For photographer JEB, the treatment of image-making as a liberatory tool is sacrosanct. Her images of lesbians in love, organizing for social change, building families, and performing daily tasks conceived an entirely new visual language for queerness and community.
Born Joan E. Biren, she began her career in photography as a student at Mount Holyoke College. “I needed to see images of lesbians,” she has said of her foray into the genre.
“To this day I have women, even young women, tell me that my photographs make a difference, help them to see themselves, to dare to come out,” she told the New York Times, ahead of her “QUEERPOWER” facade commission at the Leslie-Lohman Museum last summer. “If silence equals death, invisibility also equals death.”
Four of JEB’s black-and-white photographs from the late 1970s and early ’80s will soon be auctioned by Swann Galleries. From her iconic shot of an embracing couple, Kady and Pagan, which served as the cover of her 1979 book Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, to the documentation of a 1977 performance by Black a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, at a DC lesbian bar, her images offer a unique perspective into lesbian life of the era.
While photographs have often been used to uphold race science, misogyny, and Eurocentrism, in her practice, she actively denounces the linguistic remnants of photography’s potential for violence.
“I don’t use the word ‘subjects’ because it connotes dominance of the photographer and gives no agency to the muse,” she said in an interview with Kerry Manders of Women Photograph in 2019. “I think language is important and shapes how we feel and think about things. I never say ‘take a photograph’ or ‘shoot the camera’ or ‘capture an image’ because those are such violent terms. I say ‘make a photograph,’ ‘embrace the image,’ and ‘use the camera’ because those phrases more accurately describe what I am doing.”
In her interview with Manders, she explained, “I believe that the energy that is exchanged between the photographer [and] their muse becomes transformed into the image, and later the image radiates that same energy.” She cited her early 1980s article “Lesbian Photography — Seeing through Our Own Eyes,” explaining that, “Where the muse is a woman, we strive for collaboration, not domination. This collaboration extends into something reciprocal, mutual, an exchange of inspirational energy.”
The fact that JEB is a lesbian photographing other lesbians — giving visibility to her own community — has held great importance in securing her photographs in the queer canon. In her career, she has toured the United States taking pictures of diverse lesbian communities; has created films to improve healthcare providers’ relationships with lesbian clients; and created documentaries on the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation and women-led Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
One of the photos being auctioned at Swann Galleries frames a moment of laughter between Barbara Love, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Kate Millett at the “Forum on the Future” feminist conference in 1978. Another photo is perhaps JEB’s most recognizable shot: a portrait of Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde in her study in Staten Island, offering unique insight into the groundbreaking writer’s day-to-day.
“Audre Lorde taught me to be active and to speak out,” she told the Times in 2019, explaining that activist Barbara Deming “taught me to be still and to listen.” Speaking highly of her two friends and muses, whose activism and brilliance she used to shape her artistic practice, she explained, “I watched them, and I read what they wrote, and I translated it into visuals that I needed to share as widely as possible.”
This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.
Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by Richmond Barthé, JEB, David Hockney, Peter Hujar, Harvey Milk, Toyen, Oscar Wilde, & David Wojnarowicz, will take place on August 13, 2020. A portion of the proceeds from this sale will benefit NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
In an open letter, European institutional leaders defend Manuel Borja-Villel, who has faced right-wing attacks for his progressive programming.
A new study posits that rising smog levels in 19th-century London and Paris likely played a role in blurring the lines of realism.
In Seongmin Ahn’s paintings, it is not our past we are looking at but our possible future.
Born in Shiraz, Sokhanvari fled Iran as a child a year before the Revolution and has devoted her artistic practice to the country she left behind.
Join the New-York Historical Society on February 10 for a virtual conversation about our changing relationship to the natural world with Julie Decker, John Grade, and LaMont Hamilton.
Stephen L. Starkman’s moving book about his encounter with mortality leaves a place for perseverance and hope.
“We clearly f-ed this one up,” said a Metropolitan Transit Authority rep, adding that the error in the artist’s last name is being fixed.
At least we won’t have to look at it on Earth.
From residencies, fellowships, and workshops to grants, open calls, and commissions, our monthly list of opportunities for artists, writers, and art workers.
Presented by Northwestern’s Block Museum and McCormick School of Engineering, this new exhibition seeks empathy at the boundaries of life. On view in Evanston, Illinois.
The statue could be a likeness of Trajan Decius, emperor of the Roman Empire from 249 to 251 CE.
The action could disrupt public access to the museum as workers campaign for higher wages and better labor conditions.