Photography books can often feel like expensive set decoration, the kind of thing people artfully arrange in their homes, less for themselves than for those who might be watching. It’s not as common to think of them as a revolutionary texts. And yet, that’s the best way to describe Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians. When no one else would publish it, photographer JEB (Joan E. Biren) founded her own publishing company, Glad Hag Books, and printed the first edition in 1979. Today, holding a copy of the re-issued volume, just published by Anthology Editions, there’s still enormous power in what it contains.
Given the cultural shifts in the US since the 1980s, it might be difficult to understand just how impossible and risky it felt to seek out other lesbians before that time. But even today, acknowledging one’s queer attractions in public, daring “to look longer than we should” — as Joan Nestle writes in her 1979 foreword — can still feel perilous. There’s still a deep desire across generations to see and be surrounded by other queer women in a world where that remains a rare experience.
It’s not just about the ability to linger longer than would otherwise be societally accepted that makes this book so resonant. Many of us take it for granted that representing the full breadth of humanity should be a baseline for any portraiture project, even as we still see far too many works populated almost entirely by white, cis, and able-bodied people. But JEB insisted upon the complexity of the identities she explored, making Eye to Eye stand out even in 2021 for its broad vision.
From the loving and intimate exchange between an aging couple depicted on the cover, to the first interior image, of two Black women embracing, joy and love for one another radiates from each page. As you delve further, lesbian icons like disability rights activist and writer Connie Panzarino, as well as political icon Barbara Smith laughing and at ease with her sister and fellow activist Beverly, intermix with portraits that evoke everyday life, revealing JEB’s deep love and appreciation of her subjects.
The importance of this book, along with the artist’s second volume, Making A Way: Lesbians Out Front (1987), is also wrapped up in JEB’s activist approach. Though less than 100 pages, Eye to Eye is both an archive and a finding aid: from Judith Schwarz’s 1979 essay on historical lesbian photographers, to pages of notes and resources, to newly included essays by Lola Flash and the late Tee Corrine, two photographers who have played enormous roles in lesbian and queer visual arts and culture. Less apparent on the pages is the extraordinary community-based work JEB did as part of her distribution plan for the book. For years after its publication, she traveled the country teaching photography workshops to other lesbians so they could produce their own images in resistance to the fetishized and derogatory depictions that still exist today. JEB also put together a slideshow as part of her book tour, titled “Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–the present” or “The Dyke Show,” which eventually grew to include over 400 images, to help those she visited explore a largely inaccessible history.
Eye to Eye is a work of social practice art that existed decades before that term entered the lexicon. Created more than 40 years ago it treats accountability to its community as foundational. But today, even as social practice art proliferates, it’s still rare to see work by artists who remain answerable to those who gave them the subject matter of their work. Beyond being impressed and inspired by this book, it feels to me like a decades-old precursor to contemporary demands for artists to acknowledge their responsibility to the communities they depict.