Photos of Lesbian Lives Meant to Inspire a Movement

When I picture JEB — Joan E. Biren — she’s in motion, journeying across America with her infamous “Dyke Show” in tow. She’s making images of lesbians at home, with lovers and raising babies. She’s in on the action of marching and mourning, sleeping and singing, protesting and partying.

Officially called “Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850-the present,” the “Dyke Show,” as it was popularly known, offered an alternative history of photography. It included JEB and others like her. At once pedagogical, political and practical — JEB typically paired her slide show with workshops — the show offered new ways of looking and of being seen.

Accessibility was always crucial to JEB, a self-taught photographer with a DIY drive. She never made photographs with gallery walls in mind. “Too reminiscent of the closet,” she said. “And you can’t build a movement from inside a closet.”

Given the choice between “suit and street,” she aimed for the widest possible audience.

“I was offered a solo show at the Leslie-Lohman Museum” of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, “but turned it down,” she said. “My work belongs in public.” Instead, the team at Leslie-Lohman offered her the yearlong QUEERPOWER facade commission, beginning June 1.

At eight feet tall and facing Wooster Street from the museum’s windows, 19 of JEB’s images will be equally accessible to the witting gallery-goer and unwitting passer-by. “Being Seen Makes a Movement Possible” is more than the installation’s title, it’s JEB’s artistic philosophy and modus operandi. Speaking by phone from her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, JEB makes it clear that movement building has been the cornerstone of her career.

“I started photographing at a time when it was almost impossible to find authentic images of lesbians,” she said. “I wanted my photographs to be seen: I believed they could help build a movement for our liberation.”

JEB was inspired by two friends who were also mentors. “I watched them, and I read what they wrote, and I translated it into visuals that I needed to share as widely as possible,” she recalled. “Barbara Deming taught me to be still and to listen. Audre Lorde taught me to be active and to speak out.”

Photography was inherently collaborative for her, and she rejected the “predatory language” of terms like “capture,” “shoot” and even “subject.” Instead, she preferred “muses” on both sides of the camera. “If I was making a picture of a woman who was naked, I’d ask if she wanted me to take my clothes off, too,” she said. “Women usually said yes to this! It was a way to try to break down the hierarchy, to make the scene an equal exchange.” The stripped-down context created a different — let’s call it queer — scene: collaboration as reciprocity, as conversation, as tandem movement.

Lesbian and feminist venues didn’t have money to pay for her images, but JEB wanted them in women’s hands, homes and bookstores. So she gave them away for use in newspapers and calendars, and on posters and postcards. Hers was a financially precarious calling. “Visibility was always more important to me than economic stability,” she explained.

“Lesbian-famous” for decades, JEB is now being recognized in ways she finds “quite delightful and odd.” In 2017, her alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, gave her an honorary doctorate of fine arts. In 2018, she received the Alice Austen Award for Advancement in Photography for her “extraordinary accomplishments” in documenting queer lives. And in 2019, her work will be in at least eight major exhibitions marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.

JEB, who turns 75 this year, is not content to look back nostalgically and savor her accomplishments. She keeps the future of her work and of the movement clearly in sight, spending years organizing her archives and, in quintessential JEB fashion, helping other women do the same.

“I used to think of myself as a propagandist, then a photojournalist, then a documentarian,” she said. “Now, I’m a preservationist.”

On April 10, moving trucks will arrive at her Maryland home to transport her life’s work to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts. It is vital that those “Dyke Show” slides, her negatives and contact sheets are available and easily searchable for activists, researchers and historians.

If “gay liberation” sometimes feels like distant history because of the gains we’ve made legally and socially, JEB is quick to remind us that “our basic civil rights are being threatened,” making “the fight to preserve our lives and our liberties” an ongoing struggle. It requires vigilance.

It also requires movement. Photographs, for JEB, are vital to that. “They are evidence of our brave history and can inspire the spirt of love and resistance we need now.” She gets choked up when she tells me how moved she is when her work moves people.

“To this day I have women, even young women, tell me that my photographs make a difference, help them to see themselves, to dare to come out,” she said. “If silence equals death, invisibility also equals death.”

Source link