June 19, 2019
The Photographer Who Captured 20th-Century Queer LifeHistorians in the News
tags: photography, art, LGBTQ
In her classic 1975 self-portrait, the lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren (or “JEB,” as she is more commonly known) tacitly shifts the meaning of a road sign. Smiling, with a glint in her eye, she leans comfortably against the post, her confident posture signaling a reconfiguration of the word emblazoned above her head: dyke points not to the Virginia town the sign is announcing, but to the photographer herself. Self-Portrait, Dyke, VA (1975) is a reclamation of the slur and a confrontation with all but JEB’s most kindred viewers.
JEB’s cheeky photo is among several other works by the documentarian being shown as part of “Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989,” an exhibition currently on view at New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and Grey Art Gallery. In this context, the photo takes on deeper meaning amid the broader trajectory of queer struggle: The show, which joins several others around the country examining LGBTQ contributions to art in the years since the Stonewall uprising, is a non-exhaustive survey of works across medium, genre, and decades. Curated by Jonathan Weinberg, with Tyler Cann and Drew Sawyer, “Art After Stonewall” includes a range of 150 artistic productions: pins, installations, photos, paintings, and sculptures. Some
Among its most compelling works are portraits, such as those by JEB and the photographer Diana Davies, that constituted some of the earliest widely distributed images of 20th-century queer life. Often in black and white, these photos chronicle moments of everyday tenderness between LGBTQ people, especially lesbians, as well as historical landmarks (including, of course, the Stonewall Inn). In one particularly striking JEB photo, taken in 1980, the lesbian feminist poet and scholar Audre Lorde reads at a podium. Lorde is jubilant, the movement and power of her words captured with palpable reverence and affection in JEB’s print. (The photographer also documented Lorde’s friend and collaborator, the poet Pat Parker.)
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