There is something about the way the eye of a woman falls on one of her own kind. It is full of an awareness of experience, devoid of accidental exploitation or perplexed observance—that distanced watching of flamingos wander about a cage, beautiful birds in a gilded zoo. That knowing gaze is something documented, purposefully or otherwise, by female photographers. You’ve been there. I’ve been there. We know. All of it, encapsulated in a simple frame.
While male photographers can gamely attempt to encapsulate the experience of what it means to be girl, too often it’s a mere piecemeal projection of the various things women are capable of being. There are Steven Meisel’s powerhouse vixens, Juergen Teller’s blown-out and over-exposed icons and ingénues, Paolo Roversi’s beautiful ghosts. These all represent parts of women told in stories too brief. And no matter how close these guys come to getting it—I mean really getting it—there is always a sense of distance, a mark just barely missed.
And then there’s Corrine Day.
Day, who passed away in 2010, was praised within the industry for her raw portrayal of ‘90s grunge, though we would be remiss in tying her aesthetic specifically to a musical movement, because, at least to me, in her fashion photography what Day was so expert in capturing was what it was like being a young woman, a girl. In images like her iconic series on the beach with a pre-supermodel Kate Moss, Day specifically appealed to a remembrance of younger years—that teen era, all budding breasts and schoolboy crushes. Her subjects often perfectly portrayed an almost exasperated femininity (impending womanhood) intertwined with a compulsory playfulness (childhood on the wane). Even through the teen years and into the 20s, when you’re meant to be a grownup, the dichotomy persisted. It was life, in the middle. A woman in transition. To be, or not to be. That was Corrine Day.
Perhaps because Day herself was a former model she was able to create an environment of absolute non-judgment with her subjects. Because the only way to capture images the way Day captured them is to give another person permission to be themselves—not a dolled-up tart or a prop or an archetype—just… yourself. There are ideas of what girls and women should be, and a lot of fashion photography propagates those impossible myths, keeps telling those lies. But Day’s women were women, not merely the idea of a woman. Tired, funny, sloppy, filthy, mean. You could be all of it, because—just like the boys—you were all of it.
It is the frankness, the imperfection, the “grunge,” if you will, in her images that defines the work. And in capturing these moments filled with humor and truth, Day freed the women in her pictures, so often too confined.