Warning: Some images featured in this article are considered NSFW.
Fashion photographer Corinne Day is the photographer who reflected the attitudes of the anti-fashion movement most distinctly, with a raw, unpolished style that depicted her models without embellishment. Informed by her own negative experiences as a model, Day sought to strip away the veneer of glamor that characterized fashion photography before her and inject some reality into a world of dishonest fantasy. The legacy of the legendary photographer can be explored through her style, collaborators, and controversy.
Having dropped out of school at the age of 16, Day bounced between jobs until she was prompted to pursue modeling in a chance conversation with a photographer on an airline flight. She continued as a catalog model for a number of years before meeting fellow model Mark Szaszy on a train in Japan in 1985. In the subsequent years Szaszy taught Day how to use a camera, and the couple moved together to Milan in 1987. During this period, Day began to develop her signature candid style, taking casual photographs of her model friends while looking for magazine work.
“The Third Summer of Love,” her first editorial work, was finally published in The Face magazine in July 1990. The editorial depicted a half-undressed Kate Moss laughing alone on the beach. The photos do not look like a formal magazine editorial; the casual manner in which Moss is posed and photographed looks incredibly natural relative to the manufactured shoots of Day’s contemporaries. Day was formally staking her claim on a new style with this editorial. This period marked the beginning of Day and Moss’s working relationship. Day was only ever sent new, inexperienced models by casting agencies, and she picked Moss from Storm modeling agency’s lineup due to her similarities to herself. Moss was, by the standards of the time, an awkward model, and was too skinny and short for most magazines’ desires. However, seeing herself in Moss, Day chose to photograph Moss and would continuously shoot her over the subsequent years. They looked similar, shared music tastes, and both awkwardly fit clothes - the pair was perfectly matched.
"...really, I really just want to take snaps of whats happening in front of me, rather than being a fashion photographer. " - Corinne Day in 'Diary' documentary from 2003.
Following this success, Day moved to London, and began a close collaborative relationship with stylist Melanie Ward. Ward and Day shared many tastes, including a mutual love of vintage clothes, and their stylistic overlap allowed the two to work with an incredible degree of synergy. Among their most iconic editorials together was The Face’s 1993 editorial “England’s Dreaming,” with model-muses George and Rosemary photographed in George’s apartment and George wearing his own clothes. Everything about the shoot was casual and organic, encapsulating Day’s casual, documentarian style perfectly.
Day shot one other iconic editorial in 1993, entitled “Under Exposed.” Moss was once again the subject, this time photographed in her own apartment and wearing only ill-fitting lingerie. The photos are stark, eschewing the flirtatious confidence normally associated with lingerie shoots in favor of a vulnerability that verges on tragedy - Moss looks closer to tears than laughter in these photos. In fact, Moss had just been fighting with her boyfriend prior to the shoot, and the sadness depicted in these images was entirely natural. The photos quickly incited controversy, especially in the context of the “heroin chic” debate, with critics calling the images exploitative and claiming that they glamorized eating disorders. This controversy would become a recurring problem for Day, who eventually withdrew from fashion into music and her own autobiographical photography to escape the criticism.
Concurrently, both Kate Moss and Melanie Ward stopped working with Day. Both women were, at that point, working in establishment high fashion environments from which Day felt excluded, driving a wedge between the creative aspirations of them and Day. Each also had individual career disputes with Day. Moss’s modeling agency objected to the rawness with which Day photographed her, which departed drastically from the typical level of retouching in photography of the era. Ward criticized Day for taking her work too personally - an allegation which Day herself admitted to be true - and ceased their partnership as a consequence.
During her withdrawal period from fashion, Day had her first encounter with cancer. In 1996, she went to sleep one night and woke up shaking uncontrollably. She was rushed to the hospital, and awoke once again surrounded by doctors. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was immediately prepared for surgery. Day asked the friend accompanying her to document the entire process with her camera, and these photographs are included as some of the most emotional images in her autobiographical photo book “Diary.” Fortunately, the surgery was successful, and life returned to relative normalcy for Day.
Day was pulled back into fashion photography through a budding friendship with now legendary stylist Panos Yiapanis. Day met Yiapanis while he was studying art in London. When they met, Day showed Yiapanis some of her earlier photographs. The future stylist was drawn to the grittiness of her photography and begged her to return to the fashion world in full force. She agreed so long as he joined her, and the pair’s joint epitomization of the anti-fashion attitude produced some of the most definitional editorial photos for the movement. To this day, Panos frequently credits Day as the person who opened the door for his entry into the fashion industry. Around the same time, Day and Moss reunited, and Day shot the iconic photograph of Moss in a Rick Owens distressed leather jacket from Day’s own wardrobe, which was published in French Vogue in 2001. This photo would prove instrumental in fueling Owens’s ascent into fashion stardom, with the subsequent years turning his small-scale West Hollywood venture into an international fashion business.
Tragically, the return of her illness would cut Day’s life abruptly short. The previous surgery had been successful, but the cancer returned in 2009. Despite attempted treatment, the cancer killed her in 2010. Supposedly, she was buried in the leather jacket from the iconic 2001 Vogue photo. Her photographs are left behind as her legacy.
Even today, the photography style of Corinne Day remains distinctly recognizable. Her photographs are characterized by a meticulously crafted messiness, with clothes and makeup carefully executed to create the illusion of rawness. The resulting photos were almost accessible, kept just barely out of reach by the beauty of her models themselves. Her photos were frequently taken in unassuming locations - often the models’ own homes - and subjects often wore their own clothes or vintage garments from Day’s own wardrobe. Day was resistant to the polished finishes that were expected at the time, favoring instead real intimacy and vulnerability from her models - a preference which on multiple occasions drew the ire of the agencies of the models with whom she worked. Despite their protests, her style led to some of the most iconic fashion photography of the 1990s and 2000s, a beacon of reality in a sea of made-up fantasy.
Day’s work was criticized at the height of the heroin chic craze as pornographic, exploitative, and glamorizing drug use. However, her critics fundamentally misunderstood her role in the creation of these images. Day was reacting against her earlier experiences in front of the camera as a model, resenting the way photographers always transformed her into someone she was not and seeking to avoid the same treatment of her own models. She wiped away the made-up glamor of 1980s fashion photography and revealed the tragedy and pain of the girls behind the facade. The images critics found so discomforting were not constructed by her - they were there all along, a product of an industry seeking younger and younger models in increasingly vulnerable positions. This vulnerability was, in a sense, autobiographical, reflecting her own resentment towards the photographers who misrepresented her when taking her picture. Day presented viewers with the harsh reality underneath the veneer of confidence and ease they were used to. Audiences were content to consume the content in front of them when that exploitation was hidden - only when forced to reckon with it did they object.
Day’s images leave both photography and fashion with a legacy which cannot be overlooked. Her distinctive style epitomized the anti-fashion movement, intensifying the emotions of both the clothes and the people she photographed. In an era when airbrushed facades have returned to dominance in fashion photography, her work feels as necessary and refreshing as it was at the start of her career, and her photos will continue to shine as a beacon of reality in a sea of artificiality.
For those interested in learning more about Corinne Day's work, we encourage you to watch this documentary from 2003 that was created by her husband which gives an inside look on her personal life and behind the scenes video from photoshoots over the decades.
Author: Chris Ziebert
Scans/Content Sourcing: Khan Delin