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‘Revolutionary’ photo book of lesbians reissued for the first time since 1979

“It’s a great gift to all of us who have lived our lives in the closet,” Farmer said. “I certainly didn’t know I was in the closet. I didn’t know what that meant. There was no one I saw who was like me — not until I got to Washington and met this group of women that I had any piece of liberation.”

JEB also sought to make the work accessible to as many as possible. When it was published in 1979, the book was priced at $8.95, which was a considerable amount of money for many at the time. To that end, JEB said she made other items, like postcards and calendars, to provide a way to see the work without necessarily breaking the bank.

Following the publication of “Eye to Eye,” JEB took her work on the road as part of what she affectionately called the “dyke show” but was more formally known as “Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850-The Present.” It provided an alternative history of photography, one that ran counter to the narrative of pioneering white men braving the elements in faraway places.

Women, lesbians in particular, have been practitioners of photography since its inception in the mid-19th century, and JEB took inspiration from foremothers like Berenice Abbott — who was renowned for her portraiture, images of early 20th century New York and contributions to scientific photography — whom JEB once had the good fortune of meeting.

“I was showing lesbians images that they wanted to see and had never seen before, giving them a history that they yearned for,” JEB said of the women who attended her shows.

Mabel. New York, 1978.JEB (Joan E. Biren)

JEB’s contribution is one of lives lived. In her photographs, lesbians work, raise families and rally for their rights. They relax and socialize and embrace each other.

The book is notable, too, for its intersectionality. JEB set out to document as much of the lesbian community as possible, and her photographs show not just white women but women of color, women with disabilities, older women and younger women.

Perhaps the most important photograph for JEB is the self-portrait of her and her lover that sparked “Eye to Eye.” Because she had to borrow a camera to take it, she never had the negative, only a small print that she carried with her ever since. It wasn’t until a few years ago that her friend unearthed and sent her the negative that had eluded her for more than 40 years.

“Being reunited with that negative was thrilling to me,” JEB said. “It brought everything back. I had held onto that little print, and it was getting a little worn after 40 years of banging around with me.”

Looking back, JEB said she has lived a life without regrets, but if there is one thing she wishes she could have done, it would have been to photograph lesbian communities around the world. Without money and institutional support, however, she was unable to make that happen. Yet, her work helped to make it possible for subsequent generations of photographers like her to tell their own stories.

“For me, this is very exciting,” she said. “It makes me a proud foremother.”

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