Pin It
Penthouse Corinne Day 1997 Rosemary Ferguson
Rosemary Ferguson by Corinne Day for Penthouse, 1997Courtesy of Corinne Day archive

When Corinne Day shot for Penthouse

In 1997, the seminal photographer shot for the famous softcore mag – the team behind the images reveal the story of the shoot for the first time

Penthouse and Corinne Day are two names you don’t expect to find in the same sentence. But so it was that in 1997 the renowned photographer (whose raw style blended the worlds of fashion and documentary, and would come to define an entire era of British image-making until her death in 2010) accepted a job shooting for a newly-revamped version of the soft-core mag. At its helm was Michelle Olley of Skin Two, a staple of London’s fetish press, who had been brought on board to “make porn cool” – applying the style of publications like The Face to Penthouse’s tired top shelf aesthetic.

Despite Olley’s own good intentions, the newly revamped Penthouse didn’t last long (it ran until late 1998, while Olley herself left after four months), but it’s partly that sense of the short-lived which makes these unearthed images – the first of two shoots by Day for the magazine – so special. They emerged from a moment of late 90s optimism, a determination to reclaim the masculine gaze of pornography and reconcile it with art, beauty and the energy of London at the time. Here, Olley, stylist Tara St Hill and hairstylist Neil Moodie revisit the series, shot over a weekend in the Welsh countryside.

TARA ST HILL, STYLIST

“Porn in those days had become tacky and a bit of a joke – it wasn’t the soft focus images of the 70s we remembered, it felt harder and a little soulless. Corinne had met the editor of Penthouse at a Vivienne Westwood party, and came home very excited telling me they had asked her to shoot for the magazine. We relished the idea of the project and were bouncing ideas around straight away. 

We looked back to the Penthouse magazines of the 60s and 70s. Some of the images were quite stunning, not just girls in tacky underwear with their legs open or grabbing at their boobs – the light was soft, the pictures artistic. We decided to pay homage to that era and wanted to shoot a girl in a rapeseed field topless, but to put a spin on it we decided we wanted the girl to have a boyish figure. Rosemary Ferguson was perfect – stunningly beautiful, with an amazing presence and the perfect body for what we wanted. 

“I remember Rose felt awkward so I made everyone there strip down to our underwear” – Tara St Hill

We decided to go to Wales and got our friend Andy Frank the lead singer of the band Pusherman to drive us up. We stayed in a little cottage and the surroundings were beautiful. The only difference (with this shoot) was instead of putting Rose in an outfit we wanted her topless. I remember Rose felt awkward so I made everyone there – Corinne, Neil, myself and Andy – strip down to our underwear. It was so funny that it all just fell into place and happened quite naturally. The styling was really simple so it looked natural not staged – some vintage flower swimming trunks or some Levi jeans, some friendship bands around her wrist. 

I love the shoot, it’s one of my favourites. It holds a special place in my heart as there are so many funny memories, the pictures turned out just how we had hoped. There’s a timeless quality to the images and Rose looks gorgeous but has this edge. We always knew the magazine may lose their shit when they saw a model who had a boyish figure and not that typical porn body, but that for me was the thing that made it what it was – it was about her energy and personality, and at the end of the day that made those pictures so special.”

MICHELLE OLLEY, PENTHOUSE DEPUTY EDITOR

“It was 1997, the Tories had finally lost their grip on the reins of power and Jarvis had just bum-rushed Michael Jackson at the Brits, so we were pretty optimistic that anything was possible. If I remember rightly, we wanted to create a magazine that guys would buy but their girlfriends would read and enjoy as well – a beautiful, funny, envelope-pushing magazine which chimed with the times, without insulting the intelligence or aesthetics of anyone reasonably open-minded. At the beginning we were going around London talking up a storm about ‘reinventing pornography’ – oh, the folly of youth. 

(Corinne’s) work had a ‘realness’ and beauty that was the antithesis of traditional pin ups – and it also fitted beautifully with the original Penthouse aesthetic. When Bob Guccione started Penthouse, it was a rebellious, 1960s magazine that was an antidote to the more 1950s, structured, manicured beauty of Playboy. It was radical at the time to see ‘natural’ beauty – and pubic hair! We wanted to evoke that spirit, and Corinne was the best person to do that. We couldn't believe it when she agreed to do it! It was a massive coup for our launch issue. 

“We wanted to create a magazine that guys would buy but their girlfriends would read and enjoy as well – a beautiful, funny, envelope-pushing magazine which chimed with the times”

I remember we gave Corinne a load of original Penthouses that we'd found in the back of a ropey old ‘bookshop’ in Soho to look through – she was fascinated by the lighting, and how much of it was outdoors. I also remember when she came by with the proofs, how excited she was with the results – the yellow in the fields worked brilliantly. 

(The shoot) is evocative of a particular moment – 1997 – more than an era, I think. People were taking chances. Fashion and culture were feeling confident. Looking back, that whole ‘Britpop’, ‘New Labour’ thing looks pretty tarnished. Certainly, the Penthouse relaunch was a short-lived experiment in trying to make something ‘better’ than what had gone before. For the past two decades, whenever I’m asked to sum up what went wrong, I usually say ‘I thought I’d been brought in to do i-D magazine with pants off. Turns out, they wanted Loaded magazine. With pants off.” It went downhill pretty quick for me, from that realisation... I resigned at four in the morning by fax the night of the launch party.”

NEIL MOODIE, HAIRSTYLIST

“I remember when Corinne contacted us all and said, ‘Look, I’ve been asked to shoot for Penthouse – would you be interested?’ and we were all like, ‘Yeah, how amazing!’ I must admit, we were quite shocked – the pictures are quite gritty and we wondered whether they were right for Penthouse, but I think Corinne just seized the opportunity.

She wasn’t even sure if Rosemary was going to accept or not, but Rosemary was really happy to do it because Corinne wanted it to be very tasteful, she said ‘I don’t want it to be vulgar in any way.’ She had always been a big fan of celebrating women’s bodies and beauty. As a female photographer, she said that men don’t photograph women in the same way women do, men see them more as a sexual object, whereas women see the female form as quite beautiful. 

Corinne had seen some pictures randomly of this house in Wales – for her it epitomised the British countryside, which she didn’t feel she could get just outside of London. I always remember that the main thing was how we were going to make Rosemary look a little bit like a 70s Cadbury’s Flake girl, but a modern version – that was the premise for it, really.

“She had always been a big fan of celebrating women’s bodies and beauty. As a female photographer, she said that men don’t photograph women in the same way women do” – Neil Moodie

We were all really good friends and actually it felt like we had all gone on a mini road trip rather than we had gone on a shoot! Because we had spent a long weekend in Wales and hung out and had a laugh and taken pictures. We’d get drunk in the evenings – there’s actually a few pictures that were taken then, one with Tara with tinsel that we put on a Christmas card!

There was another that ended up in Corinne’s book Diary of Corinne and Tara play fighting on the floor because we were a bit drunk, and I took that picture. Lots of other things came out of it that weren’t necessarily planned. 

It totally coins a time for me in terms of hanging out with Corinne who was a really close friend of mine. You know, when I look back now I just remember how much fun I used to have working with her. And a lot of her shoots were like that, it never was a chore. They are such beautiful pictures and don’t feel pornographic to me – I just see them and feel that we had such a lovely time and we got such a lovely set of pictures from it. For me they just remind me of that moment, that weekend. And how brilliant that it’s all recorded and we’ve all got those memories now, especially with the fact that Corinne passed away. We can look at them and it just reminds us of that time.”

Special thanks to Susie Babchick and Mark Szaszy.

Subscribe to the Dazed newsletterGet the day on Dazed straight to your inbox