The reissue of Joan E. Biren’s Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, which was first published in 1979, is cause for celebration. During a historical era characterized by political urgency and high hopes, being seen – having agency – was inextricably linked to effecting social change. The expanded version of her out-of-print photobook, a classic of photographic literature, features JEB’s images, with descriptive complementary texts.
Today, in an era characterized by an ubiquity of pictures in our daily lives, the truly radical nature of JEB’s project is hard to grasp. But at the time (Is it really 40 years ago!) she was creating a distinctive body of documentary pictures that was unprecedented, representing women-identified women who were viewed as outliers not only by mainstream culture but, oddly, by most feminists.
Biren’s ability to connect with her subjects is clearly evident. Like other photographers associated with a documentary style, the photographs are not casual point-and-shoot portraits. Each image is formally constructed to depict a woman (or small groups of women) in an everyday activity or setting. Although a few nude studies are included, most of the subjects are shown working, at home, engaged in recreational pastimes or tenderly playing with their kids. A favorite of mine is the double portrait of Mabel Hampton, a legendary feminist activist and a figure of the period, who is shown at home and walking on a Brooklyn street.
Joans E. Biren’s updated and enlarged publication is produced in a tall quarto-sized format, bound in blue cloth, with the familiar image of Pagan and Kady, Monticello featured on the front cover. The book is chock-a-block with texts, including new essays by photographer Lola Flash, soccer player Lori Lindsey, photographer Tee A. Corinne, along with writer Joan Nestle’s foreword, each clarifying the full measure of JEB’s contributions. For the photographically inclined, a recap of 19th & 20th-century lesbian photographers was written by Judith Schwarz, plus there are updated notes and resources.
The book has a journalistic touch, with short captions that were, apparently, drawn from lengthier conversations or interviews. Each subject reveals pithy autobiographical statements, often disclosing intimate details about what it meant to live openly as a lesbian, despite public oppression. The purple endpapers, a vibrant design element, alludes to the self-named activist coalition, “The Lavender Menace,” which catalyzed the inclusion of lesbian-identified political issues into a feminist agenda.
In 2021, JEB’s collaborative project maintains its relevancy as an important visual document. The book will undoubtedly reach a younger audience thrilled to discover her body of work.
By Daile Kaplan
Daile Kaplan is the former Vice President at Swann Auction Gallerie. She has written extensively about photography and visual culture, has authored monographs about Lewis Hine, and is the Photographs appraiser on Antiques Roadshow.
Joan E. Biren, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians
Published by Anthology Editions
$30.00 (US) / £28.00 / €28.00 (EU)
Book available here.