The Photo Book That Let Lesbians See Themselves

In 1971, in Washington, D.C., twelve women founded a radical lesbian group called the Furies Collective. The feminist movement at the time still tended to treat lesbians as an albatross, an unsavory faction that undermined the movement’s credibility. The Furies and other lesbian feminists sought to turn this logic inside out: What could be more quintessentially feminist than women loving other women? One Furies member, Joan E. Biren, took an active part in formulating the collective’s theories. She had studied politics at Mount Holyoke College and at Oxford, worked as a summer employee at the State Department, and, as a child, accompanied her father to work at the Pentagon. As the Furies interrogated patriarchal values, though, Biren’s élite education began to seem like a problem as much as an asset. It didn’t help that she was a fluent and aggressive debater. Some Furies members alleged that Biren had “a prick in the head,” and she took the criticism seriously. “I needed to shut up,” she later said. “And that’s how I became a photographer.”

JEB (Self-Portrait), Dyke, Virginia, 1975.

Before she’d even acquired a camera, Biren decided that she would publish a book of photos of lesbians. The only picture she’d ever seen of two women kissing was a wallet-sized selfie, taken on a borrowed camera with her lover at the time. Biren thrilled to look at it, and she wanted to make more photos that showed open, proud gay women. “I thought of myself absolutely as a propagandist,” she later said. Another Furies member, during a trip to Tokyo to attend activist meetings, bought Biren a Nikkormat at an airport duty-free store. To learn the basics of photography, Biren enrolled in a correspondence course and took a job at a mom-and-pop camera store. She invented a new moniker for her new identity, JEB (pronounced “Jeb”), and began searching out portrait subjects.

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