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Corinne Day: rawness and beauty

Corinne Day entered the fashion world by chance when she was only a teen who wanted the travel the world but ended up revolutionising it. 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of her death, and the British Photographer is remembered for her raw, intimate and documentary-style images, which defined the 90s, launched Kate Moss’ career, and set a precedent for a new style of fashion photography.

Born in west London on February 19, 1962, Day was raised along with her brother by her grandmother. Their parents had divorced when she was five, and theirs was not a healthy environment for kids to grow up —she claimed her dad was a professional bank robber, and that her mother ran a motel.

She left home at 16, and wanted to go abroad, but had no money, so she started working, first as a bank assistant, and later as an international mail courier. During one flight he met a photographer who suggested her to become a model, and she did, though she got jobs only for catalogues, as her beauty had nothing to do with the beauty seen in runways and fashion magazines.
Kate Moss @ Corinne Day
Kate Moss. 1989 @ Corinne Day
When Day was living in Japan in 1985, she met an Australian guy in a subway, Mark Szaszy, who was at the time also a model, and they never separated since. He had a keen interest in film and photography and taught her to use the camera. They travelled to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and two years later they moved to a cheap pension in Milan, where Day started taking photography seriously.

She experimented and photographed her friends, who were also models, in their everyday lives. She crossed the line and captured what was behind the luxury and the glamour that shaped their jobs. She rather focused on their poor salaries: living in dumps, struggling to pay the rent, dirt, drugs, shabby clothes and scruffy styles. She said of that time that they lived “on bread and wine and spliffs.”

Day’s got her first job as a photographer when she returned to London five years later and went to talk to Phil Bicker, the artistic director of The Face magazine. When he asked her why should they hire her, she was witty and bright: they didn’t have any female photographers.

She hardly knew anyone to photograph in the city, so she approached model agencies in search of fresh faces, and found at Storm a blurry polaroid of a 15-year-old that caught her attention. It was Kate Moss, then an unknown teenager from the suburbs, just like she had been a few years before. They became so close that they even moved together.

When they shoot their first editorial for The Face,  3rd Summer of Love, no one could have expected that the minimalistic pictures taken in the grey beach of Camber Sands —with the slouchy and skinny model laughing in the sand, semi-nude, at the centre of the photograph, with the landscape almost invisible— would propel their careers. But in the nineties, things were rapidly changing, and youth and subculture movements gained an unprecedented force in the art scene and the editorial industry, with magazines like i-D and Ray Gun, where Day found a place for her images. Until Vogue reached her.

Under Exposed, the lingerie fashion shot that British Vogue commissioned Day, featured Moss again. This time the images were taken in the model’s apartment, which she shared with her then-boyfriend, the photographer Mario Sorrenti, with whom she’d argued just before the shoot, something that was visible in her expression. The results were fresh and delicate images, but also bitter, and even desolating, of Moss in embroidered underwear in an almost empty apartment.

Vogue had never published something alike. Vulnerability in its purest form, naturality, and no artifice, plus a model opposite to Cindy Crawford, the symbol of the beauty standard that the fashion industry projected. So the images caused a media scandal. They were labelled as “hideous”, and “exploitative”, Day was accused of child pornography, and the term “heroin chic” blew up and put her in the centre of the debate.

After that, both Vogue and Moss stopped working with Day, but she took a step aside from fashion anyway and focused on what people had not seemed to understand: a more realistic and documentary approach of photography. She spent the next seven years photographing her friends and went touring with the band Pusherman. The photographs were published in 2000 in Diary, her first book, an intimate and beautiful chronicle of her surroundings.

Corinne Day was neither interested in the commercial side of photography nor the artificiality, opulence, and perfection values of the fashion industry. Her idea of photography was more inclusive —she found beauty in anyone and any situation, everything could be interesting—. Her style was all about honesty, realism, and intimacy. She formed close relationships with their models and photographed them being themselves, at their places, lying on their couches, with little or no make-up and hairstyling, sometimes using their clothes or second hand. And because she wanted to put the person at the centre, she chose empty and monochromatic spaces like everyday environments: a dull street, a football field, an abandoned building.

When Day discovered Nan Goldin and Larry Clark she found in them someone to admire and whose work could validate hers. “Photography is getting as close as you can to real life, showing us things we don’t normally see. These are people’s most intimate moments, and sometimes intimacy is sad”, she declared, as an answer to the critiques she received for the bleak scenes that she often captured. The camera became a part of her body to the point that when she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1996, she made Szaszy photograph her in bed, and the images appeared in Diary. After she received surgery and recovered, Day went back to fashion photography and allowed herself more colour, elements, and textures. She worked again for Vogue and with Moss, photographed Sofia Coppola, Natalie Portman, and Tilda Swinton, among others, and her work was exhibited in museums like the Tate Modern, the Saatchi Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery.

In 2010 the brain tumour returned and Day received treatment, thanks to the fundraising campaign that their friends organised selling limited-edition prints of her photographs, but it was not effective, and she died on August 27, 2010.

Three years later her second book, which featured unseen photographs she had taken for 20 years, was published. “I just do what I love, and I don’ really care what anyone else thinks”, she declared in 2006. “If they like it, that’s just a bonus.”
Linda Evangelista for Vogue May 1992 @ Corinne Day