Republished lesbian portraits.
On this week’s episode of Job, June Thomas spoke with photographer, filmmaker and activist Joan E. Biren (also known as JEB) about her groundbreaking 1979 book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of lesbians. They discussed how she found a cross section of the community to be photographed, the obstacles that affected the way the book came together, and the rewarding creative process of reissuing the volume in 2021. This partial transcript was edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: I can tell from these photos that you haven’t met these women, take the photos five minutes later and move on.
Joan E. Biren: If someone had identified me as a possible person who could be in the book, I would usually write to them, meet them, or talk to them without a camera. I would explain what I was doing. I would be very clear that this was for publication. I had designed special release forms that said, “I can be identified as a lesbian. I can have my name. I can have anything. Then people could decide if they wanted their full name or just their first name. Most of the time the process was for me to explain why I especially thought they would be a wonderful person to be in the book, why I wanted them to be in the book. It was a way of building understanding and trust before arriving on the scene when there was a camera present.
Would there be a photo shoot? It sounds like something you would do in a studio, but you were in their house, you were in their fields if they were in a rural location. Was there a general picture of the experience of taking the photos that eventually went into the book or your other photographic production?
It depended on how much time I would have with the person, but I always wanted as much time as possible, because the more time you spend with someone with a camera, the less aware she becomes of the camera, and she just starts out. to be more and more who they are. I am very non-directive. I would much prefer the person to just make their living and let me follow them. So if that was possible, this is how we did it.
If we had a really short amount of time, I would say, “Well, how would you like to do that? Where would you like to be at home or in your space? And what would you like to do? And we would go from there. I don’t believe in posing people, because that diminishes the authenticity of the photograph. I think people understand this and feel the energy of a photograph even though they are not aware of what they are going through looking at it. I think the energy that was going on during its creation is in the picture.
Have you always worked in black and white?
No. I mostly worked in black and white because all the publications could only print in black and white, because black and white was cheaper. I could do all of my development and expansion – at that point there was still a risk if you sent your film to a professional commercial location that they would confiscate it, based on obscenity laws. So for a long time I did not use color film. But when I could afford it, I started using two cameras, one in black and white and one in slide. Then I started making slideshows.
The book was published by Glad Hag Books, but it’s you, right?
It’s me. There is no other happy witch. I am the only one. I had no staff, nothing, just me.
You had already done that hard job of going out there in the world, finding women to take pictures, take their pictures, get their permission, and then all the work of making a book. How did you pay for it?
I did what we would now call crowdfunding. I have raised money from the community. These were largely small loans made by a large number of people and a major donor, who also waived their loan. It was funded by the community because I certainly didn’t have any money.
No existing lesbian or gay press would do it because I wanted it on good paper. I had never seen the job except on newsprint, and I was determined that it would be on coated paper and that it was too expensive for existing presses. For the same price, they could put out, for example, five text books.
The hardest part was not to collect the money. The hard part was finding a printing press that would print these images. What I had to do was find a very young Nan Hunter, who had just graduated from law school and who turned out to be one of the best lesbian lawyers of all time. She had to go to the press and develop this legal document that exonerates them from responsibility because they thought all women would sue them because they were identified as lesbians. It was unheard of. So we had to get a second round of releases, in which we lost some people. And then we had this legal exemption, and then one of the printers refused for religious reasons to work on the project. And then, because I didn’t have enough money, I had to camp out at the press, which was in Baltimore, to watch the evidence as it came out of the press, because I didn’t didn’t have the money to put the press on hiatus. ask them to send me the evidence. So the impression was really difficult to make.
How many copies did you print in the original?
The original print run was 5,000 copies, which is a lot for a photography book, and it sold out, I think, in three months.
I went back to press and made a second impression, which also sold out pretty quickly. It is a testament to the hunger that reigned in our community to have authentic reflections on who they were. The books are simply gone. Many of them have also disappeared without being bought in bookstores and libraries. People were so afraid to steal this book. And I’m glad they did.
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