Sophie Hackett on Queer Looking

Three decades ago Joan E. Biren, an American photographer, crisscrossed the country presenting a continually changing slide show that told an alternative history of photography, one with lesbians as central protagonists, called Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–the present (also known as the “Dyke Show.”) Sophie Hackett, associate curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, wrote about Biren’s groundbreaking, if under-the-radar, project for Aperture magazine #218, Spring, “Queer.” This excerpt first appeared in Issue 4 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app. 

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Brassaï, Lulu at the bar, ca. 1930 © Estate Brassaï – RMN and courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

From 1979 to 1985, American photographer and activist Joan E. Biren (JEB) traveled across the United States and Canada delivering an ever-evolving slide show, Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–the present, more affectionately known as the “Dyke Show.” Over the course of two and a half hours, JEB narrated and presented more than three hundred images to women who gathered in church basements, community centers, women’s bookstores, and coffeehouses, eager for, as Carol Seajay, cofounder of San Francisco’s Old Wives Tales feminist bookstore and publisher of Feminist Bookstore News, put it in an early review, “Images I had never seen before, images I had seen and not perceived. Images on which to build a future.” The slide show was designed to grow over the years, as JEB added new pictures by contemporary photographers and participants in the photography workshops that she led wherever she appeared with the show. It eventually included 420 images. What began as a way to distribute and give context to JEB’s self-published monograph, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (1979), became a vocation. She ultimately presented the slide show at least eighty times in more than sixty places.

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Berenice Abbott, Princess Eugene Murat, 1929 © Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics/Getty Images and courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

JEB structured the Dyke Show in six sections that presented historical photographs by figures such as Lady Clementina Hawarden, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Alice Austen, and Berenice Abbott, alongside a range of contemporary portraits, erotica, and documentary photographs of the early gay liberation movement, her own work, and that of her peers, including Cathy Cade, Tee Corinne, Diana Davies, and Kay Tobin. She laid out for her audiences a new visual history, one with lesbians at its center. In line with lesbian and feminist consciousness-raising sessions of the 1960s and 1970s, JEB used the slide shows as a collective exercise in reading photographs to highlight the paucity of the visual record for lesbians and to impart a new way of looking, a queer way of looking.

She did this in two ways. First, she identified historical photographers who, in her view, rebelled against social norms and narrow expectations for women and, in their work and in their lives, embodied a sense of strength, freedom, autonomy. Hawarden, Johnston, Austen, and Abbott formed the focus here. In a recent email, JEB wrote, “Because relatives and others destroyed the evidence of lesbian lives, and because many photographers had to stay closeted in order to survive or make a living in prior times, there wasn’t a lot of overt evidence. That’s why I felt it was necessary to ‘read between the lines’ of the existing biographies to interpret the images myself given my own experience and instincts.” JEB suggested that there is something in the photographs by these women that can be “read” against biographies that may have suppressed or omitted details about their relationships and sexuality. The photographs supplied a different kind of evidence, discernible perhaps only to those who knew what they were looking for.

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Joan E. Biren, Photographers at the Ovular, a feminist photography workshop at Rootworks, Wolf Creek, Oregon, 1980 © 2014 JEB (Joan E. Biren)

Frances Benjamin Johnston’s 1896 cigarette-smoking, beer stein–toting, ankle-revealing self-portrait is a strong case in point: Johnston’s playful self-presentation in this photograph defied the more demure, ladylike norms of her time. Offering information about Johnston’s life as a successful photographer—she is described in the 1974 monograph A Talent for Detail as an “eccentric,” “bohemian” woman who never married—JEB hinted during her slide show that Johnston may have been a lesbian. Though not able to offer clear evidence of Johnston’s sexuality, JEB nonetheless felt that assuming Johnston was heterosexual was equally tenuous.

Second, JEB sought to forge what she now describes as a “lesbian semiotics” (though she admits she learned the term much later and was not aware of Hal Fischer’s 1977 book Gay Semiotics). She detailed what she calls the “triangle” of interactions between the photographer, the muse (subject), and the viewer. (She elaborates on this further in her article “Lesbian Photography—Seeing Through Our Own Eyes,” published in Studies in Visual Communication in 1982.) She contrasted photographs made by straight photographers and those made by lesbians. And, in a section called “The Look, the Stance, the Clothes,” JEB attempted to identify more concretely the visual elements that might characterize a lesbian photograph.

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Frances Benjamin Johnston, Self Portrait, 1896 Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

For example, she identified a direct look as the product of a certain rapport between photographer and subject, as in Berenice Abbott’s portraits of Eugene Murat, Jane Heap, or Janet Flanner. “There’s a look here that’s passing between a lesbian muse . . . and a lesbian photographer, something direct about it, without being confrontative [sic], it’s open in a certain kind of way, there’s a presence there behind the eyes,” she stated during a 1982 slide show at the Women’s Building in San Francisco. JEB found this directness lacking in other portraits of these women, indicating that they didn’t “look as powerful.” Or she characterized certain postures (slouchy) or clothing (pants, creatively fashionable garb) as more lesbian than others.

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fierce pussy, “Special Right?” 1991–95 © fierce pussy and courtesy the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York

Such a project may feel quaintly essentialist today when queer images are so much easier to find. Audience comment cards reveal that not everyone embraced JEB’s approach even then—some felt she was replacing one set of stereotypes with another. Queer looking was just evolving. However, it is important to note how radical it was to even publicly contemplate a question like Is there a lesbian aesthetic? at the time, as that generation of queers fought for basic civil rights, built communities, and embraced their distinctiveness. JEB proposed a new relationship to photography to her audiences, one that would empower them as creators and interpreters of their own image. “Understanding you have a place in history and in the present day with others like yourself is what gave people the courage to take the risks that coming out in those years demanded,” she explained in a recent email.

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Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, In the Life, 1995 (cover) Courtesy the artists and Special Collections, E.P. Taylor Library & Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

JEB’s grassroots campaign is best understood as one of the projects that developed alongside the LGBTQ rights movement from the 1960s on, whose larger aim was greater visibility as a path to greater acceptance: the production of a visual record. In a 2004 interview as part of Smith College’s Voices of Feminism Oral History project, she declared, “I dredged up all these images, which may or may not have been lesbian images. I decided to talk about why I thought they were lesbian images from history. Because this void, this emptiness, this blank of history drove me crazy.”

Sophie Hackett is associate curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

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