Revisiting JEB’s Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians

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This article was printed in the Power & Empowerment issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

The reissue of JEB’s landmark work makes “the idea of radical change irresistible” once again

For Joan E Biren – better known as JEB – photographs are not taken, they are made. Biren is the author of Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, a book she self-published in 1979. Then, and still, now, it was considered groundbreaking and radical as it was the first time that lesbians had been candidly and unashamedly represented in photography. The series was made in the years prior, as the artist travelled across the US, making photos with and of lesbians. More than 40 years since it illuminated the vast beauty of lesbian life in America, it is reissued by Anthology Editions.

JEB was determined to make lesbians seen; to make images in which each one could find her “reflection”. While the title Eye to Eye evokes this recognition, the book’s subtitle, Portraits of Lesbians, is equally pertinent. “There wasn’t a book of photographs by a lesbian, of lesbians, with the word ‘lesbian’ on the cover that I could find anywhere in the world,” JEB explains. In 1979, the consequences of coming out were significant: lesbians could lose their jobs, their homes, their children. But as JEB explains: “Even though there were all these possible harmful consequences, the power of being out had huge rewards. The ability to live an open life lifted the heavy burden that came from hiding, and lying, and self-denial… Without the bravery of these women, there would be no book.”

Claudia. Alcoholism Treatment Unit Western-Massachusetts Public-Hospital. 1978 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from her book 'Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians' published by Anthology Editions.

In the book, we meet rural lesbians, working-class lesbians, Black lesbians, lesbians with children, lesbians with disabilities, lesbians in the arms of their lovers, lesbians alone. Quotes from those photographed accompany many of the images, each of whom the photographer spent many hours getting to know. Claudia McCarthy, resting her head on her hands, explains how “lesbianism has been [her] strength” while recovering from alcoholism; twins Beverly and Barbara Smith, surrounded by books, papers and typewriters, discuss the Black feminist struggle; Dot Palmerton, gripping an oven tray with one hand and a large kitchen knife with the other, describes her dream of opening a gay restaurant: “Why should somebody spend gay money and give it to straight people?” she asks. 

JEB taught herself how to use a camera with a singular purpose in mind. “I wasn’t preoccupied with learning the conventions of photography or developing a personal style,” she recalls. “I just wanted my images to embrace the energy I experienced being with lesbians.” Disturbed by the predatory language of photography – in which a photographer shoots’, ‘takes’ and ‘captures’ – JEB developed her own vocabulary. “I was trying to develop an approach where the photographer and the person being photographed had equal power in the transaction,” she explains. Hence her stipulation of “making” photographs. Her political priorities also dictated her style. JEB photographed Eye to Eye in black-and-white: partly because the film was cheaper and partly because she needed to develop it herself, to avoid confiscation under obscenity laws. “I was always making my photographs so that other lesbians could see them,” she explains. “What guides me is what I think is needed politically. That’s my creative practice.”

Dot. Washington DC. 1979 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from her book 'Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians' published by Anthology Editions.

Although the reissue of Eye to Eye remains faithful to the original in its design and layout, the function of the book has changed. While the original “was nourishment to the lesbians who were so hungry for authentic images of themselves,” JEB, now 76, hopes the 2021 edition will give “lesbians today a sense of their own history”. There are also additional essays from fellow photographer Lola Flash, and US football player Lori Lindsey.

Four decades on, Eye for Eye’s imaginative and aspirational power is as tangible as it ever was. JEB’s images unveil stories of lesbian love, identity and existence, but they also offer a glimpse into a free, fearless future; one that is still out of reach for many women today. “A photograph can bring heat to the desire to be more of yourself,” JEB explains. “Seeing something you may never have even imagined can move you to desire it so much that you’re moved to action.” Quoting Adrienne Rich, the lesbian feminist writer whose poem inspired the book’s title, JEB explains: “I want my images to act as ‘wicks of desire’; to make the idea of radical change irresistible.” 

Barbara and Beverly. Roxbury, Massachusetts. 1978 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from her book 'Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians' published by Anthology Editions.

Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians is published by Anthology Editions

Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.