On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with photographer, filmmaker, and activist Joan E. Biren (also known as JEB) about her groundbreaking 1979 book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians. They discussed how she found a diverse cross-section of the community to photograph, the barriers that affected how the book came together, and the gratifying creative process of reissuing the volume in 2021. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: I can tell from these photos that you didn’t meet these women, take the photos five minutes later, and move on.
Joan E. Biren: If somebody had been identified to me as a possible person who might be in the book, I would usually write to them or meet them or talk to them without a camera being present. I would explain what I was doing. I would be very clear that this was meant for publication. I had designed special release forms that said, “I can be identified as a lesbian. I can have my name. I can have whatever.” Then people could decide whether they wanted their whole name or just their first name. Mostly the process was for me to explain why I thought they in particular would be a wonderful person to be in the book, why I wanted them to be in the book. It was a way of building understanding and trust before we got to the place when there was a camera present.
Would there be a photo session? That feels like something you would do in a studio, but you were in their homes, you were in their fields if they were in a rural situation. Was there a general picture of the experience of making the photos that eventually made it into the book or into your other photographic output?
It depended on how much time I would have with the person, but I always wanted as much time as possible, because the longer you hang out with somebody with a camera, the less aware of the camera they become, and they just start being more and more whoever they are. I’m very non-directive. I would much prefer the person to just do their life and let me follow them around. So if that was possible, that’s the way we did it.
If we had a very short time frame, I would say to them: “Well, how would you like to do this? Where would you like to be in your home or in your space? And what would you like to be doing?” And we’d go from there. I do not believe in posing people, because it decreases the authenticity of the photograph to me. I think people understand it and feel the energy of a photograph even if they’re not conscious of what they’re experiencing looking at it. I think the energy that was happening when it was made is in the image.
Did you always work in black and white?
No. I mostly worked in black and white because all the publications could only print black and white, because black and white was cheaper. I could do all my own developing and enlarging—at that time there was still a risk if you sent your film to a professional commercial place that they would confiscate it, based on the obscenity laws. So, for a long time, I did not use color film. But when I could afford it, I started using two cameras, one with black and white and one with slide film. Then I started making slideshows.
The book was published by Glad Hag Books, but that’s you, right?
That’s me. There’s no other glad hag. I’m the only one. I had no staff, no nothing—just me.
You’d already done this tough job of going out there into the world, finding women to make photos of, making their photos, getting their permission, then the whole work of making a book. How did you pay for it?
I did what we would now call crowdfunding. I raised the money within the community. Most of it was small loans by a lot of people, and one major donor, who also forgave her loan. It was funded by the community, because I sure didn’t have the money.
No existing lesbian or gay press would do it because I wanted it on good paper. I had only ever seen the work on newsprint, and I was determined that it would be on coated stock and that was too expensive for the existing presses. For the same cost they could put out, like, five books of text.
The hardest part was not raising the money. The hardest part was finding a printing press that would print these images. What I had to do was get a very young Nan Hunter, who had just gotten out of law school and turned out to be one of the best lesbian lawyers ever. She had to go to the press and develop this legal paper that exempted them from liability, because they thought that all the women would sue them because they were being identified as lesbians. It was unheard of. So we had to get a second round of releases, in which we lost some of the people. And then we had this legal exemption, and then one of the printers refused on religious grounds to work on the project. And then, because I did not have enough money, I had to camp out at the press, which was in Baltimore, to look at the proofs as they came off the press, because I didn’t have the money to pause the press to have them send me the proofs. So, the printing was really a hard piece of getting it made.
How many copies did you print in the original?
The original run was 5,000 copies, which is a lot for a photography book, and it sold out, I think, in three months.
I went back to press and did a second printing, which also sold out pretty rapidly. It speaks to the hunger that was in our community to have authentic reflections of who they were. Books just disappeared. Many of them also disappeared without being bought from bookstores and libraries. People were so afraid that they’d just steal this book. And I’m glad they did.