In the late ’60s, Joan E. Biren, best-known by the moniker JEB, wanted to see a picture of two lesbians kissing, but could not find one. This acute desire to see herself portrayed in an image—what the artist now calls “representational justice”—prompted her to take a photograph of herself with Sharon Deevey, her lover at the time, smiling as they engaged in the oral act of affection. It would become the first picture in her long career as a photographer of women-loving women, labia, and other totems of lesbian life.
“Self-portrait with Sharon” (1970), along with other images of lesbians kissing, sleeping, mothering, protesting, and embracing became Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (self-published in 1979; reissued by Anthology Editions in 2021), the first book of lesbian photography ever published. JEB’s documentation of the reality of lesbian life in the United States—away from the male gaze, beyond the beauty standards of the time, and in very close community and collaboration with her subjects—articulates an idea of beauty born out of authentic representation.
In her research of queer imagery, JEB began to cobble together a conception of herself within a lesbian art-historical lineage, though one that was totally invisible, if not willfully obscured, by an exclusionary art and academic world. Wanting to bring this vision to her community, she amassed more than 400 images, taken by herself and others, compiling them into an ever-evolving slideshow she informally called “The Dyke Show” (and formally titled “Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–The Present”) that she carted around from 1979 through 1985 in her unreliable VW Microbus, showing it at colleges, community centers, lesbian bars, and feminist bookstores, to mostly female audiences.
With each screening of “The Dyke Show,” which the photographer, now 78, describes as a “unique mixture of history, art history, stand-up comedy, and activism,” JEB serves as a live narrator, locating her lesbian audience in a lineage that, like her, they sensed but had likely never seen. “The interesting thing about knowing you come from somewhere is that it gives people an idea of what the future might look like, and how to move into it,” JEB told me. “It’s very hard to explain that. But I know it’s true.”
Although “The Dyke Show” has retained a level of cult fame among lesbians in and outside of the art world, until four months ago, it hadn’t been shown in its entirety since 1984. The occasion for its screening (complete with JEB as its host) at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York, which I attended along with hundreds of excited queers, was an extraordinary exhibition, titled “Images on which to build, 1970s–1990s” and curated by Ariel Goldberg. It was first presented at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati last fall and is now up at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, until July 30.
With the exception of a recently added introduction and epilogue, and some elisions for accuracy, JEB performs “The Dyke Show” exactly as she did nearly 40 years ago. And yet, when she gets to the introductory slide for lesbian photographer Berenice Abbott, which indicates that she was born in 1898 and “lives and works in Maine,” the whole audience gasped. (“Abbott died. Now we can say she was a lesbian,” JEB chides in the epilogue.) If she were alive today, I thought, she’d be 125!
“The Dyke Show”’s immediacy and relevance connects so powerfully to present-day queer audiences that it’s easy to forget that it’s decades old. Indeed, JEB says the most surprising aspect of the present-day reaction to “The Dyke Show” is how similar it is to how audiences reacted all those years ago. “I did not expect that,” she says. “Back then, there were no images like this in mainstream media or accessible within the community. And now we have a surfeit of images. I think that speaks to the power of knowing your history. Seeing images of queers from the nineteenth century allows people to really believe that we have always existed. That grounds people.”
I can attest that it also makes people hoot and holler, and laugh and cry, in a kind of identification-cum-futurist ecstasy. As JEB says in “The Dyke Show,” “We needed to connect to a past so that we could see a future.” In this way, the work of “The Dyke Show,” JEB says, has a lot in common with the comparison Black scholar-activist adrienne maree brown makes between political organizing and science fiction in her book Pleasure Activism: “I believe that all organizing is science fiction—that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced.”
With “The Dyke Show”—from which a selection of images are shown below—JEB and her audiences engage in a kind of science fiction that “materialized a queer world where one had not existed before.” Still, JEB is quick to point out that, although representation can create confidence and solidarity, it does not amount to material justice in the world. “It can move us towards liberation,” she says. “But it is not liberation.” “The Dyke Show” may be an unfinished gesture, but it is thrilling, and certainly beautiful, nonetheless.