To say JEB is a trailblazer is accurate but inadequate. As she puts it, “We were outlaws, literally, because of the laws against us.” Today, it’s difficult to imagine the chutzpah it took for JEB to self-publish Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, the U.S.’s first published photography anthology focused on out lesbians, in 1979. JEB sat down with BUST to discuss her work, share the progress and pitfalls of lesbian representation, and remind us that imagining a better future is easier when you can actually picture it.
Congratulations on the rerelease. Other than the fact that it’s the 40th anniversary, why did you feel like this was the right time for a rerelease?
Honestly, I thought any time was a good time for a rerelease. Anthology Editions came to me and said, We want to reissue it. It wasn’t something I could do on my own.
I think this book is going to feel really uplifting for a lot of people.
When it first came out, there was a lot of homophobia and censorship, it did not reach a wide audience of people. And I think it’s good for it to be accessible to all kinds of people. Two generations of people have come of age since it was first published. And for everybody, I think having a history is very important. Because if you don’t know where you came from, if you feel rootless, it’s easy to blow you away. You know, people want roots. Some people refer to it as a touchstone, which makes me happy. But if it is that, then it is a marker of where we were at a certain time. It becomes important for its historical significance. I’m also very grateful people enjoy the images just for themselves.
I am curious about how you felt the first time this book was released compared to how you feel now, upon the rerelease.
Well, the first time when I was making the book, I understood there was nothing like it. There was this enormous hunger among lesbians to see themselves reflected in a way that was real. The existing fake images didn’t look like anybody we knew; anybody in our friendship circles or our lovers, and so there was this enormous void that I was trying to fill with this book. And the pressure that I put on myself was a lot. I thought I would never be able to make another book. So, I wanted this one to have as many different sorts of lesbians in it as possible, so that the most people could find some reflection of their authentic selves. It’s different now because there are so many more accessible images of lesbians for people to see. The hunger is much less. Representation is still lacking in many, many ways, but it’s not a total void the way it was then. So that pressure is gone. I’m looking forward to new people finding it. Now, one of the differences is that I would like a much wider audience to find it. And I think they will. And that makes me happy.
For everybody, I think having a history is very important. Because if you don’t know where you came from, if you feel rootless, it’s easy to blow you away. People want roots.
You’re credited with the first lesbian kissing selfie, and I’m sure at the time, the “selfie” wasn’t a concept yet. But that’s pretty cool! What do you think about visibility and social media?
Well, I think it’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, for me personally when I joined Instagram and started putting my work there so many young people found it and got excited. And that got me excited. Plus, I have found so many lesbian artists who are putting their work out and lesbians just showing their lives on Instagram, and I think that is wonderful. Because the mainstream media is in such tight corporate control, its still hard for us to get our images out. And social media is less controlled, not completely open, but it’s less controlled. So, there are opportunities for emerging artists of all sorts to have a place for their work. That’s the good part. The bad part is that a lot of people, I think, feel pressured to represent themselves in a way that’s not authentic. And I don’t know if it’s social pressure, and they manufacture their lives in a way that they think will be acceptable or admired. I don’t honestly know what it is they’re exactly trying to find. I think that pressure on young people especially is unfortunate, because you always want to be true to yourself.
Social media can difficult. I’m thinking about how so much mainstream media queer representation lacks joy and there is a focused lens on trauma. But when I looked at the photographs in this book, I found them to be so joyful. Is that something you strived towards?
I was looking for the broadest reflection possible. I included recovering alcoholics, people who were struggling with mental illness. I did not want to make a Pollyanna book. I consciously didn’t want to make lesbians who were not joyful feel like there was something wrong with them. Because it was a hard time. But the joy just came out in people. And it wasn’t something I went out looking for. I just went out looking for all these different kinds of people. A lot of them were struggling, and a lot of them were joyous.
I think it that comes through and even in the more somber photographs. Maybe the authenticity to them makes them feel joyful to look at.
I don’t think it’s joy. I think it’s strength. I think what you’re seeing is that all the women who were courageous enough, in this moment, to be public about who they were, as lesbians, were brave women. And what you see isn’t joy. I think what you see is what happens when you’re comfortable with yourself and you have the strength of knowing who you are is okay.
What you’re seeing is that all the women who were courageous enough, in this moment, to be public about who they were, as lesbians, were brave women.
You’re absolutely right. Looking at the photos, some of them appear so insanely modern. I was especially taken aback by Leonora, D.C., 1977. She looks like my barista! I feel like I know her. I was also thinking today Leonora could be someone who uses they/them pronouns. What language were people using in the ’70s to describe their gender identity?
Well, a lot of people described themselves as androgynous. We didn’t have they/them, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming [as words], but we had all those people. Some people would identify themselves as butch or as androgynous. After I published the book, I put together a slideshow on the history of lesbian photography. And I traveled all over the country with it for many, many years. In that slideshow, which went from the, the 1890s, to the 1980s, there was a very popular segment that I called the look, the stance, the clothes. And what I was trying to do in that segment by showing images from across all those years, was identify something that I felt was particularly lesbian. Because when you go back into history, and you’re trying to find the lesbian photographers, because their biographies at that time especially didn’t talk about their sexuality, you had to read between the lines. And so not only was a reading between the lines of the written record, but I was reading the images themselves as a lesbian photographer to say, this seems to be lesbian to me.
Let’s take Leonora for an example, there’s a direct gaze between the photographer and the muse. It’s comfortable, you don’t always see that in other portraits. But if you look at Berenice Abbott’s portraits of a lot of people, you see that exact same gaze. Then, you know, the clothes. Lesbians had their own fashion style. And you can see on Leonora, she’s wearing overalls and a bow tie. Now, that’s not your usual woman of that age outfit. So, again, the originality, the comfort. Those are things that I think they have by being a lesbian. When I published Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, before then, and now, right? I’m not surprised that your barista looks like Leonora does. It’s in her face. I think it’s her being herself.
You’re right, that’s exactly what it is. These images make me feel so connected, and I think they’ll make other people feel the same way. It seems like, and maybe this is a nostalgic lens, that there was a closer sense of community than there is today for lesbians. What do you think?
Well, some of it is nostalgia. But the fact is, we were a much, much smaller community. We needed each other more, because the oppression was worse. That made things both more connected and more insular. There was good and bad about having a small community. And I actually think the pandemic is giving more people a taste of what it’s like not to have access to the whole society. Before the pandemic, this was a little bit hard to explain. I think even though we can communicate virtually, you get a sense of what it’s like, when the whole society is not your place.
We had endless meetings, conferences, festivals, all of that. And that built our community. What we were doing, was building a completely alternative culture. We had to, because the mainstream culture didn’t have a place for us. And because we wanted our culture to be separate from the patriarchal and capitalistic culture. We had all our own authors and musicians and all people who were making the culture, but we had to figure out how to get it out to everybody, how to distribute it. We created the coffee houses, the bookstores, the publishers, the newspapers, the record companies and people distributing everything. People don’t talk about what happened in lesbian feminist culture in particular during the ’70s. What we built was how we connected. A lot of that is gone now, because people have assimilated into the mainstream. Personally, I think we’ve lost a lot. I understand the nostalgia, I just think that nostalgia misses the reasons we were doing it. The people who were out and active and building these communities had much more radical politics. Now, across LGBTQ people, you have the whole range of politics.
When we started, we didn’t want people in the military. We wanted to stop wars. We didn’t want marriage equality, we wanted all relationships, to be recognized, and have the same privileges and benefits as marriage. We were outlaws literally, because of the laws against us. Part of what made those communities tight was that we understood that we wanted radical change in the country.
I’m 32, my parents didn’t care when I came out, I am legally married, my wife gave birth to our son, and both of our names are literally on his birth certificate, which is something that blows my mind. We were treated respectfully in the healthcare systems, and yet that gives me a great amount of survivor’s guilt. I don’t know what to do with all of this privilege. What do you think about that? I’ve had people tell me it’s stupid.
Well, let’s just start with: it’s not stupid. Secondly, let me say congratulations, Mazel Tov on your marriage and the birth of your son. And I’m so glad you asked me this question. Because nobody’s asked me up until now. And I’m really happy to answer it. Because feeling guilty isn’t stupid, but it is a total waste of time and energy. And the reason is because the things you’re talking about are not privileges. They’re rights. And everybody should have those rights. And if nothing had changed from my time to yours, then everything we were working toward would have been in vain, and that would have been horrible. And the fact that you can do all that actually makes me joyful. And you know, it’s not that I don’t understand survivor’s guilt. I’m 76 years old. A lot of my friends have died. A lot of my friends who are younger than me have died. So I get it.
I’ll tell you how I deal with it. Every day, when I wake up, I say to myself, okay, today, let’s try to bring some goodness in the world, no matter how small, and contribute something useful. It can just be kindness to your friends and neighbors. It can be supporting and being in solidarity with the work of people who are on the frontlines of this struggle. I can’t be on the frontlines, in the same way that I was when I was younger. Younger people have energies and abilities that I don’t have. I hope that instead of feeling guilty, what people do is they say “Oh look, change is possible. Let’s go make some more.”
Because we still need a lot more. You can’t change if you don’t think it’s possible to change. And actually, part of what I think photography is about is showing the possibility of a future that some people may not have yet imagined. I had a really good friend of mine, just the other week, say to me, ‘You know, it was because of your book, way back when, that I knew I could be a lesbian mother. Before I found a picture, I didn’t think that was a possibility.’ In that way, the book is aspirational. You have to be able to picture a better future so that you can work toward it. It doesn’t have to be photographs, you can dream it, you can read poetry, anything that helps you visualize.
I’m going to take all of that with me. I really appreciate that. At BUST, we like to say we’re a place for women who have something to get off of their chest, so anything you’d like to get off your chest this morning?
I didn’t really get to tell you what I think is wrong with representation. In our media today, we’re still disproportionately representing straight, white, affluent men. This means that not only are women, BIPOC, trans and nonbinary people not represented as they should be, or anywhere near in proportion to the way they exist in the real world. But we’re not representing all kinds of other groups like fat people, disabled people, older people, immigrants, I could go on. But this is a serious problem where we should not be complacent. Just because we have Ellen and The L Word, that is not representing what most lesbians look like.
There’s a lot of work left to be done in terms of representation. And representation is not enough. It may be a step, but the system, the structures in our society, that make it happen that way, primarily racism, capitalism, and male domination are what has to change as well as the representation. So that’s what I needed to get off my chest.
All photos © JEB (Joan E. Biren) from the book Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions.
Top photo: Gloria and Charmaine. Baltimore, Maryland. 1979 © Anthology Editions
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