Revisiting a landmark of lesbian photography

JEB (Joan E. Biren), Delaware Dykes for Peace, Jobs, & Justice, 1979.

“HERE COME THE DYKES! Here come the dykes!” A few seasoned attendees began the chant, as if to hasten the proceedings, celebrate our gathering in public space, and denote a protest action in one breath. They were swiftly joined by the rest of the intergenerational mix. This boisterous full house had gathered at New York City’s LGBT Community Center last month to see Joan E. Biren’s (“JEB”’s) sapphic slide lecture The Dyke Show, an alternative history of photography devoted to lesbian photographers and subjects, made in 1979, the heyday of feminist lesbian separatism. The show was being presented live for the first time since 1984, the same year that the Center—a notable hub of queer coalition-building, the place where ACT UP and Queer Nation got their start—opened its doors.

From 1979 through 1984—when she moved on to a slideshow dedicated to the Seneca Women’s Encampment, a distaff antinuclear peace camp active in upstate New York—JEB presented The Dyke Show, officially titled Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–the present, at community centers, feminist bookstores, lesbian bars, and universities throughout the United States. Traveling in her VW microbus, she exhibited the two-and-a-half-hour slideshow-cum-performance-lecture, which grew to encompass 420 images by over thirty photographers, on more than eighty occasions.

“Is there a Lesbian sensibility in art?” the original poster for The Dyke Show asked. With the rise of lesbian-feminist imagemaking, particularly in the domain of photography, and the emergence of new feminist and lesbian journals, gay women were beginning to pose such questions in more public forums—as evidenced by the actions of the Feminist Lesbian Art Collective (est. 1973), who distributed posters of their work labeled “This is lesbian art”; the publication of the “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue of Heresies in the fall of 1977; and artist-curator Harmony Hammond’s “A Lesbian Show,” held at the alternative art space 112 Greene Street in SoHo the following year.

The title card for The Dyke Show, 1979–84/2022–23, analog slideshow transferred to digital video, color, sound, 120 minutes. © JEB (Joan E. Biren).

Akin to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which since 1974 has approached the preservation of sapphic legacies as a community-growing endeavor, The Dyke Show treated the archive as a gathering place where lesbians could meet in the present, build a past, and see a future. (JEB’s own substantial papers—totaling over two hundred containers and more than 64,000 digital files—were acquired by Smith College in 2019.) JEB repeatedly exhorted viewers to document their own lives and communities: to assert their existence on their own terms and build vibrant records countering the erasure of lesbian experience through misrepresentation, neglect, burial, and destruction. JEB was intimately familiar with such lacunae; when the photographer was conducting research at the Library of Congress for The Dyke Show, she found nothing in the card catalog under “Lesbian.” She supported attendees in honing their own documentary abilities by pairing her presentations with a sliding-scale photography workshop informed by her theory—also central to The Dyke Show—that an image was not a fixed point, but a “triangle” formed communally through the relationship between the subject (or “muse”), the photographer, and the viewer. There was no workshop this time around, though smartphone-wielding attendees were certainly taking a flurry of photos, adding critical mass to the queer archive in the cloud.

Recordings from the event, we were informed, would be incorporated into a digital restoration of The Dyke Show on view in “Images on which to build, 1970s–1990s,” an upcoming exhibition devoted to the intersection of photography and trans and queer organizing at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. (JEB, who believes her work belongs in public space, is famously resistant to exhibiting in institutions; she previously declined the Leslie-Lohman’s offer of a solo show, instead opting for a facade installation in 2020. The dyad of a live restaging and a recorded display likely represents another such compromise.) The 2023 slideshow had the same content as the 1984 version, aside from the removal of several photographs for which JEB was unable to secure permissions, and the addition of a brief introduction and an epilogue.

Still of Alice Austen photograph, from The Dyke Show, 1979–84/2022–23, analog slideshow transferred to digital video, color, sound, 120 minutes. © JEB (Joan E. Biren).

JEB gave overviews of the lives and work of historic lesbian photographers, like Emma Jane Gay (1830–1919), who photographed her partner’s expeditions to tribal lands in Idaho and Nebraska; and Alice Austen (1866–1952), whose images include a playful photo of herself with two women, all dressed in men’s suits, with an umbrella poking up suggestively from one woman’s crotch. Some of the photographers JEB highlighted might be characterized as “lesbian-like” or on the “lesbian continuum,” in that that they were not necessarily lesbian-identified but lived and photographed in intimate relation with women or against the grain of patriarchal expectations. One such example, the Victorian Viscountess Clementina Hawarden (1822–1865), made sensuous photographs of women in pairs or looking into mirrors. Does it matter that Hawarden was living in a society characterized by homosocial bonds, or that she was often photographing her daughters? Lesbian reading of material that is not expressly or legibly lesbian is an exercise in observation, interpretation, and radical imagination integral to a lived experience of queerness. And queerness, “instead of being clearly available as visible evidence . . . has existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere,” wrote theorist José Esteban Muñoz. We’re worlding here.

Born in 1944, JEB took her “first lesbian photograph”—a selfie in which she kisses her then lover, Sharon Deevey—around 1970. Shortly thereafter, she cofounded two lesbian-feminist organizations: the Furies (1971–73), a collective best known for its influential magazine, and Moonforce Media (est. 1974), a film distribution company (and later, as JEB transitioned into documentary filmmaking, a production company) that circulated feminist and lesbian films nationally. In 1979, she self-published Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, reportedly the first photobook to include the “L word” in its title. The book depicts lesbians of various body types and ethnicities as they march for civil rights, lounge in couples or throuples, work on womyn’s lands or in separatist shops, and raise children. (Some lesbians complained that the images swapped out negative stereotypes for idealizing ones.) In the presentation, JEB explained that Tee Corinne encouraged her to mount The Dyke Show to promote the book and make money, sharing an image of a hen-scratch tally of sliding-scale ticket sales.

Still of Tee A. Corinne photograph, from The Dyke Show, 1979–84/2022–23, analog slideshow transferred to digital video, color, sound, 120 minutes. © JEB (Joan E. Biren).

When JEB began touring The Dyke Show, being publicly identified as lesbian could jeopardize a women’s employment status or the custody of her children. Such discrimination is not restricted to the past tense: Last month, a gay mother in Oklahoma lost custody to her sperm donor. For all her insistence on the power of queer representation—“Naming is making visible,” she wrote in 1980. “Invisibility is powerlessness”—JEB was certainly aware of the risk visibility could pose to marginalized groups. Strategic obfuscation came to the fore in her discussion of several lesbian photographers from the latter half of the twentieth century, including Kay Tobin Lahusen (1930–2021), the first to put photos of lesbians (often with their faces obscured to protect their anonymity) on the cover of the vanguard lesbian publication The Ladder, which ran from 1956–72, and Corinne (1943–2006), who used solarization and multiple exposures to make erotic images of lesbians that evaded objectification and censorship alike.

The Dyke Show proceeded to address the history of erotic representations of lesbians, juxtaposing 1950s and ’60s pulp fiction covers—which typically characterized lesbians as hypersexed minxes or vampires—with sensuous photos of hairy armpits or bushes abstracted so that they resembled landscapes, as well as projects like Klitorisbilder (1978), in which lesbians paired close-up photographs of their own clitorises with self-portraits. (One woman hilariously elected to depict herself in a rumpled sleeping bag that resembled her own anatomy.) The politics of these images were tied up with the “sex wars” of the period, heated debates about pleasure, desire, and pornography that played out in the tensions between the feminist magazines off our backs (1970–2008) and On Our Backs (1984–2006).

The June 1966 cover of The Ladder, featuring activist Ernestein Eckstein.

In a section titled “The Look, The Stance, The Clothes,” JEB pointed out patterns in lesbian self-presentation in photographs from the late nineteenth century into the 1970s, suggesting the persistence of certain identifiable signifiers of lesbianism across time. JEB’s take was broader in its scope and hazier in its conclusions than Hal Fischer’s contemporaneous photobook Gay Semiotics (1977), which analyzed the visual vernacular of his gay male community in San Francisco. She zeroed in on indicators like direct eye contact, taking up space by leaning against things, and clothes that play with or subvert gender. In her discussion of clothing, JEB highlighted French author Colette, who sported frothy dresses as well as dapper men’s suits, and Jim McHarris, a Black trans man who was born in Mississippi in 1924 and who worked, among other trades, as a cook, a cabdriver, a shipyard worker, and preacher. McHarris, here pictured wearing a button-down with rolled-up sleeves, once explained to a cop who arrested him for cross-dressing in 1954 that he could “earn more money as a man.”

The epilogue focused on lesbian photographers whom JEB had learned of since she last staged The Dyke Show. The inclusion of Lenn Keller (1951–2020), founder of the Bay Area Lesbian Archives, and Laura Aguilar (1959–2018), who made portraits of her working-class Chicanx community, helped right the omission of lesbian photographers of color from the show’s earlier iterations—without smoothing over the fact of their prior exclusion. Of one appended photographer, Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908–1942), JEB noted, “If she were alive today, she might use different pronouns.” Identity categories are, as anthropologist Gayle Rubin wrote in 1992, “imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary.” The slipperiness of gender and sexuality in many of The Dyke Show’s images, as well as JEB’s own self-characterization as both “a butch who cries” and “gender nonconforming,” underscore not only the ways in which such constructions—which never fully hold us—evolve over time, but also the ways in which they can complicate and enrich one another.

View of “Images on which to build, 1970s–1990s,” 2023. Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, New York.

The thematics of representation and visibility at the heart of The Dyke Show were wrapped up with a larger project of feminist-lesbian separatism—a position that would become superseded by a more coalitional politics as lesbians and gay men joined hands to fight murderous government inaction during the AIDS epidemic. In light of a contemporary conception of queerness as a fluid sign, and a discursive turn away from legibility in recent years, LGBTQIA+ artists are increasingly exploring fragmentation, obfuscation, and critical fabulation as alternative representational strategies. JEB’s undertaking is at once of its moment and strikingly contemporary: As it makes visible a group that remains, even today, largely invisible, it also gestures to all the not-yet-known queerness to come. (The Leslie-Lohman exhibition, in which a restoration of The Dyke Show will be included, takes its title from one viewer’s response to the slideshow: “Images on which to build a future, now that I have this past in vivid conception.”) There’s an anticipatory thrill at the heart of this vital archival project. As lesbian imagemaking navigates changing waters, what will its next chapter hold?

Cassie Packard is an art writer based in Brooklyn.

Source link

Latest articles

Related articles