Joan E. Biren, known as JEB, had no choice but to crowd-source and self-publish her book on lesbian photography, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, in 1979. Despite many feminist gains, publishers weren’t keen on releasing a book that depicted lesbians living authentically. Furthermore, presses were apprehensive about the word “Lesbian” in the title: printing the word — still loaded today, despite so much progress made — on the book’s cover caused concern that the women depicted in the images would take legal action for being “accused” of lesbianism. JEB was — and is — a professional: anticipating such concerns, she’d already gathered model releases from the women who were featured in the book.
We’re extremely lucky to witness the re-release of JEB’s Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians by Anthology Editions in 2021. The time couldn’t be more ripe. JEB’s tireless art and activism has reminded the world that lesbians exist and that we are going to keep pushing against the silencing, persecution and repression that continues to be inflicted upon us today. Our existence is resistance. Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians is as delicate as it is revolutionary. The gentle documentation of lesbian lives through JEB’s observational eye is testament to the mutual respect between herself and the lesbians she portrays.
JEB doesn’t portray a counterfeit version of these people for any particular agenda. She doesn’t usurp the power available behind the lens, manipulating the audience or reader to see what she wants them to. The power and vulnerability is shared between herself and the lesbians depicted because she creates an authentic environment for candid moments. These are interactive portraits. Her motive is clear: to celebrate these lesbian lives in whatever way comes naturally to the women and children she makes pictures of. To document and promote what would otherwise have been forgotten or suppressed. Here’s to JEB!
JEB “makes pictures.” Her preferred term, explained in Charlotte’s Jansen’s article for The Guardian, describes the process of documenting the lesbian lives in Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians through JEB’s camera lens. Perhaps this is because she “didn’t see [the pictures] as art in any way,” and rather viewed them as “entirely political.” She “originally thought of the pictures as propaganda. [She] wasn’t thinking about anything other than the movement. Material survival came second.” While JEB didn’t see what she was doing as art at the time, her photography reflects the way in which art can be used to tell history in a touching and accessible way.
JEB told The Guardian that she realized she could never have an agent when the first offers of money for a photograph came from “a group who wanted to use it to promote an anti-homosexuality campaign.” Her priority was never to make a lot of money making pictures, something which she admits hasn’t happened so far. It was more “important for [her] to control who saw the pictures and where they were published,” than compromising her integrity for a hefty sum. Rather than desperately trying to enter the art market by negotiating her principles and allowing others to capitalize on her Eye, she maintained political and personal integrity.
Despite little-to-no artistic training at the time, after Eye to Eye was originally published, JEB toured the US with Dyke Show, a “slideshow presentation of lesbian images in photography from 1850-1982.” She then met more like-minded photographers and participated in photography workshops in lesbian separatist communities. JEB’s pictures connect lesbians to each other, they document our history, and they depict us in our authentic diversity, which was much needed in 1979… and still is today.
Not all lesbians of the past wanted, or were willing, to hide. While homophobia was rampant — and has simply evolved into new shapes today — Kady and Pagan, the elderly lesbian couple on the front cover of Eye to Eye, welcomed JEB in the 1970s with a “what took you so long? We’ve been waiting for someone to photograph us!” JEB explains, “they had this sense of themselves. They were worth being put into an image that would last.” These women wanted us to know them. They wanted to be seen. They managed to challenge what homophobic society perceived of them and remained firm in their self-assuredness.
JEB didn’t make pictures of these women without knowing them or getting their consent. In an interview with June Thomas from Slate, JEB states, “If somebody had been identified to me as a possible person who might be in the book, I would usually write to them or meet them or talk to them without a camera being present. I would explain what I was doing. I would be very clear that this was meant for publication. I had designed special release forms that said, “I can be identified as a lesbian. I can have my name. I can write whatever.”
While JEB’s book shines a light on lesbians brave enough to be seen, lesbian erasure wasn’t left in the 1970s. Artist Harmony Hammond created a series of ‘erasure’ artworks in the early 2000s, inspired by the responses she received from scared lesbians when making the book Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History. A few lesbian artists refused to have their art included in the book and, while Hammond believed some of them had a good reason, she also believed “they are all part of the problem. Through their chosen self-erasure, they contribute to the ongoing cultural erasure of lesbian art and artists.” In the ‘Erasures’, Hammond “photocopied their letters,” and covered over “names, places and other information that might reveal the writer’s identity,” to make a statement about their “self-erasure.”
JEB has a more compassionate stance on the notion of lesbian self-erasure. I asked her whether she witnessed lesbian “self-erasure” while making Eye to Eye during the 1970s and she said, “In the 1970s, it was much more likely that you would be fired for being a lesbian. Today, there is more legal protection at the state level and less discrimination in employment. I think that far fewer lesbians are worried about the effects of being “out” on their careers. I have seen enormous change in this respect, so many more women are willing to identify [themselves] as lesbian (or queer) now. I would not characterize those lesbians who were unable to take risks (of losing jobs, children, families, religious affiliation, etc.) as self-erasing so much as self-protecting.”
It’s clear that the lesbians documented in JEB’s book were willing to compromise their safety, family and careers, for their stories to be told. JEB was too. Instead of being disappointed in those who aim to remain safe, she focuses her attention on lesbians who do give permission to be seen. She made pictures that reflected our differences, rather than focusing on lesbians exactly like herself. Eye to Eye documents the lives of lesbians with disabilities, older lesbians, Black lesbians, lesbians with children, activist lesbians, lesbians with substance abuse problems, lesbians with mental health issues, and working class lesbians. It’s a gem for those interested in lesbian history.