September 4 2010: A lover of the grunge and charity-shop look – often modelled by Kate Moss – the late Corinne Day was a true pioneer

I hadn’t been working on The Face magazine for long when, some time in the early Nineties, Corinne Day dramatically locked herself in a cubicle in the toilet. She was in there with several sheets of negatives, swearing that she wouldn’t come out unless she was allowed to control the final choice of photos. I was amused but also oddly impressed. She didn’t seem to be having a tantrum; she was, instead, a stubborn-as-hell photographer who believed that no one knew her work better than she did.

Day was 28 in 1990; she was 48 when she died of a brain tumour just over a week ago, on August 27. She had been seriously ill since collapsing in New York in 1996 during a shoot for Interview magazine. Yet she didn’t publicise her illness; according to her boyfriend, Mark Szaszy, whom she met in 1985, she was worried that the work would dry up. And she couldn’t imagine not being able to work.

I never became close friends with Day, but I knew her well enough to imagine her refusal to give in to the cancer, her absolute determination to keep death at bay, to keep producing photo after photo. She was a compulsive photographer who lived her life through the lens; it’s probably how she made sense of the world. When she had the seizure in New York, she insisted on Szaszy taking photos of her arriving at hospital; having a brain tumour diagnosed; on her way to theatre; in theatre. When the photos were published in a book, Diary, in 2001 they were as candid and moving as the photos that Annie Leibovitz took of Susan Sontag in the last weeks of Sontag’s life.

Day, who claimed that her mother ran a brothel and who was brought up by her nan in the West London suburb of Ickenham, wasn’t afraid to show the darker side of life. Even as a fashion photographer she was a realist. Her first Kate Moss session, published by The Face in July 1990, with the coverline “The 3rd Summer of Love”, was gloriously carefree. I had just started at the magazine and was more into music than models, but I still sensed that the black and white shoot — with a 15-year-old Kate giggling, naked and clutching a straw hat at the chilly British seaside — was the start of something. A shift, perhaps, from Eighties shoulder pads to Nineties naturalism, from designer labels to second-hand clothes.

Phil Bicker, who as art director of The Face commissioned the “Summer of Love” session after seeing one of Day’s Polaroids of Moss with her arms flung around a boy, says that the photos “broke the mould because they broke glamour”. Like Day, he came from a suburb of West London. He related to the suburban girl in the photos. Yet he had no idea that the pictures of Moss, the Croydon girl who still lived with her mum, would have such an impact: “We thought of Kate as the face of The Face, not as the face of the fashion industry. No one ever dreamt that she would challenge the übersupermodels like Linda Evangelista.”

But Szaszy, who is shaky and tearful but who wants to talk to me about Day for this piece, says that she championed Moss from the outset because of her own experience as a model. “I first saw Corinne back in 1985; we were both on a train leaving Tokyo. She was wearing a big white dress; she was feminine and beautiful. Then, when we both stepped off the train in a small town, I saw she was wearing Dr Martens boots. I thought she was interesting. So we started to walk and talk. We talked and talked, discovering that we had similar taste in music and film. We then found out that we were both models living in the same apartment block.”

He laughs, pauses as though lost in the memory, and starts again. “I was fed up with my flatmate and Corinne spontaneously said, ‘Come stay with me’. We had a blast together. She had an unusual sense of humour, sharp and dark. I fell in love.”

He drifts off again. His voice is cracking. “Corinne was so amazing. How could I not love her? She was so stubborn; she would sacrifice anything to maintain her vision. She was a real radical. She certainly didn’t fear much. Apart from death. We’ve been through hell together these last few years.She kept her illness to herself, refused to give in to it.” I ask Szaszy, who nursed Day every day for the last two years of her life when she was unable to work, if we should stop talking. But he wants to keep going.

He wants to celebrate the life of the woman he fell in love with 25 years ago. He resumes the story of when they first met in Tokyo. “Corinne got a big modelling job in Tokyo. “Corinne got a big modelling job with Guess jeans in Los Angeles. And so off she went. I wrote to her constantly. She was sent home pretty quickly because the look in the Eighties was Amazonian — all big breasts and curves — and none of the clothes fitted her slight frame. A few years later, when she saw a Polaroid of Kate at Storm Models, Corinne immediately related to her. She wanted to make her famous.”

Day succeeded in making Moss — and herself — famous and infamous. The anti-glamour Face photos, styled by a young Melanie Ward before she went on to work for Harper’s Bazaar in New York, pioneered a look that became known as both grunge (echoing the emergence of anti-Establishment bands such as Nirvana in the US) and waif (the superwaif Moss looked girlish and androgynous next to Evangelista et al). Day became part of a new breed of photographers, including David Sims, Juergen Teller and Nigel Shafran, who dressed ungroomed models in vintage clothes. Six months later those same clothes would appear on designer catwalk shows in Paris and New York.

In 1993 Day shot a series of pictures of Moss wearing grotty knickers and vests for Vogue. The photos show a young woman — in her own flat — who is vulnerable yet strong. She is no Lolita yet she is clearly flaunting her sexuality. Shot by a man they might seem exploitative; shot by Day — a woman working in a predominantly male world — they are provocative and slightly disturbing but not, I think, offensive. And yet they became known as “heroin chic”, were dismissed as pornographic and even, somewhat ridiculously, as appealing to the paedophile market.

Bicker says Day occasionally presented herself as something of an ingénue. “Corinne always suggested that there wasn’t an intent to be controversial. I’m not sure. She also suggested her photos were ‘caught’ moments, but sometimes she manipulated her subjects to get what she wanted. I saw her construct and carefully rework photos till she got what she wanted. If people realised how heavily directed some of those pictures were, she would get a lot more credit for them.”

I always saw Day as a surrogate older sister to Moss: they shared the same slight frames, the long hair, the effortless chic. Like Nan Goldin, the American photographer whose intensely personal and raw photos she admired, Day got close to her subjects (which inevitably led to fallings-out, even, for years after the Vogue shoot, with Moss; Day, like all mavericks, was never easy). Susie Babchick, who worked with Day as her agent and producer from 1999 until her illness prevented her from working in late 2008, says that the photographer saw her work as “an adventure with friends” and was never happier than when she was “creating a tribe”.

Rosemary Ferguson, the model Day spotted in McDonald’s and who became her second muse after Moss, says that they became good friends. “She had her clutch of girls to whom she was very loyal. Whatever other photographers were doing, Corinne did her own thing; she didn’t see glamour as beautiful, she liked warts ’n’ all. We always had a great time but she was the most stubborn, the most determined photographer — and the least concerned that I was freezing my arse off at 2am. In fact, the later it got and the grumpier I became, the more excited she was: ‘Fantastic! You look pissed off and grumpy!’ Photos were always the most important thing to her.”

Although Day did advertising work — for Gap, Max & Co and Hermès — she wasn’t about the money, partly because she was too opinionated. Early on in her career she turned down a high-profile job with H&M because she didn’t like the clothes. And partly because, to her, photography wasn’t about gloss and artifice.

Szaszy remembers Day taking some of her first photos when they were working as models in Milan: “Corinne saw a beauty in the desperate models living in pensioni — surrounded by fashion magazines but living in poverty. She photographed them in their underwear, with bare feet, smoking.”

Her fascination with gritty realism led to a series of photos documenting the life of Tara St Hill, a single mother living in a Stoke Newington squat. The images of St Hill — naked, trashed, happy, sad — are brutally honest, uncompromising and the closest that Day has come to Goldin’s celebrated oeuvre. They might not be as iconic as the early shots of Kate Moss but they are no less important.

St Hill met Day in the mid-Eighties and they became best friends. Szaszy suggested that she become a stylist. “Corinne and I were always going up the markets and shopping for old clothes. We had so many adventures — mad trips with a bag of clothes and a model. We often worked for no money, but neither of us minded. Corinne loved the people she shot, and it was always fun, but we did sometimes lose jobs because she always fought her corner to the bitter end.”

Day took photos of everyone, all the time. It was natural for her to shoot St Hill’s life. “I never felt she was taking intimate photos. Her camera was always in her hand; it became her second hand. I was 99 per cent cool about having those photos published. I had my own place but I’d sleep on her settee because we’d be up half the night watching films and looking through books. Then I’d curse Mark for waking me up by making fresh carrot and apple juice.”

Day loved to show extraordinary girls in ordinary set-ups — she couldn’t get enough of Kate Moss in scuzzy flats. She was drawn to the interior worlds of ordinary young women suchas St Hill who played out their private dramas in front of her lens. She may have manipulated shots rather more than she cared to let on — which is, as Bicker points out, no bad thing — but more than anything she sought the truth.

Bizarrely, for an internationally acclaimed photographer, Day’s life was not so removed from that of her subjects. In 1995 I asked her to shoot the cover image for my book Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock. She agreed to do so free — the publishers had no money — in her flat, with the American model and musician Sybil Buck. Tara St Hill styled her in a washed-out grey T-shirt, skinny black jeans and Converse trainers — a look that epitomised the androgynous, grungy style of the mid-Nineties. The flat, in Soho’s Brewer Street, was pretty basic. Szaszy was around; he was directing videos for Oasis and working on a decade-long documentary of his girlfriend simply called Corinne Day Diary, which was completed in 2002 and included personal footage of hospital visits. They were one of those couples who did pretty much everything together.

After weeks of frantic discussion Day was calm and relaxed on the night of the shoot. She joked with Buck, pushed her to do exactly what she wanted. When it came to choosing the cover image I remembered the toilet-cubicle incident and deferred to Day’s better judgment. It was hardly a tough call. Despite the Vogue controversy, she was still one of the most influential fashion photographers in the world.

In the decade before she was forced to give up work, Day worked flat out. Though everyone around her thought that she was cheating death, it’s almost as though she knew she had to pack everything in. Just in case. All the talk of drug-taking and general debauchery that had shadowed her in the Nineties faded into the background. Ironically for such a rebel, she became part of the photography establishment. Her work was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Modern and the Saatchi Gallery. She shot Moss again for Vogue. In 2007 she was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to shoot an original session with Moss. The sequence of nine photos that she produced seemed to ignore the model’s status as one of the world’s most photographed women. They show Moss as thoughtful and unusually serious. Day said she “suggested to Kate we have a conversation about a serious subject. The subject revealed her true feelings and in turn defined her character.” Moss revealed her feelings. Day understood how to capture them.

Bicker, who now works in New York, says that models can look great on a card but give nothing in a shoot. The combination of Moss and Day, however, was electric. “When I met Kate after that Summer of Love shoot at Camber Sands, she became a living, breathing version of Corinne’s photos. Corinne could somehow capture the spirit of her subjects, and that’s almost impossible to do. She will always be remembered as the photographer who took the first photos of Kate Moss, but she also had huge integrity and she really cared about her work. For her, success was measured not by other people, but by yourself.”

Earlier this year Day left the Soho flat and moved to a cottage in Buckinghamshire with Szaszy. He never left her side. And now she is gone, but her photographs remain. He says that they had so much left to do. He jokes about a song that they recorded in which her voice sounded surprisingly sexy. And a film script they were working on about her early adult life . He is beyond bereft. He is going to take a holiday, clear his head. And when he comes back he will look through his girlfriend’s vast catalogue of work and get it ready for an exhibition. “It will be tough . . . but I’m going to love it because her work is amazing.”