“I had the dream American home in the suburbs with the cars and the garden and three children,” Pagan told the photographer JEB. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, but I felt like a miserable failure anyway. And then I started reading all that feminist literature.” JEB (aka Joan E. Biren) photographed Pagan and her partner Kady in Monticello, New York, in 1978. Their portrait appears on the cover of JEB’s history-making book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, first published in 1979 and reissued by Anthology Editions this year.
Eye to Eye, widely regarded as the first book published in the US by a Lesbian photographer, featuring photographs of Lesbians, was made during a complex time in American History, as the Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights, and Black Feminist Movements paved the way for future generations. It was a time of power and strength but also of invisibility; the womyn* in Eye to Eye took a serious risk when they agreed to be featured, and some had second thoughts due to the threat of losing their jobs, homes, or custody of their children.
JEB made her “first lesbian photograph,” a self-portrait with her lover, Sharon, in 1970. Over the next eight years, she traveled throughout the United States to meet the womyn in the book. JEB developed and enlarged her own film; to the obscenity laws in place at the time, sending it out to a commercial lab could have resulted in the confiscation of these extraordinary pictures. She self-published Eye to Eye with the support of her community, who raised the funds to bring the pictures to print.
She struggled to find a printer; some were afraid of lawsuits brought by the womyn in the book, not understanding why they’d want to be publicly identified as Lesbians, in spite of the risks. But once it was out in the world, the book was a revelation. Everyone wanted a copy: after she gifted a copy to the Mt. Holyoke library, it was stolen so many times that they had to lock it up with the rare books from the Middle Ages. In the decades since the first run, readers have told the photographer time and again that they still have their original books from 1979.
This new edition from Anthology Editions is identical to the first, with some additions. As in the 1979 publication, the pictures are accompanied by words from Audre Lorde, Joan Nestle, and Adrienne Rich. The title Eye to Eye comes from Rich’s poem Transcendental Etude: “… two women, eye to eye / measuring each other’s spirit…” This time around, they’re joined by new essays from the photographer Lola Flash, the soccer player Lori Lindsey, and the artist and writer Tee Corinne.
For the womyn JEB photographed in the 1970s, the chance to be seen, authentically and on their own terms, was worth more than any risk they might have faced. Speaking with The Guardian early this year, the photographer remembers arriving at Pagan and Kady’s house, a cabin in upstate New York: “They greeted me by saying, ‘What took you so long? We’ve been waiting for someone to photograph us!’”
JEB always spent time with the people she photographed, getting to know them before introducing her camera. She explained her intentions for the pictures: the publication of a book that would show people what was possible. “When we moved into this house together, Pagan had been cooking for her family for twenty-five years and so she wouldn’t cook at all,” Kady told JEB more than 40 years ago now. “I cooked the first dinner and the frozen vegetables were still icy when we bit into them. ‘Tastes fine to me,’ she said.”
*“The forms of the words womon/woman, womyn/wimmin/women, Lesbian/ lesbian, and herstory/history vary in this book,” JEB writes. “This is not accidental. It is part of re-creating our own language.” We alternate between these forms as well.