The Activism and Artistry of Joan E. Biren’s Photography
S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership. But.
S2: 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. And I’m very non directive. I would much prefer the person to just do their life and let me, you know, follow them around.
S3: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Isaac Butler,
S1: and I’m your other host, June Thomas.
S3: And that other voice you heard at the top of the show is the legendary photographer and activist Joni Byron. But before we get to her, June, I feel like it’s been forever since the two of us did an episode together. What have you been up to?
S1: Oh, my God. I know. So are you ready for this? My latest weird obsession is it’s a kind of an extension of my fascination with to productivity gurus. I have developed a deep and profound interest in a piece of software called Knowshon, and I’ve spent an unfathomable amount of time in the last few weeks watching videos of people building dashboards and relational databases and personal operating systems.
S3: What is Knowshon, what is this thing?
S1: I want to turn this into an ad for notion. I’m just saying go to YouTube and look up Knowshon videos because they are bonkers.
S4: All right. This is my Knowshon Dashboard, also known as My Life Hub. It’s pretty much the home of literally everything if this year
S1: it’s an all in one piece of software. So I think that’s why it’s so popular on YouTube, because, like, it’s useful for students bringing all their notes together. It’s useful for, like, seriously crazy productivity gurus who have, like, you know, a million different pillars and and vaults and, you know, activity areas and and people who have template banks for making their YouTube video like it’s everything. And I suspect that 99 percent of the world would find it like dull as well. Fuck. But I, I’m just into it.
S3: Amazing. So let’s talk about this week’s guest, Joan Byron, better known as GEB. What do we need to know about her?
S1: So Joan is a really interesting woman. She was part of the Fury’s collective, which was, of course, a lesbian separatist commune based in DC in the early 70s, which put out a great magazine. She was a groundbreaking videographer and filmmaker, but she’s best known as a photographer. She’s one of the greats of the last 50 years and she specialized in making photos of lesbians and lesbian feminists and feminists. I find her work particularly interesting because she did both the sort of like art meets documentary type chronicling of lesbian women and the lives they lead. But as someone who is very much of Washington, DC, she was also a great chronicler of protests and marches and Zopp actions. And, you know, I lived in DC in the 80s. And when I think about being in a group yelling slogans, I can just picture Joan there with her camera, whether it was Akesson at the Supreme Court when Bowers v. Hardwick came down or anti-apartheid protests at the South African Embassy, she was always there. And it’s her photographs that are kind of know the encapsulation of those events. That’s how we remember them.
S3: Now, in the interview, you mentioned something called the Off Our Backs Collective. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
S1: Yes. So Alphabet’s was what the most had proclaimed to be a radical feminist news-journal, I have to say, just because I’m kind of worried we were not turfs. That is a more modern association with radical feminism. And the magazine operated between 1970 and 2008. The frequency changed a little bit over time. But when I was on the collective, which was approximately 1985 to 1990, we published monthly. And as you say, it was a collective where we reached decisions about what to publish and everything else by consensus. That was a lot of fun. It was a volunteer project, very low budget, and it was, you know, grassroots feminist politics and debates and and news coverage and reviews.
S3: Yeah. You know, I do think it’s really important for some of our listeners who might be younger or might not know that much about it. To have a little bit of context about the state of play with LGBTQ publishing in the 80s and 90s, like I remember in 1994, if I wanted to buy a book about gay subject matter in the Washington, D.C. area, I very specifically had to take the red line to Dupont Circle, go to Lambda Rising and get it there, because that’s the only place that I was going to get it. And, you know, there was the Washington Blade was available both places, but it’s not like
S1: there was Lomez, the feminist bookstore. But yeah. Yeah. Jonan, I get into this a bit. I think for people who’ve grown up when there was kind of a recognition that homophobia and misogyny are really not acceptable and were there was some and gradually kind of evolving civil rights, it can be really hard to understand how challenging it was to find positive images of lesbians or gay men, you know, whether it was photographs or words or just about. Any version and how dangerous it was to present yourself as such, we talk in the interview about Jones classic book of photography, Eye to Eye. And in that book there were some photographs of lesbians with their children and so many women lost custody of their kids or they were threatened with losing custody of their kids. And I think it’s just, you know, I just I want to recognize it’s hard for people today to realize how much courage it took to be in those photos. So much of the discrimination that lesbians and gay men faced back then was was legal and it just made everything so challenging.
S3: Yeah. And you also do have a little special tidbit for Slate plus subscribers this week. Tell us about it.
S1: Sure do. I talked to Joan about how she feels about receiving at least some recognition really rather late in life. She’s in her mid 70s now, and it’s only in the last few years that her work has been featured in mainstream exhibitions. She now has some photos in the National Portrait Gallery, for example, but they didn’t get there without quite a bit of work going into that.
S3: Yeah. And, you know, that is, of course, a perfect segue way to talk about the many, many benefits of Slate. Plus, because let me tell you, listeners, not only will you get this little bit of bonus content from this episode, you’ll get all sorts of other goodies, including say it with me now, zero ads on any Slate podcast, bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do right here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to Slate Dotcom working plus. All right. Let’s listen in to Jeunes conversation with the great Jeff.
S1: So who are you and what do you do?
S2: Well, my name is Joan Byron and I also go by the name GEB. I am a supposedly retired but not really photographer, filmmaker and activist.
S1: So I should say before we start that, although our paths haven’t crossed all that much in the last couple of decades, we knew each other back in the eighties in Washington, D.C. when I was on the off our backs collective and worked at Lomez, I think. And we were both dicks about tone. But I also remember like filling in an official form every year so that you got a city press pass. So, you know, we and we were in the same kind of activist circles back then. But you weren’t part of the collective above four bucks. You were kind of an independent creator, right?
S2: Yes. I think it’s important to point out that through all my years of being a still photographer, I never had any institutional support. I never got grants or fellowships or any of that. And all of my financial support came from within the lesbian community by people coming to see my slide shows and buying my books and so on.
S1: Your classic book, Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians, which was first published in 1979 but which has been out of print for many years, has just been reissued. So we’ve got a bit of a history based episode today. We’re not necessarily talking about your creative process today in 2021 as to what your creative process was, but when you put this book together in 1979. So what was your life like in 1979?
S2: Yes. So in 1979, I was a lot younger and I was out as a lesbian and I was trying to find visual images of lesbians because I needed to see them, you know, and I I couldn’t find images that looked like me or you or our friends or our lovers. The images I found were either overly romanticized and, you know, white, young, slim people or they were the monster mainstream, scary porno type images. So I decided to try to make those images myself. And then when I had what I thought was a good number that represented a good cross-section of our population, I decided to make a book. And I ended up self publishing for reasons we can get into if you want to.
S1: I mean, I know that when the book came out, it was the first book, photographs of lesbians by lesbian explicitly acknowledged research to be published, which I mean, first of all, that’s a lot of firsts, but also I think a lot of kind of younger people who’ve grown up in recent years almost kind of don’t quite believe that that’s possible.
S2: Oh, they totally don’t believe it. People all over the world don’t believe it.
S1: So creating the first instance of something is magnitudes harder than doing subsequent ones, even if subsequent ones are themselves hard. So do you remember not only deciding you wanted to do a book, but like deciding that you could?
S2: Well, I thought
S1: that it would be possible.
S2: I did not know if it would be possible until. I asked the women that I wanted to photograph if they would agree to have their faces and names in a book that said where the photograph was made and that was sort of irreparably coming out for those people and anybody could get a book. And if the women had not agreed, there would have been no book. It was the courage of these women that made the book possible. And there were many women who could not agree to do that. There were women who ran the other way when they saw a camera. And the reason is that there were great risks to coming out at that time. And I absolutely understood why people would not agree. And, you know, you could lose your children, your home, your family, you could be deported. I mean, so many things that were horrible were legal to be done to you. And yet here with these courageous women who understood that lifting the burden of hiding, of lying, of denying who you were, was also worth taking some risks. And it was by them showing other people that it was possible is I think a great deal of the power of this book was as the power of example, and that it became sort of not only representational in that way, but aspirational for some people.
S1: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I will get back to the book in the making up in a second. But I’m also aware that, you know, the book, it was somewhat hard to find even, you know, in the early days, like you kind of had to go into a feminist bookstore, probably, but you had postcards to write. A lot of the photos in the book were also available as postcards. And I feel like those were even more I mean, of course, they were more accessible in the sense that with cheaper they were easier to buy. People would put them up on their walls. Like that was really putting yourself out there, right. I mean, they weren’t only going to live in a book.
S2: You know, the whole reason I was making the photographs was so that people would have them and I wanted them to be as accessible as possible. So most of the photographs of mine that I ever saw were on cheap newsprint and looked awful. So when you have towns bleeding into themselves and I made the postcards and the book and some calendars so that people could purchase them and take them home and and have them. And there are some wonderful stories about people seeing the postcards up on people’s fridges and that being a signal to each other, you know, people finding each other as lesbians because of seeing my images in their homes. And that makes me, you know, thrilled at that.
S1: OK, so back to the book. You’ve made the decision you’re going to do it. You’ve realized that women are willing to have their photos, you know, go out into the world, but then you had to take them because these photos are not all just taken, you know, in your backyard. These women are all over the country. They’re all different kinds of women. How did you find them?
S2: Well, we have to remember there was no Internet rights, so it was difficult to find them. And what I did was travel all around and I was sort of passed from friend to friend, and it was all word of mouth. I had a vision of what I wanted in the book, I knew it couldn’t be just our friends, you know, in Washington, D.C., because we were too alike and our politics, although we didn’t have the word, were intersectional. So I would go to a place and I would say, well, I need a rural farming lesbian. Do you know any or I need a working class, you know, older woman or I need whatever I was looking for, I would ask and people would say, well, you could try this person, you could try that person while I don’t know, but ask this other person. And in that way, it was a very collaborative national endeavor.
S1: So you were really kind of tapping into the network and were you writing letters to people?
S1: So it would take a while just to hear that. Right. We were so used to just getting an instant response on email or slike or something, but you had to wait for it to get there, find people come back. Right. I mean, do you know how long it took to kind of gather the photos? When did you like it came out in 79. Do you recall when you started taking the photos that were in there?
S2: I started in 1971, but the truth is that the bulk of the photos were actually all done in the year prior to the publication.
S1: It must have cost quite a bit of money to travel around. And I know you were doing movement jobs. I mean, how did you pay for the travel to make the photos and meet the women who you were going to be photographing? Because I can tell from these photos that you didn’t meet them and take the photos five minutes later and move on.
S2: No, there is quite a process involved, as you can imagine. But the way I got around was, you know, in a broken down old car and I stayed with people. And as you know, most lesbians have cats and I’m allergic to cats. So it was difficult. That was my you know, I needed OSHA or something. And but the process was if somebody had been identified to me as a possible person who might be in the book, I would usually meet them or talk to them or write to them without a camera being present at all. And I would explain what I was doing. I would be very clear that this was meant for publication. I had designed a special release forms that said I can be identified as a lesbian, I can have my name, I can have whatever, and then people could decide whether they wanted their whole name or just their first name and mostly what the process was. That 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. And, you know, it was a way of building, understanding and trust before we got to the place. When there was a camera present,
S1: would there be like a photo session? I mean, that feels 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 kind of picture of the experience of making the photos that eventually, you know, made it into the book or into into your other photographic output, if you will?
S2: 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. And I’m very non directive, you know, 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? Hmm? Where would you like to be in your home or in your space and what would you like to be doing? And then, you know, we’d go from there. But 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 we have was happening when it was made is in the image.
S1: Yeah, and you always I mean, I’m saying this is just because it’s my experience of your work, but did you always work in black and white?
S2: No, no. I mostly worked in black and white because all the publications could only print black and white because black and white was cheaper, because I could do all my own developing and enlarging and that 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 a slide film. And then I started making slide shows.
S1: Uh huh. So the book was published by GLADD had books, but that’s you, right?
S2: That’s me. There’s no other Gladbach. I’m the only one. And I had no staff, no nothing. Just me.
S1: So you’d already done this tough job of going out there into the world, finding women to take photos of getting out there, taking their photos, getting their permission. Then the whole work of making a book. First of all, like, how did you pay for it?
S2: I did what we would now call crowdfunding or Kickstarter, Indiegogo. I raised the money within the community. Most of it was loans, small loans by a lot of people. And one or really one major donor who also forgave her loan. Oh, but, you know, it was funded by the community because I sure didn’t have the money. Right. And no existing lesbian or gay press would do it because I wanted it on good paper. As we said, I had ever, ever only seen it on newsprint. And I was determined that it would be uncoded stock. And that was too expensive for the existing presses because they could put out, you know, like five books of text. So the hardest part was not raising the money. The hardest part was finding a printing press that would print these images. And what I had to do was get a very young Nan Hunter who had just gotten out of law school and was turned out to be one of the, you know, best lesbian lawyers ever. Mm hmm. She had to go to the press and develop this legal paper that exempted them from liability when because they thought that all the women would sue them because they were being identified as lesbians, because it was so unheard of and because the press was somehow legally liable if they did the printing. So we had to get a second round of releases in which we lost some of the people because, you know, 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 sort of camp out at the press, which was in Baltimore, to look at the proof, says they came off the press because I didn’t have the money, you know, to pause the press, to have them send me the proofs. So the printing was really a hard piece of getting it made.
S1: How many copies did you print of the in the original?
S2: The original run was 5000 copies, which is a lot for a photography book, and it sold out I think in three months. Wow. And then I went back to press and did a second printing which also sold out pretty rapidly. And it speaks to the hunger that was in our community to have authentic reflection of who they were. Books just disappeared and many of them also disappeared without being bought from the bookstores and libraries because people were so afraid. They just, you know, steal this book. And I’m glad they did.
S3: We’ll be back with more of Jeunes conversation with Joan Biram after this. So, hey, listeners, a couple of things real quick. First, if you’re enjoying this podcast, please take a moment to subscribe to our feed wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss a second of working. And if you happen to be listening on overcast, please recommend the episode by hitting the star icon. Also, do you have questions about the creative process, big or small, whether you’re trying to learn how to be more concise with your language, a personal struggle of mine, or you’re trying to figure out what to work on next? We would love to help. You can drop us a line at working at Slate Dotcom or give us the old fashioned phone call at three four nine three three w o r k. That’s three four nine three three nine six seven five. Believe it or not, we actually like phone calls. OK, let’s rejoin June’s conversation with Joni Byron.
S1: So one of the things that struck me as I was saying, I haven’t seen the book for years because I didn’t have a copy and it’s been kind of one of those lost books. So glad to see it reissued. And this will sound weird, but I was struck by how a lot of the women are topless. I mean, part of it is I think lesbians used to get topless more back in the day. But also like, was that an issue? I mean, obviously when we when we think of photography books, having topless or nudity, like, that’s not that’s not a problem. That’s part of the art of photography. There’s a lot a lot going on there. But, you know, that’s that’s a reasonable point of view. But there’s a documentary feel to this book. And so I don’t know the sort of partial nudity feels feels a little different in that kind of documenting lives context, even though being addressed at certain points is indeed part of life.
S2: Well, people did think there was a lot of nudity at the time. And people ask me, did I ask these people to take their clothes off? Well, no. This was how we were. As you said in your question, there was a lot of nudity back then, much more than now, I think. And yeah, the only thing I ever did was if someone was nude, I said to them, would you like me to take my clothes off, too? Because that would again equalize the power dynamic. And I have to say, nobody ever said no.
S1: So the book comes out, sells well, but like, what do you do then?
S2: Well, my next act was I was going to go on a very short promotional tour and my friend and colleague and mentor T Charin said to me, well, if you want to go around, you should have a slide show. So I put together a slide show that was called Lesbian Images in Photography eighteen fifty to whatever the year was and became known as The Dyke Show. And I ended up traveling with that show not for a short promotional tour but from nineteen seventy nine to like 1985 or something like that. And it was wonderful because while I was traveling with that show I was photographing for my next book which came out in nineteen eighty seven and was called Making It Way Lesbians Out Front, also published by GLADD had books and the reason I did not keep eye to eye in print was because I needed the money to make the next book. Mm hmm. So that’s why I was so thrilled when Anthology Editions last year came to me and said, Hey, do you want to reissue this book? And I said, I have always, always wanted to reissue this book.
S1: There must have been some decisions that you had, though, around the reissue, like how much of the original what you would change if you would change anything. Can you talk about how this particular. Issue, the issue is different from the original
S2: well, anthology editions is a publisher who really want to stay as true to the original as possible. But here are the changes that we made, all of which have just elevated the book. And I’m just I couldn’t be more happy and pleased about this reissue. First of all, we went back to the original negatives. We rescanned everything. We re edited, edited meaning. We brought out everything that was in that negatives that because the technology is so much better now, you couldn’t see before. And then they were printed in gorgeous do a ton. So they are really beautifully printed. And it’s a hardback book now and it has this great feel to it, cloth cover. And inside all the images are exactly the same. The layout is exactly the same. The design, the font, all of that is exactly the same. What is different inside, besides the images looking so much better, is that we added two essays. One is by the wonderful photographer Lola Flash and the other is by the champion ship soccer player, Lori Lindsey. And because she’s a totally different generation, so she could speak to that. And we added an essay by Charin because even though she’s no longer with us, because she was so important to me, I wanted her voice in there. And then I spent a great deal of time revising the notes and resources at the end of the book so that even though you can’t click on the UI or else they are there and in an updated version. So there’s a lot of new text, but it it’s around the core of the book being exactly what it was.
S1: Yeah, well, as you say, you know, we didn’t have the word intersectional back then, but it is there’s a a lot of different kinds of women, certainly not all young white women. But you mentioned having some regret about one group of people being maybe overrepresented in one group and certainly some people being underrepresented. Can you talk about that?
S2: I’m a lot better now than I was then, and I really regret not having more fat women in the book. It was not part of my consciousness to do that. And I think it’s a mistake.
S1: There’s a quote from Alison Bechdel on the soft plastic shrink wrap about this, this book being like a Lost Family album, which feels really profound. You know, we don’t have photos of self described of lesbians before yours, certainly not in any easily accessible way. Like have you been aware of the importance of this book and of your work and of your postcards and of just of this thing that you did? I mean, not that you stopped working in the 80s, but, you know, those early photos do feel like they have some extra resonance. I think
S2: I do. At the time that it came out, I got a lot of letters that I have recently reviewed because they were, you know, in my archives people saying I was about to give up. You saved me people today because the book has been reissued, aren’t saying what it meant to them then. Lots of wonderful messages on my Facebook page from people who said I still have my original. You know, it meant so much to me. I know I get emotional
S1: now, and the reason
S2: I get emotional is because this is why I did it. And people do tell me people have told me all through all these years, and it is what keeps you going because as you said, you’re certainly not making money.
S1: You know, I as I said, we’ve not been in constant contact by any means, but because I was in D.C. in the 80s and you were such a part of the community, you always events. You were always, you know, always stirring up trouble. And I always thought of you as being, you know, so very central to the movement, to various movements. But it’s a bit. But you weren’t necessarily recognized beyond the community. And it feels like in recent years, finally, that has started to happen. This reissue, you recently had an exhibition at the Leslie Lomond Museum in New York City. When I go to the National Portrait Gallery, I see your photographs, which is I love portrait galleries. But that that’s my favorite thing about about the whole thing. Can you talk about, like, that feeling of I don’t know if you feel like you’re being rediscovered or getting attention that you should have gotten earlier, late, how do you kind of process this whole thing that’s going on?
S2: My primary feeling is I’m so glad I lived long enough to see it, because when I was making the work, I always knew it was important and I thought it would be recognized after I was dead. And the fact that I can enjoy the recognition is really something I’m exceedingly grateful for saying. I was not necessarily recognized as a big understatement.
S1: June outside I recognized
S2: that of the lesbian community. I nobody knew who I was. Nobody cared about my work. And the most surprising thing that’s happening now, well, maybe not the most surprising, but one of the things that is surprising to me is that my work is not only being recognized and acknowledged as important documentary, which is what I thought would happen, but it is being looked at as art and being appreciated as art. And yeah, that is beyond what I had hoped for.
S1: Do you have any regrets about choosing the path you did, you know, you had other options. You were you’re very credentialed. You went to a seven sisters college. You had a graduate degree at a time when many fewer people did than do now. You spent three years at Oxford University, but you chose a political path. And I imagine that young people might be sort of wanting to hear from someone who made a choice like that many years ago and how they feel about it. A few decades later,
S2: I would choose and again in a second, I have no regrets. My parents had a lot of regrets then I did not become a lawyer, so my sister became a lawyer. But I have no regrets. I. Really love doing what I did for my whole life, if had I not loved it as much, I don’t think I would have made some of the sacrifices that it required to be, you know, an artist activist my whole life. And I just. Love the life that I had, I loved the work that I did.
S1: Joni Byron, thank you so much for chatting today. I’m forever a fan. I’m so glad we got to talk with you about your the process of making this amazing book on working. Thank you.
S2: Thank you, June.
S3: June, that was such a great conversation, I was so moved by Jeb and her perspective on her work. One thing you mention is how hard it is to be the first at doing something. It’s like you’re taking a journey and making the map at the same time.
S1: That’s such a nice way of putting it. I mean, talk about creativity. You have to conceive of the thing in the first place, convince yourself that it’s possible, which kind of might be the hardest part of it, and then take care of a lot of really tricky details to actually bring it to life. I mean, publishing a book like Eye to Eye would be a really tough thing to manifest in 2021. But it’s nothing now compared to the degree of difficulty of those pioneering days. It was just really hard.
S3: Yeah, boy, talk about hard, right? The number of hurdles she had to vault over. If she had worked in color, then the lab could have seized her film because it might be obscene. One of the printers wouldn’t make the book on religious grounds. She had to literally camp out at the printers because she had run out of money. It’s a truly shocking number of barriers and it’s amazing the book even exists in the first place.
S1: I know it really is a great reminder of how much of turning creative sparks into concrete products often involves just a lot of plain old stubbornness, just not giving up.
S3: Yeah, I also really loved how she talked about the artist subject relationship that, as you mentioned at the top of the show, there were a lot of potential consequences for appearing and outing yourself in her work. She spent time with the subject. She got to know them. She actively worried about their level of exposure. She wanted to make sure they were comfortable. You know, it’s a far cry from Joan Didion’s adage that journalists are always selling someone out or Janet Malcolm talking about how every journalist, if they’re honest with themselves, knows that what they do is, you know, morally indefensible. What do you make of that as a journalist yourself? How have you navigated that relationship in your own work?
S1: Oh, man, how many hours do we have?
S3: We have seven minutes
S1: to go get a cup of tea. It is really tough. I’m always very open with people that I want to talk to about what I’m hoping to do with the information that they share with me. But in a reporting relationship, you really never know where someone’s words are going to take you, what you’re going to learn about them or the thing they’re telling you about. And sometimes you’re going to keep coming back to them for more. Like I remember, I wrote a big series about gay bars, I think, back in 2011. And the owner of Poni, which is a really cool, queer dive bar in Seattle, gave me like a ton of his time. A ton of information to me behind the scenes was just incredibly generous. And then I had to keep asking for more. How much money are you making? What does X cost? Because, you know, the story needed that kind of detail. And we had a relationship. But it’s not always easy or comfortable to push people in that way. But of course, I also happened to work, thank goodness, in a place where integrity matters and where we think about why we’re asking for things and what that information represents. So very fortunate in that regard, but it’s really tricky.
S3: I was also really grateful to hear her mention body shapes and fatness and her regrets about the lack of diversity in that front in her work. Like you can be really proud of what you’ve accomplished and still see its shortcomings in the rearview mirror. Write the part of creativity. Part of that process is as you grow, you know, seeing your lack of growth in your earlier work.
S1: Yeah, totally being able to criticize your work, your attitudes, your consciousness, krit self grit in movement speak. It’s a key part of getting better, whether that’s as a person or as a photographer or a writer or whatever.
S3: When I have those moments, I can be very hard on myself. Right. And she doesn’t seem to be hard on herself about it. She’s just like my understanding about this has has changed. It’s important when you’re reviewing the old you that you’re still kind to that person. Yeah, absolutely. Totally. I don’t know. You get really jammed up. Yeah, totally. Gibbs’ gratitude at the wider recognition that she has received late in life is a really stark reminder of how little control we have over our work and its reception when it goes out in the world. We never really know what posterity is going to make of what we do right. What’s going to stand the test of time or why? And maybe it’s foolish to think about our legacy, but but we do think about it nonetheless, right? I think about how many more books can I get on that shelf, my books before I croak or whatever, right. Yes. And, you know, you have been involved in LGBTQ publishing for decades now. You know, how do you think about the future or, you know, as you look at the past. What? What? Still remains, and what does this mean?
S1: Well, I don’t have thought about my own legacy, although recently I’ve been doing some archival research and a couple of times I found pieces that I wrote like 35 years ago, and that is terrifying. But I am constantly thinking about the legacy of the feminist and lesbian feminist activism of the semi recent past, like especially the 80s and 90s, I guess, since that’s when I was most active. So much has been forgotten or I would say unfairly dismissed. You know, I’ve been reading old magazines from the 70s like The Furies or the very first issues of Sinister Wisdom, a magazine that is still being published today. And there is some amazing writing in there, like really profound ideas that I don’t want to say they’ve been lost, but they certainly could benefit by being resurfaced, let’s say. And as hokey as it is, it seems like a good time to quote something from Joe Nestles, a restricted country, which I’ve also been rereading. She said, We should not use history to stifle the new or to institutionalize the old, rather let it be a source of ideas, visions, tactics that constantly speak to us. And I guess I want to I want to tap that source.
S3: Yeah, that’s funny. You know, one thing that I learn again and again and again, and especially when writing the method and doing the research for it is, you know, most of the things you think to tweet about or whatever, as if no one’s ever thought about them before. Actually, there was an article in The New York Times about them 30 years, you know, like like every argument we might have about acting or the method today a newspaper was having again and again and again every five years. Do you know what I mean? And it’s not to say that there’s nothing new under the sun, but just that if you can have some humility about that, you can actually really learn some stuff about the subject and about those debates in a way that that that can lead you to somewhere really interesting.
S1: Yeah. And, you know, this is terrible frustration that we want history and progress to move just bam, bam, bam. But actually, you know, it goes forward. It comes back, it wanders off. We kind of forget where we were going. You know, we want we want things to move more quickly. But, yeah, maybe humility is the right way to think of it. It happens at its own pace because that takes away our agency and our activism. But if things don’t happen on a in a straight line, unfortunately.
S3: Well, we hope you have enjoyed the show, if you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you one more slate plus pitch, because Slate plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And more importantly, at least to me, you’ll be supporting the work we do right here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate Dotcom working.
S1: Plus, thanks to Jeff Jonie Byron for being our guest this week and to our producer, the irrepressible don’t even try to impress him. Cameron Drus join us next week when ICIC will be talking to Anthony Fortenberry, chief nursing officer at Kalyn Lord, about the creative challenges of adapting to the covid outbreak. Until then, get back to work. He sleepless listeners, thank you so much for your support. Here’s some special extras just for you. You know, we’ve had photographers on working before and we’ve always talked to them, you know, as if there were artists, which of course they are. And I think I have spoken with you slightly differently, focusing maybe on the political significance of your work. And that is only a part of your of your ERV. I mean, these are beautiful photographs that really take you to a place in a and a time. And if that’s not art, I don’t know what is. And that makes me think of Lenos who say it. I was really struck when I saw your work in the National Portrait Gallery. Can you talk about how it got there?
S2: Yes, it was because I stood up for myself, which I rarely do. But you may remember that there was this very important, big groundbreaking exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery called hide-And-Seek Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. So already euphemistic, but it was promoted as the first LGBTQ show there or in any major gallery, I think. And I went to it. I was not in it, and nor were many lesbians. I actually counted all the penises that were, you know, on view. And I decided that I would go to the lecture that was being given by the two curators, Jonathan David Katz and David Ward. And I waylaid them after the lecture and I had in hand some of my own photographs, which I gave to David Ward, who was the curator from the Smithsonian. And I said, I know you’re doing a show about modern American poets. Here are two people who need to be in your show. It was my photographs of Audrey Lord and Adrienne Rich. And I said to him, you can have these if you promise to identify them as lesbians when you put the pictures on the wall. And he did that. And then because I had complained to Jonathan David Katz, who was on the board of the Leslie Loman, he did the first all lesbian show at Leslie Loman that featured me was T and Kathy Kaid. But had I not had the guts and I don’t I was because of all those penises, I think I went there and I said, you know, you really, really need to be representing lesbians better. And it was not just for me. It was, you know, for all of us because it was so unfair. Yeah.
S1: Now, I know from having spoken to you before, I was very careful to avoid asking, how did you find the subjects that you captured in the book? Because I know you there are certain words in the in that you don’t like, but those are kind of standard ways of talking about taking pictures of people. Right. What don’t you like about subjects and capture?
S2: Well, I think the way you talk about something very much frames how you think about it. And in that way, language is important. And if you say, OK, if you say to yourself, OK, I’m going to load up my camera, I’m going to go out there and shoot the picture and capture the image and take it home with me, you are putting yourself in the role of a predator and a dominator of your subject. Right. And I think that if you want the transaction of making a picture with somebody to be collaborative, if that’s your goal, then you have to start by understanding you’re not taking something. You’re making something with that person who is a person. And I’m telling you, I’ve discovered a very other interesting language thing that I want to mention in talking about my book as the first book of lesbians by lesbians. So many of the articles that are being written about it now insist on saying it’s a seminal work. So we go back to them and we say, really, really? You’re going to call this lesbian work seminal, please. And, you know, back in the day when we had workshops, we called that an off. You are,
S1: right? Yes. Just to just to be super clear, seminal has its roots in semen and that sort of generative that route, let’s just say so. Yeah. Very good point. No, I’m going to say something provocative that just popped into my head and I know that you’ll just come right back at me. But one of the things that strikes me, like I, you know, like everyone else these days, I take photos with my phone, but I’m not a natural photographer in the sense that if something happens, the last thing I want to do is put my phone up. I don’t want to be looking through my phone. I want to be looking at it, maybe writing something down. And it strikes me that being an activist and being a photographer is slightly intention because photography, it seems to me as a photographer, is slightly passive. You’re taking a picture of something that’s happening. How do you respond to that? Which I realize does sound a little bit much. But no, I think
S2: it’s a very good question. I would reject the word passive, but I would say that when you have a camera between yourself and what is going on, it is a buffer. It is not you are not in the action. I know this from my own experience because I have done with and without a camera. And the camera does put you a step back from the action in the same way that if you’re actually writing things down, you’re not in the action either because you’re observing the action in order to write it down. It’s the same way with the camera. When I say that I am an artist activist, what I am partly saying is that my activism is my art, that I am using the photographs as an activist. And I’m going to quote Awdry Lord to you now because Awdry Lord is has something to say about anything important and it is always very useful. And Audrey did not believe that there was a distinction between art and activism. And when she said what everybody knows this quote, your silence will not protect you. The corollary is, of course, that your invisibility will not protect you either. So you can’t organize if you’re hiding in the closet. You can’t organize if you can’t find each other. But Audrey also said poetry is the way we help give name to the Nameless so it can be thought. And she goes on to say, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real. And I believe that photograph’s. Are also hints of possibility made real and you know, somebody other black feminists have said, you know, all organizing is based in science fiction because you have to be able to imagine a better world to want to fight to make that better world happen. And that is how I place my photography as activism, that it presents new possibilities because I have had people say to me, you know, I didn’t know you could be black and a lesbian until I saw your pictures. I didn’t know you could be a lesbian and a mother until I saw your pictures. I didn’t know you could, you know, be an auto mechanic or whatever it is. And and, you know, so, yes, the camera distances you from the action. But, yes, the photograph is part of the action.
S1: Thank you, sleepless members. We really appreciate it. Talk to you next week.