The Photographer Who Captured 20th-Century Queer Life

Joan E. Biren’s images from the ’70s and ’80s—which appear in the new exhibit “Art After Stonewall”reflect an effort to document and encourage lesbian love.

JEB’s confident self-portrait—along with dynamic photographs from various LGBTQ demonstrations—lines the outside of the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York City. (Kristine Eudey / Leslie-Lohman Museum)
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
Updated at 12:00 AM ET on June 19, 2019

In her classic 1975 self-portrait, the lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren (or “JEB,” as she is more commonly known) tacitly shifts the meaning of a road sign. Smiling, with a glint in her eye, she leans comfortably against the post, her confident posture signaling a reconfiguration of the word emblazoned above her head: DYKE points not to the Virginia town the sign is announcing, but to the photographer herself. Self-Portrait, Dyke, VA (1975) is a reclamation of the slur and a confrontation with all but JEB’s most kindred viewers.

JEB’s cheeky photo is among several other works by the documentarian being shown as part of “Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989,” an exhibition currently on view at New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and Grey Art Gallery. In this context, the photo takes on deeper meaning amid the broader trajectory of queer struggle: The show, which joins several others around the country examining LGBTQ contributions to art in the years since the Stonewall uprising, is a non-exhaustive survey of works across medium, genre, and decades. Curated by Jonathan Weinberg, with Tyler Cann and Drew Sawyer, “Art After Stonewall” includes a range of 150 artistic productions: pins, installations, photos, paintings, and sculptures. Some gesture obliquely toward the violence that led to the riot for which the series is named; others look inward.

Among its most compelling works are portraits, such as those by JEB and the photographer Diana Davies, that constituted some of the earliest widely distributed images of 20th-century queer life. Often in black and white, these photos chronicle moments of everyday tenderness between LGBTQ people, especially lesbians, as well as historical landmarks (including, of course, the Stonewall Inn). In one particularly striking JEB photo, taken in 1980, the lesbian feminist poet and scholar Audre Lorde reads at a podium. Lorde is jubilant, the movement and power of her words captured with palpable reverence and affection in JEB’s print. (The photographer also documented Lorde’s friend and collaborator, the poet Pat Parker.)

JEB’s portraits, and much of the other work in “Art After Stonewall,” is both implicitly and explicitly political. The photographs range from images of lesbians kissing outdoors to a depiction of nude women gathered at the “Ovular,” a feminist photography workshop. In addition to JEB’s photographs, the show also includes copies of The Furies, the newspaper published by the lesbian separatist collective she and others formed in 1971. The documents, like the photographer’s self-portrait, are at once sly and provocative—they wink at knowing in-group members while shirking outside attention. The radical feminist periodical off our backs, for example, is invoked by the presence of On Our Backs, the first widely distributed lesbian erotica—a sexual milestone that also celebrates queer women’s bodies and the tensions they held. In reflecting an ongoing movement, these works also enabled its growth.

Biren’s portraits, such as Gloria and Charmaine (1979), were born of the photographer’s desire to reflect queer realities she didn’t see elsewhere. (Joan E. Biren)

Indeed, the Washington, D.C.–area photographer has said she first identified as a propagandist, then as an artist. JEB conceived of her photographic mandate as inseparable from the project of historical record-keeping, of bringing queerness out of the shadows. “I wanted to be a photographer in large part because I needed to see images of lesbians, and it was a visceral thing. I wanted a reflection of my reality, and I think everybody wants that,” JEB told the historian Kelly Anderson in 2004 as part of Smith College’s Voices of Feminism Oral History Project. “My experience is that there’s an enormous hunger among people to be able to see themselves.”

She continued:

I really felt like my camera was a barometer of the climate of the times, because it got easier and easier and easier to, as people came out and the movement grew and people felt more comfortable. So that there was a synergy there between me putting out the images, people seeing that people weren’t immediately, hauled off to jail or whatever their fears were, that people didn’t lose their jobs, that I was careful and respectful. ... We were not a visible community. So I was making something visible and the more it became visible, the more it encouraged other people to be visible.

Though more than four decades have passed since JEB began her catalytic work, her initial mission remains relevant, if also complicated by the nonlinear progress of various queer movements. For LGBTQ people, the stakes of being seen have always been high—at times, a matter of life and death.

Transgender women of color, including activists such as Miss Major, who was present for the inciting actions at Stonewall, have long cautioned against starry-eyed characterizations of LGBTQ social advances in recent decades, artistic or otherwise. “If Stonewall would have made a difference, things would be better today,” she told HuffPost last year. Visibility, in art and beyond, has never guaranteed queer people their safety; often, particularly for transgender women of color, increased representation has portended high rates of violence.

Consequently, the challenge of evaluating the art associated with the movement that swelled after the Stonewall riots is the same conundrum that animates the work: What does it really mean to be seen, and by whom? “Art After Stonewall” doesn’t attempt to answer that question neatly, or conclusively. For some, such as JEB, art has been a vehicle through which to reflect—and affirm—communities rendered invisible in spaces of artistic and political power. For others, such as the members of the activist art collective Gran Fury, art can function to indict the people and systems whose (in)action contributed to the devastation of the AIDS crisis. Still others, such as the painter Glenn Ligon, whose No. 417 (Sweetheart) hangs in the Grey Art portion of the exhibit, offer achingly tender meditations on same-gender longing.

In the context of “Art After Stonewall,” JEB’s dual mandate, of capturing and encouraging love between women, is both admirable and almost crushingly optimistic. It’s impossible to consider the simple joy of a kiss between women, as in JEB’s Gloria and Charmaine (1979), without also acknowledging the fear of homophobic violence, especially from law enforcement (as in the JEB installation that wraps around the Leslie-Lohman’s outer facade). Still, the photographer and filmmaker’s first instincts remain resonant: “It was just about, we need this, it has to happen, nobody’s doing it, I’m going to do it. Because I need it personally.”