Exhibition: 100 First Women Portraits by Anita Corbin

Yesterday afternoon I braved the ravages of Storm Dennis to go and see 100 First Woman, an exhibition of photographs by Anita Corbin that had opened at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery the previous day. All 100 portraits were printed at the same large dimensions and were aligned for the most part in a single row, with occasional short breaks of two parallel rows and one or two breaks of three parallel rows.

As I examined these images of women who had been firsts in a wide variety of fields – from parliament, the military and the law through business and commerce to the arts and sports – I felt simultaneously inspired by their individual achievements and appalled to think how recently these invisible barriers have been broken down. In this respect I feel the project is very successful in highlighting the obstacles that women still face in reaching the top in many areas of human endeavour.

From a technical perspective, I noticed that all or nearly all of the portraits used differential focus but that a significant proportion had the sharpest focus not on the subject’s face but on their clothing or shoulders or hands. The images were made over a ten-year period, and I noticed that there was a higher prevalence of the sharpest focus being not on the face in those with a date of around 2010 or earlier, although it was also the case in a smaller proportion of the later images. It is possible of course that the non-face focal points were deliberately chosen, a point I did consider while examining the images, but for me the ones where the face, and in particular the eyes, were sharpest were the most compelling. A copy of the accompanying book was available for perusal and I did note that this issue was not as noticeable in the book images, so perhaps it is also the result of the portraits being printed at such a large size.

Whether or not the artist intended these off-face focal points, I found it very useful to have my attention drawn to the issue, because it reminded me that if I want my own images to be focused at a specific point I need to make certain that they are, and not just rely on autofocus to find the point for me.

References and resources

Corbin, A. (2020) 100 First Women Portraits. Exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. From 15 February 2020 to 7 June.