Visualizing Identity in the 1990s

Since the early 1970s, lesbian photographers have chosen to manifest, explore, and sometimes mock visual identity. During the 1980s, words like essentialism were often used to disparage the work of community-based photographers as naive and unsophisticated. The concept of lesbian community was broadened, deepened, questioned, and challenged. The 1990s has seen a reacknowledgment of the importance of identity issues. There is a new wave of explorations of how gender, sexual attraction, class, race, and ethnicity influence how and what we see and who and what we choose to photograph.

Zone Paraiso Montoya (b. 1966), has turned her activism toward photographing Asia/Pacifica lesbian and gay communities, working especially with the Seattle-based Asian/Pacific Islander Oral History Project and ALBA (Asian Lesbian and Bisexual Alliance). By working with these groups on exhibition and calendar projects, her intimate and compelling portraits have reached a wider audience than if she had pursued the same subjects working alone.

fig. 37: Viqui, from the ALBA calendar, 1997
© Zone Montoya

A sense of a revitalized lesbian feminism is apparent in the work of Santa Cruz-based Angela Dawn (b. 1971) who spent much of 1996 and 1997 traveling around the U.S., photographing and interviewing lesbian artists and photographers. She writes, "I photograph lesbians as a way of celebrating our pride in loving women, documenting our stories and experiences, and showing the beauty in our differences."

fig. 38: Valerie Taylor, Tucson, Arizona, July 1997
© Angela Dawn

Trista Sordillo (b. 1970), now living in the Northeastern U.S., made a series of photographs in the early 1990s which are strongly rooted in place, almost viscerally evoking the Pacific West Coast, images in which casually dressed women seem to hang out in front of the camera. The images are not pretentious, but they are filled with portent. These women are doers, active, something is about to happen, not passive, not stultified. They radiate qualities which ripple throughout the history of West Coast photography, qualities which Sordillo refers to as "vulnerability and spontaneity."

fig. 39: untitled
© Trista Sordillo

Books and Archives

And of the present and future? I look to the women's bookstores for the strongest examples of lesbian photography, from ephemera like flyers and posters, to note cards, calenders and books, but notice also how times have changed and how often a lesbian photographic presence appears where twenty or more years ago it would have been absent. The history of lesbian photography is also constantly being rewritten as closeted photographers die, freeing historians to write more truthfully and without fear of legal reprisals.

Because there have been a series of waves of women/lesbians taking photographs, many more have been left out than it would have been possible to include. Over the past twenty years, however, independent and institutionally-affiliated archives have been established in the U.S. and abroad. These collections cherish the work of local, regional, national and international photo image makers and are filling the gaping holes in the history of lesbian art and aesthetics.


Appreciation: Hundreds of individuals have helped shape this essay over a period of years. I especially want to thank Beverly A. Brown, (JEB) Joan Biren, Cathy Cade, Lenore Chinn, Degania Golove, Sharon Lim Hing, Alice Hom, Happy/L.A. Hyder, Trinity Ordona, Jill Posener, Margaret Slone-Hunter, Willy Wilkinson, Jean Weisinger, and participants in the Lesbian Art Issues discussion group.

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All text Tee A. Corinne.