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Joan E. Biren aka JEB talks Portraits of Lesbians book journey and re-issue
by Carrie Maxwell

This article shared 604 times since Wed Apr 21, 2021
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In an era where lesbian visibility was almost non-existent, activist and photographer Joan E. Biren (or as she is also known, "JEB") self-financed and self-published a photography book called Eye To Eye: Portraits of Lesbians.

Biren's 1979 book sold out its first two printings in less than a year and was number one on the LGBTQ booksellers list at the time.

The book has black-and-white photographs featuring lesbians for all races, abilities, body types and age ranges.

The 76-year-old Biren is considered to be the first lesbian photographer to publish a book of out lesbians in the United States. She identifies herself as a "gender non-conforming dyke."

The book was recently re-issued and has the same photograph of a lesbian couple, Kady and Pagan, at their upstate New York home on the cover as the original.

"When Anthology Editions decided to reissue Eye to Eye, I was overjoyed," said Biren. "I am thrilled that my work, in this beautiful new hardback edition, will be easily accessible. Representation is important not just to those who have been erased and ignored, but also for others who need to see and understand people who have been marginalized."

In addition to the many photos, the book also includes reflections from her subjects and poems by Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Judy Grahn as well as a new dedication by Biren, an introduction by photographer Lola Flash and an afterword by soccer star Lori Lindsey.

Biren began her photographic journey at the age of 27, saying she wanted to tell people's stories through images, not words. She taught herself through a correspondence course before working at a camera shop and moving on to become a photographer for a small-town newspaper.

One of her mentors—lesbian photographer Tee Corinne, who died in 2006—also contributed an essay for the book. Biren said Corinne was a huge influence on her as she was beginning her photographic journey and cheered her on as she was working on the book.

To get her book published, she had to raise the money herself.

"No existing lesbian or gay press would do it because I wanted it on good paper," said Biren. "I had only ever seen the work on newsprint, and I was determined that it would be on coated stock and that was too expensive for the existing presses. The hardest part was finding a printing press that would print these images.

"I got a very young Nan Hunter, who had just gotten out of law school and turned out to be one of the best lesbian lawyers ever to help me. She developed this legal paper that exempted the press from liability of being sued for slander or defamation by the women for identifying them as lesbians in their publications."

Biren used black-and-white film instead of color because she wanted other lesbians to see the photographs and the only way that was possible outside of buying her book was in "movement newspapers and magazines that could not afford to publish in color."

"It was part of our politics to control as much of the process of production as possible to avoid male domination," said Biren. "There was a risk that your film could be confiscated under the obscenity laws if you sent it to a commercial photo lab. With black-and-white film, I did all my own developing and enlarging."

What set Biren on her journey to document lesbians was her desire to see two women kissing in a photograph so she made a photograph of herself and her then girlfriend Sharon Deevey that she included in the book. The way she got other lesbians to participate was through word of mouth as she traveled the country.

To put her subjects at ease, Biren would spend time with them without her camera. Later, when they felt comfortable Biren would photograph them at their homes and various other places like Pride marches, festivals and women's conferences. The common thread was that these photographs showcased lesbians being their authentic selves.

"As I was embarking on this project, I discovered that there was this enormous hunger among lesbians to see themselves reflected in a way that was real," said Biren. "The existing fake images did not 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."

Due to the time period that this book was originally published, Biren made sure she protected people who did not want to be outed.

"The people in the book, whether they chose to use surnames or not, were risking harassment, getting fired, being ostracized by their families, losing custody of their children and/or facing many other forms of discrimination," said Biren.

Immediately following the publication of the book, Biren went on tour with her Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850-The Present or, as she called it, the "Dyke Show." She later participated in photography workshops called The Ovulars to teach other lesbians the craft. Prior to becoming a photographer, Biren co-founded the lesbian feminist separatist collective The Furies.

In addition to her book, Biren is a filmmaker who directed No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Removing the Barriers, Women Organize! and For Love and For Life: The 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, among others. She also produced and wrote the documentary A Simple Matter of Justice, about the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.

When asked what she hoped people would take away from her book especially those who are just discovering it now, Biren said, "I hope that all kinds of people will find the photographs illuminating and energizing. Eye to Eye shows us that lesbians in the 1970s were alive and strong and beautiful. It gives lesbians today a look back into their own history."

Biren is also happy that LGBTQ people are gaining more visibility in the mainstream media in recent years; however, she said that many groups within the queer community are underrepresented.

"We see mostly white, straight, middle-class men in mass media," said Biren. "That must change to include all BIPOC, trans and non-binary people, fat people, poor people, disabled people, old people, immigrants. We need representation that is a true reflection of all the people in our society, knowing that the LGBTQ+ community includes people from every demographic. And it is not just about representation. It is about fighting for social justice. We must change the racist, sexist, capitalist systems that profit from excluding so many people from equal representation and from equal freedoms."

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This article shared 604 times since Wed Apr 21, 2021
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