreaking work with publications such as Vogue, i-D and The Face, but for her gritty, personal documentary photographs which captured a frank and disarming snapshot of nineties post-rave London from the clubs and council estates where they transpired. Four years on from her untimely death in 2010, the anti-glamour photographer’s unquestionable nous for capturing glimpses of happiness, sadness and incredible beauty in everyday, kitchen sink situations remain as seminal now as the day they were taken.
A one-time international model, Day begun to toy with cameras in the mid-eighties whilst bored on set in the company of Mark Szaszy – the former male model who would later become her husband and treasured life partner. With no formal training, she began shooting her surroundings with a natural instinct that would follow her throughout her career. In 1989, Day had an interview with Phil Bicker, art director of The Face. Through Bicker, Day met stylists Anna Cockburn and Melanie Ward, with whom she was to create some of her most iconic images. Photographing an unknown 14-year-old Kate Moss, plucked from the fringes of Croydon, the unlikely cockney duo shot the notorious ‘Third Summer Of Love’ editorial (had the second really ended?) for The Face whilst having a lark together in Cambersands. The eight-page shoot saw a rambunctious Moss frolicking on the beach clad in Romeo Gigli, Joseph Tricot, battered Birkenstocks and the most magnificent (albeit impractical) feather head-dress from the now defunct Covent Garden boutique World.
“I was just having a laugh,” Moss is quoted saying of the shoot. “Corinne just wanted to bring out everything I hated when I was 15. My bow legs, the mole on my breast, the way I laughed.”
She would then take Moss with her to Vogue, subsequently forming a formidable friendship that would last until Corrine’s untimely death (Corrine is credited with being the first photographer to shoot Moss for a Vogue cover.) In 1993, Day was commissioned by newly appointed editor, Alexandra Shulman, to inject some much needed reality into proceedings. In the UK, Bjork’s debut portrayed the Icelandic songstress messy haired and clad in an oversized grunge knit, Blur had just released their seminal album Modern Life Is Rubbish and acid house raves were evolving into darker jungle and happy hardcore all-nighters. Cool Britannia was just around the corner, magazines like i-D, Penthouse and RayGun were reporting from the counter-culture underbelly whilst Vogue still touted the impossible and antiquated beauty of supermodels Cindy, Naomi, and Michelle.
Shulman was to receive the much-needed injection of gritty realism that Condé Nast so desired. A waifish and milky-limbed Moss posed nonchalantly in the scruffy Brewer St flat Day occupied at the time for Under-Exposure. Grubby carpets, visible pubic hair, an uncovered duvet, tan tights pulled halfheartedly over sheer underwear. This was the first anti-glamour shoot Vogue had displayed of its kind. The on-paper lingerie shoot took a life of it’s own, paying homage to Day’s haunting personal photography style outside of the fashion world. Corinne Day later said that she took the famous ‘fairy lights’ shot on a day when Kate had been crying after a fight with her then-boyfriend, resulting in the vulnerability that turned this into one of the most iconic and controversial images produced in the ’90s. It’s the most reproduced image of the entire editorial, but the clothes (pink Liza Bruce vest and Hennes chiffon knickers) are rarely remembered, or credited.
The strapline on the March issue of Vogue that year read ‘London style…London Girls!’, but upon its release, the tabloids whirred into a frenzy, proclaiming the shoot promoted ‘heroin chic’ and ‘bordered on paedophilic’. In the wake of controversy, Day retreated from fashion, choosing instead to tour America with genre band Pusherman, documenting her travels in her lo-fi, grunge aesthetic. The result was her celebrated tome and exhibition of works of works, Diary. Released in 2000, the book contained graphic, raw and honest photos of Day and her friends – most prominently unlikely muse Tara St. James.
Shot amongst the shabby sofas and peeling wallpaper of run-down tenements of Soho and its surrounding areas, the collection documented the sex, drugs and squatting of her bohemian circle of young dreamers. We see Tara crying, smoking, nursing her baby, running around the flat in a string of tinsel, laughing amongst a grotty 3-piece bathroom. The photographs would be deemed voyeuristic were it not for Day’s proximity to and involvement with her subjects; in a harrowing few entries she documents her own brain-tumor diagnosis in 1996, preparal for surgery, and later recovery. By then she was extremely ill and no grizzly details were spared, omitted, censored, a true testament to her unquestionable skill for spotting beauty amongst ruins and diamonds in the rough.
Corinne was diagnosed with a slow growing, grade 2 brain tumor called in November 1996, during which time she was given a prognosis of 8 years to live. Despite her sudden death in 2010, Day’s presence is still felt in the industry today – so often we flick through a fashion glossy and spot some reference, homage or small semblance of Corinne’s celluloid thumbprint. To view her photos is to be invited into her world, one of honest realism – a raw energy that photographers still seek 20 years on.