“I couldn’t picture being a lesbian, life as a lesbian, because there were no lesbians living out lives to see.”

– Joan E. Biren

40 years ago, nobody would probably have published a book of lesbian photographs: that’s the reason why JEB (Joan E. Biren), self-published Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians. Queer women have been nearly invisible for decades, this is what makes this re-issue a symbolic moment in the visual history of marginalized identities.

In this series of photographs, lesbian identity is celebrated in everyday gestures. It is simply the act of being that counts: being in love, being desired, being a mother, being together. Through these photos, not only do we see what lesbians looked like in their many forms; we also observe them as an ecosystem: a system of belonging, identification, togetherness. Not isolated, marginalized, problematic.

These seemingly simple images represent a truly radical statement: we exist, deal with it.

We rely on images to tell us who we are. I remember, as a queer child growing up, sneaking into hidden corners of the library in search of images that would tell me that, yes indeed, I could exist. I remember my stomach clenching when finally I found a photo of Marlene Dietrich wearing a tie; or when KD Lang was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1993. Images are intrinsically political, because they define the contours and legitimacy of existence.

Self Portrait with Sharon, 1971

“I had never seen a picture of two women kissing and I wanted to see it. I borrowed a camera, but I didn’t even know anybody else I could ask to pose for it. So I held the camera out at arm’s length and kissed my lover, Sharon, and took the picture. That’s my first lesbian photograph. ”

© JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from her book ‘Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians “published by Anthology Editions

JEB’s work is important not only because it shows us that queer women exist, but also that they can claim their own point of view. As Laura Mulvey famously stated: “Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image (…) as bearer, not maker, of meaning”; through these photographs, JEB is behind the camera as a maker of meaning, thereby challenging patriarchal, dominant semiotics.

“I came across JEB’s work during one of a deep-dive image searches for my Instagram account Herstory. What JEB has created is one of the most important visual herstories of LGBTQ movement from the 1970s into the 2000s. Her drive to create and document is visceral, “says Kelly Rakowski, founder of an Instagram archive of lesbian images,” In 2017 I had the pleasure to meet and interview her for Vogue. I learned amongst many other things, Joan rejects violent and imperialist words like, ‘shoot’, ‘capture’, and ‘take’. She prefers to say ‘let’s make a picture together’. I love this so much and began using this vocabulary myself. “

Priscilla and Regina. Brooklyn, New York. 1979

© JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from her book ‘Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians “published by Anthology Editions

The women portrayed in JEB’s book agree to appear, with their faces, names and stories: and this alone, in the context of 1979 America, was a radical act. Much progress has been made since then; today social media has greatly expanded the boundaries of representation and possible identities. Role models and leaders are now starting to be progressively of different race, gender, sexuality, class, abilities and culture. Institutions, media companies and brands in general are embracing diversity as a core value. But there is still a long road ahead: let’s not forget that until 1990 the World Health Organization still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder; to this day 72 jurisdictions around the world still criminalize private, consensual, homosexual activity, while same-sex unions are legal in only 29 countries worldwide.

While images can surely pave the way, politics must follow.

Pat, Lisa and Moka (rear). Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. 1977

© JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from her book ‘Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians “published by Anthology Editions

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