These Portraits Revolutionized the Way Queer Women Were Seen in the 1970s

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tags: photography, cultural history, womens history, LGBTQ history

Long before crowdfunding and self-publishing exploded on the internet, influential lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren (better known as JEB) had to use these avenues to get her groundbreaking 1979 portrait book Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians to the people who needed to see them most.

Back then, most publishers were reticent to publish anything with the word “lesbian” in the title, for fear it was too political. But JEB’s mission was just that. A longtime activist, the 76-year-old artist said in a recent interview that she didn’t see Eye to Eye as “art,” but as political “propaganda” to show others that it was possible for women to live openly queer lives. Despite the lack of mainstream support, JEB was able to self-publish Eye to Eye, a collection of gorgeous black-and-white portraits of queer women of all ages and backgrounds, doing everyday tasks like embracing their children, fixing cars, relaxing with their lovers, protesting, and organizing political action. These images were juxtaposed by writing from queer icons Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, as well as short interviews with the subjects. The book revolutionized the way that lesbians could be represented in images, with their humanity, grace, and brilliance on full display.

In March, Eye to Eye is getting a reprint by Anthology Editions in a version that’s virtually untouched, aside from the addition of essays from queer photographer Lola Flash and former U.S. Women’s National Team soccer star Lori Lindsey. The book is a document of our queer foremothers, but over four decades later, gazing upon the images still feels like a revelation. Including portraits of Beverly and Barbara Smith, co-founders of the radical activist group Combahee River Collective; disability rights activist Connie Panzarino; and mental health advocate and artist Judy Castelli, it’s hard not to flip through Eye to Eye and see how these lesbians carved a way for our futures. See some of the selections below.


Note: some images in the full article linked contain nudity. 


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