Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I am a 75-year-old, white, Jewish, lesbian, feminist, living surrounded by my chosen family. I was a photographer and filmmaker. I retired, but it didn’t stick. I will try again. My plan is not to retire from social and economic justice activism.
Becoming. Can you identify when you first started calling yourself a photographer —when you felt comfortable naming yourself as such? How did you morph from someone who takes pictures to “photographer”?
I first started making photographs of lesbians in 1971 with a borrowed camera. I taught myself how to make photographs by trial and error and through a correspondence course. That is the snail mail equivalent of an online course before the existence of computers. I think the fact that I was self-taught made me more reluctant to think of myself as a “real” photographer.
To keep learning, I got a job in a camera store where, because I was a woman, I was assigned to the side of the store where we took in customers’ film for processing. That did not advance my image-making skills. On the other side, the men learned about and sold the photographic equipment. I pushed for and, eventually, won a place on that side. When I got my own camera, I made images of my lesbian community for political reasons and thought of myself more as an activist and propagandist.
I began to think of myself as a photojournalist when I realized I had to have a press pass to make some of the images I wanted. I convinced the feminist newspaper off our backs to sponsor my press credentials. When my first book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, was published in 1979, I identified as a cultural worker. By 1987 when my second book, Making A Way: Lesbians Out Front, came out, I was comfortable calling myself a photographer. I can’t locate any particular thing that happened that made me feel ok using that description. Later, after I started making films, I considered myself a documentarian. It took many more years before I was able to say I was an artist/activist, which is how I think of myself now.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
I am working on a portfolio of the 19 images in Being Seen Makes A Movement Possible, a site-specific installation on the façade of the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York City. The installation will be there until May 2020. I wanted a permanent record and the Museum generously agreed to produce a limited edition portfolio. Fitting the photographs into the windows of varied shapes and sizes required some weird crops. Now, I am working on the dimensions of each image for the portfolio.
Other work that I do regularly includes providing images, historical information, and encouragement to folks making films, books, and other media. I also consult with activists to help them find an appropriate archive for their papers, ephemera, etc. And, at this moment, I am answering your questions.
Borrowing. Tell us a little about your artistic lineage. Who are the artists and/or works that influence you? Who or what inspires you and why?
Before I began research to find my lesbian foremothers in photography, the documentary photographers Lewis Hine and W. Eugene Smith influenced me. I was drawn to their work because the images were compelling enough to help bring about social change. Lewis Hine photographed children in terrible working conditions and eventually that led to laws prohibiting child labor. W. Eugene Smith’s photographs deeply moved me. His photo essay in Life Magazine in 1972 brought worldwide attention to the deadly effects of mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan.
I was very influenced by the work of three lesbian photographers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Alice Austen, Frances Benjamin Johnston and Berenice Abbott. I have an image from each of them framed and hanging in my living room that inspire me every day. Alice Austen made the earliest overtly lesbian photos I could find. The pictures she made of her circle of friends were a joy to discover. Frances Benjamin Johnston, who was, like me, from Washington, DC, showed the way for women photojournalists. I particularly liked her documentation of the Hampton Institute for what it taught me about photographing large groups. I was privileged to meet Berenice Abbott whose life and work exemplify excellence and generosity. She helped to raise up and preserve the work of other photographers including Eugene Atget, Lewis Hine and Alice Austen. I admire Abbott’s genius in architectural and scientific photography, but learned the most from her extraordinary portraits.
Blown-away. Show us the last image that completely took your breath away (contemporary or historical—depending on where you’ve been looking). What do you love about it?
French artist JR at the U.S.-Mexico border at Tecate, CA built the work.
I love the scale of the installation made by the artist and how the photographer places it in relation to the wall and the people on the US side. I love the message of the art and what it brings it to people who cannot be at the border in person. For me, the message is that we are keeping harmless, beautiful people from entering our nation: keeping them on the other side of a wall so that all they can do is peer over at us.
Between. Discuss the relationship between you and your subjects (whether people, objects, land). What is the nature of your relationship with the things you photograph or film?
I don’t use the word “subjects” because it connotes dominance of the photographer and gives no agency to the muse. I think language is important and shapes how we feel and think about things. I never say “take a photograph” or “shoot the camera” or “capture an image” because those are such violent terms. I say “make a photograph,” “embrace the image,” and “use the camera” because those phrases more accurately describe what I am doing.
In the early 1980s, in an article called “Lesbian Photography--Seeing through Our Own Eyes,” I wrote: “Where the muse is a woman, we strive for collaboration, not domination. This collaboration extends into something reciprocal, mutual, an exchange of inspirational energy.” I believe that the energy that is exchanged between the photographer their muse becomes transformed into the image, and later the image radiates that same energy.
I agree with Andrew Molitor who recently wrote, “Every picture comes with a built-in debt. You owe the subject (be it a homeless man, a flower, or a rock) some degree of respect, of care in handling of the picture. You owe the subject your effort to do something worthwhile with the picture.” For me, something worthwhile means using it, in whatever small way, to help bring peace and justice to our world. Making an image visible to others, not for the sake of art or money, but to encourage action for change. To show something horrible that has been hidden or to show something positive that makes possibilities real for those who have not experienced them can both move people to act.
Bolster. Whose work do you think deserves a shout-out here, and why? Who haven’t I been hearing about and whose website I should check out immediately?
Since the 1970s, Morgan Gwenwald photographed her lesbian and queer communities in Tallahassee, Washington DC, and New York City. She started volunteering at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in 1979 and her work documenting the LHA can be seen here. For Morgan’s other images—including many that have been published in On Our Backs—you will have to wait for her webpage, which is in progress.
Morgan compiled the first Lesbian Photography Directory in 1982. Later, she put together a timeline of Dyke/Lesbian/Butch/Queer photographers and wrote: “I couldn't feel more proud to be a part of the tribe of glorious, badass dykes & queer folks who came before me.”
Best. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? (It doesn’t need to have been given to you personally or be about photography specifically).
Don’t give a damn what other people think. – Del Martin
What you pay attention to grows. – Adrienne Maree Brown
Progress Not Perfection. – Recovery program
Wear good, comfortable shoes. – Can’t remember who
Best 2. What is the best advice you have to offer someone reading this?
Follow the advice above.
Bonus. What question do you wish I’d asked but didn’t? Pose it: then answer it.
Who are living photographers who inspire you and why?
I want to shout out to Zanele Muholi and Lola Flash who are making fierce images that are reshaping the way African and African-American queers see themselves as well as changing the way others see them. There are still so many parts of our communities that are underrepresented, if not invisible, in the mainstream. Muholi and Flash are making enormous advances into prominent white, male, straight, cis dominated media and institutions. Their images challenge the prevailing order and give courage to those who have been demeaned and oppressed. And those powerful images are so beautiful.