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For Decades, JEB Has Captured Liberatory Photographs of Lesbian Life 

A portrait of Audre Lorde and an intimate embrace between a couple in 1979 are two of four photographs by Joan E. Biren.

JEB, “Kady and Pagan in Their Cabin, Monticello, NY” (1979), RC print, printed later (All images courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries)

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.”

JEB, “Sweet Honey in the Rock at Club Madame, Washington, DC” (1977), RC print, printed later

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.”

JEB, “Barbara Love, Grace Atkinson, and Kate Millett at The Forum on the Future, NYC” (1978), RC print, printed later

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.

JEB, “Audre Lorde in Her Home Study, Staten Island, NY” (1981), RC print, printed later

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.

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