100 First Women with Anita Corbin

24th April 2019

In our latest blog we met up with Anita Corbin to talk about her 100 First Women photographic exhibition which has inspired visitors to Palace House over the past two months.

Anita was born in Wimbledon in 1958 and although she won her first photographic prize after a school trip aged 10, she originally planned to be an environmental scientist.  However, after deciding to take a year out before going to university, a trip to India, Nepal and Sri Lanka for eight months along with her Olympus Trip 35 camera changed all that.

The adventure opened her eyes to meeting people through the camera lens.  Despite one term at University she knew that wasn’t right for her.    A further year later she enrolled on a photographic degree course in London (1978-1981).  In her final year she won a scholarship with the Sunday Times/Nikon which launched her career, that same year she won a place studying photography at MA level at the Royal College of Art.

Her BA final year project ‘Visible Girls’ went on to tour the country for twenty five years and its current manifestation ‘Visible Girls Revisited’ is now showing just down the road at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds.

Anita’s long career has led her to travel the world and work for the Sunday Times, the Observer magazine and the BBC.  Indeed after only a few moments with Anita you can feel the energy and passion she has for photography.

To celebrate 2018, the centenary of ‘Women winning the Right to Vote’ Anita has created ‘First Women’ 100 colour photographs capturing pioneering women, who have all broken down barriers to become First Women. This impressive collection of metre high portraits now adorn the Moller and Thompson galleries.  In each portrait there are clues to the ‘First’ but what leaps out is the essence of each woman, her passion and her resilience.  As Anita remarked “every woman that I photographed inspired me to keep going with my passion project with insights and golden nuggets of how they became a First”.

fwpalacehouseopens-66 Anita with Matt Hancock MP and Baroness Betty Boothroyd

What was your motivation behind the idea of 100 Women?

The idea came quite suddenly to me as I was approaching my 50th Birthday. I definitely felt I was being ‘called’ to do this work! It was 2008.

I was working with a group of women; we were doing something called a BEE group, using ‘action learning sets’. You all have a chance to say what your challenges and issues are with your business, everyone is in a different sector of business, so we gained perspective from each other.

Given that time and safe space, this massive idea came to me; who are all these First Women I kept hearing about on the radio?   Wouldn’t it be great to create a series of 100 portraits celebrating 100 years of women getting the vote?  I had this vision of a massive celebration in ten years’ time!

I thought, how will I be remembered and how can I leave a legacy as a photographer. I wanted to create a lasting body of work, and in some ways First Women is my grown up statement.

It was ten years in planning. I did some research and no one had done this yet. I thought as a women photographer who had worked in the UK all my life, I was the right woman for the job. It was my calling as a woman photographer to show the impact women have had on UK society over the last one hundred years to show how women can now do everything and be everywhere. Thanks to our ancestors for fighting for the ‘right to vote’. That was my simple message.

Why 100?

Because the 100 years of women’s right to the vote is what I wanted to acknowledge and celebrate. As I am a photographer, I am a visual story teller, I didn’t want it to be about facts and dates, it was more about capturing the energy and the essence of these firsts in the photographs. There is a small caption with each picture and short details in the book but for me it’s about the photographs speaking to the audience and giving the message.

What was the process of your selection and did you aim to have a wide range of professions?

sarahouten Sarah Outen

Yes, I always wanted it to very wide and diverse about subject matter and Firsts from every part of the UK. It’s not a definitive list. I haven’t photographed every First Women in the UK. I’d love to do that. It grew organically as I developed the idea.  I wanted to photograph Baroness Margaret Thatcher, a soft portrait, but I wasn’t able to make contact with her, even though I tried different approaches, a couple of Firsts said no and sadly there were a couple of Firsts I didn’t get to quick enough before they passed away.

When was the First?

The first photograph was taken in November 2009 and I wanted her to be quite random.  I didn’t want to select one ahead of another.  I did a Google Search and the First Woman that came up was Sarah Outen MBE, who was the First Woman and youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean.

Why did you choose colour photographs?

I am colour photographer. I love colour. I like black and white, but it is not my passion.  The colour brings them together as a set because the colour can connect their individual environments and create great juxtapositions between portraits hanging next to each other.

How did you go about planning each photograph and how did you decide the settings with each woman?

cliogould Clio Gould

If I can I try to go beforehand, like the House of Lords, but I am not always able to do that.  I asked for two hours with each sitter. I assured them that they are not going to be in front of the camera for that long as that could freak them out! I needed to get to know them, have a chat over a cup of tea.  It breaks the ice. All the time I am trying to get closer to the person in a human way. I try to find something I can connect with them in a deep way that is not light chit chat.   It’s a very exciting process.

With Clio Gould     I went to her small cottage.   I wanted her to look like she was on stage. I got her to dress in her concert gear, get her make up on and get her Stradivarius out.  But it wasn’t working in the front room so we went into the kitchen and the violin looked perfect on the old kitchen table.  People are more relaxed in their kitchen.

You can’t underestimate the power of chance or fate.

Clio Gould was the First Woman to lead the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

How long did it take to complete the photographs?

The first photo was taken in November 2009 and the last photo was in November 2016. I was planning it from April 2008.

Do you have a particular favourite setting and were any more challenging than others?

They are all so different. That is one of the exciting things for me. You could never predict any of those pictures.  That’s what so lovely about them but also quite edgy.  You are going into the unknown every time you are going out on location, it keeps me creatively sharp! There is nothing like the thrill of being ‘in the zone’ behind the camera, when the magic happens and you connect.

In your personal opinion why do you feel photography is the best median to accurately portray and display these inspirational women and their achievements?

Photography is a very instant connection, eye to eye.  I am the conduit that enables the viewer to see into the eyes of the Firsts. The eye draws you in to the photograph. It makes you feel part of the communication.

Painting can be very moving and emotional but it can be harder to understand what the message is.

It’s about capturing the spirt of the individual and allowing that to speak without my ego taking over too much.  I am the technician in a sense, arranging all the events together but I can’t be too dominating. It’s also a very intuitive process.

Where have you taken the 100 women exhibition on tour and how has it been received?

We launched at the Royal College of Art in Battersea during the summer of 2018. Sixty five real live ! First Women came to the opening night and about twenty relatives of the five deceased Firsts, It was an amazing and emotional atmosphere, it was a perfect summer’s night. I was over the moon!

As the exhibition was Free to the public we had many locals popping in on their way to work, the gym, school, shops etc

As soon as the show launched I had four curators booked in who wanted to exhibit First Women, Roger Watson from The Fox Talbot Museum in Wiltshire and Patricia Hardy, the former curator of Palace House, Bev Ayre from Culture Liverpool and Claire Robinson from St Andrews University.

Lacock Abbey, Wilshire, the home of the Fox Talbot Museum is the birthplace of photography where the first negative was created in the 1830’s by William Henry Fox Talbot.

We open at St George’s Hall Liverpool on 18 June for 3 months, then the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester.  We are touring all through 2019 and then in 2020 down south in Brighton and Exeter. We end up at St Andrews University in October 2020 to round off the year.

The tour could go on depending on venues and funding.

What excites you about staging the exhibition at Palace House, Newmarket?

It’s the first stop on the tour where we are showing the whole hundred and the first purpose built gallery.  The lighting is incredible here and the exhibition is very intense, the portraits come alive with great lighting and they create their own buzz of energy in the room.

Palace House is not known for its photographic portrait exhibitions so it’s great for me to be trailblazing this genre into the world of horseracing and to be able to celebrate the many sportswomen in the collection within a gallery that prides itself on that subject matter. Especially the legendary horse women Charlotte Budd, Lara Prior Palmer and your very own Hayley Turner

What is your next project?

I have two.

We are planning to set up an educational resource called ‘Future Firsts’ appealing to the younger generation. We want to set up a package for schools which won’t just be factual, it will be more about what motivates you?  How you can be the best?  How do you find your niche in life?  We all need a niche in life and to feel we are good at something.

I still want to carry on photographing First Women which is why we are inviting the public for nominations for the next 100 but I have promised myself and my family I won’t start until I get some funding!  I am hoping that a sponsor will come on board fairly soon, there’s an appetite for the collection and anyone associated to First Women will definitely go down in Herstory!


We would like to thank Anita Corbin for her help with the blog and for the photos

Blog by Stephen Wallis, Visitor Services