Visual Conceptions: Dyke Cream/Eye to Eye

two slide shows

© Carol Seajay

I am a reader. A books-in-print person. A black ink on a white page basic reader. Books/print have been so much a part of my life for so long that I tend to believe what I read more than what I experience and because what I experience is rarely found in print, I write, and write out of my experience. My delusion about believing what I read is so strong that when I read the words I have written about the experiences in my own life, I believe what I read more fully than I believed my own experience before I wrote it down.

And so it is from my long practice with words-on-a-page that neither music nor movies touch me in the same way that print does. Against this background the bookstore I work in (Old Wives' Tales, San Francisco) sponsored two slide shows: Tee Corinne's "Erotic Images of Lesbians in the Fine Arts" and JEB's "Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850-1980." JEB's book Eye To Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (Glad Hag Books) had just arrived and was being the most looked-at book in the store. Tee was hanging a photography exhibit "Dyke Cream: An Exploration of Lesbian Erotica" at the Bacchanal the next week. Tee's slide show had been planned far in advance - it was to be the highlight of the bookstore's third birthday party and also a hoopla "Welcome home!" greeting for Tee who had recently moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn. JEB's slide show was arranged on the spur of the moment when other work created a plane ticket to San Francisco. "Could she show her slide show at the bookstore while she was here? Could we do publicity fast enough?" long distance phone calls asked. "Of course. Of course. Somehow. Anyhow. Of course."

Both were startlingly clear images of lesbians. Lesbians in history. Lesbians in the past. Lesbians seeing lesbians. Of Not-Lesbians seeing Lesbians and of Lesbians seeing Lesbians and Not-Lesbians, both. I struggle with my printed-page mind to retain these images. Images I had never seen before, images I had seen and not perceived. Images on which to build a future, now that I have this past in vivid conception.

Tee's erotic images

The images which Tee presented are the most difficult to remember. They are forbidden images: images of women being erotic and sexual with women. These images are/have been as forbidden as women's sexuality. As forbidden as women pleasuring. The conditioning within my mind tries to block out these images, to forbid them. To deny me this vivid, explicitly sexual history of lesbians. It is nerve-racking to sit through this show.

Tee constructed this show on the hard reality that the one consistent definition of lesbian over the centuries has been a sexual definition: a woman being sexual with another woman = lesbian. She has acknowledged the power of this definition over time and moves within its confines, reaching back through the centuries and over continents to find images of lesbians - women who are undeniably lesbians because they are being sexual with women. She gives us images, erotic images, undeniably lesbian images from Japan and India and China; from seventh century India, from ancient his/herstory, from the left bank of Paris and from our own lives. Said a friend some months after seeing this show for the first time: I never really believed there were lesbians before us. I never really believed that they (we!) existed in time, in history, in everywhere the way I did after seeing Tee's show. There is a way the explicit sexuality makes us absolutely undeniable.

Tee does much more even than documenting the history of sexuality of women with women, she broadens our definition of erotic. She gives us all the variety of the images that she has found and she also finds her way in this series of images to integrate sexuality and love, tenderness with eroticism, as it is in our lives. She doesn't let us divorce our sexuality from our lives as we have tried to do/had(?) to do as women in a movement that refutes the notion that lesbians are only sexual animals. In the course of watching this show, I had to acknowledge my own sexuality, my own tenderness, my own softness and the intensity of my own passion in a way that I rarely do outside the privacy of my own home. I had to acknowledge that this particular blend of fierceness and tenderness that I share with other women is an important part of what makes me lesbian, of what distinguishes me from other women.

This current ran through me throughout the show and for days afterwards. It is a part of what makes the show nerve-racking. I came away from the show musing about how my movement has often-times tried to deny and de-emphasize our sexuality in an attempt to gain us a respectability. In an attempt to create some balance in a world that defines us only by our sexuality. Some years it's been a heavy dose of puritanism as a part of political process. Somehow, in this show, Tee gives us our herstory, the denial of our herstory, our sexuality, our tenderness, and confronts us in some way with our own passion - it is a heavy load of realities to handle in one sitting. A complicated series of apparent (but not actual) contradictions.

I am intrigued by the mixed reactions to Tee's work. On the one hand this slide show has been criticized for being "too explicit" and "too sexual" and for "being a turn on that leaves women with nowhere to go with their feelings." On the other hand, her black on gray photo-poster of two women making love (explicitly and sexually) is one of the best loved (and best selling) posters in the dykedom. Such is Tee's work - daring and brilliant, controversial, and right on the forefront of synthesizing what were once separate parts of our lives. Part of the controversy stems, I think, from the dearth of lesbian identified erotica in our lives. We have so few images of lesbian eroticism, sexuality, tenderness and passion that we have little with which to compare this show. No basis to use in making judgement. I hope that the next ten years of feminist periodicals and books fill this gap in our lives in the same way that they have provided us with images of strong women in the last decade. I need erotic images of lesbians in our books and magazines. I need this part of my life in my life.

Both slide shows work toward developing a criteria for evaluating visual images by distinguishing clearly between images made by lesbians and other women who are loving of women and images made by men and women who are hostile to lesbians. The differences are immense. The women themselves, especially in the photographs, also do much to determine the quality, the value of the photograph. Tee contrasted a series of turn-of-the-century French postcards portraying lesbians using actual lesbians as subjects with later work using apparently heterosexual women as models. Both sets of images have an abundance of underwear. Both show women touching each other, sensually (not sexually, "soft" porn). All are apparently taken by men, but the difference is immense. The first set of women have a comfort about their bodies, look deeply at one another, see and touch one another. One knows these women do know how to touch one another. The second set is a sham. The communication between the women herein is as deep as holding a breath. The touch, superficial. Unreal, inexperienced. The first set of images incorporate tenderness and knowledge. The second set is erotic only to the ignorant.

Tee's research awes me. I personally spent four months in India searching for woman-to-woman erotic images. I knew they were there and didn't find them. And disbelieved what I saw when I did find them. Tee found these images, believed what she saw and shares them with us all. She brings a new interpretation to images that have been known to erotic historians. I think that no one else in the world is/has collected these images/my herstory. It is a vital research.

JEB's lesbian photography

I hadn't seen JEB's show when I started telling women to come to it. "Pictures." I oversimplified. "Pictures of lesbians and pictures of lesbians taking pictures of lesbians. Pictures of lesbians by lesbians for as long as there have been cameras." Halfway through the slide show I finally heard what I had been saying about the photographs, or rather the lack of photographs in my own life.

I remembered that in 1972 two women came into my social circle and brought their Instamatics. They were feminists and "just out" and brought their Kodaks to our parties and took snapshots, flashcubed us. We were embarrassed. All of us too shy to say, "No. Stop. Don't take pictures here. Don't take pictures of lesbians. Of us. It isn't allowed." Those of us who vividly remembered photographs being used against lesbians in court, those of us who had ever heard of a custody battle for our children just stopped coming to the parties. The rest of us somehow stayed and survived. We didn't make them stop taking pictures and for the first time since childhood I had pictures of myself. Not myself-at-the-folks-passing-for-straight but of myself. I was surprised that the photolabs printed the pictures.

I vaguely knew that photolabs refused to print anything pornographic or obscene and was so confused about what those words had to do with lesbianism and myself that I thought the labs would refuse to print pictures of women dancing together, of two women gazing into each other's eyes. I thought that the lab would call the police and that they would come and arrest us. They didn't, but it was a big risk finding out.

So I was eager to see this show of JEB's. Who were lesbian photographers? Who had the audacity to have been a lesbian photographer? What did they see? And being a lesbian myself, would I see as they had seen? JEB brought three photographers vividly to life for me - Alice Austen, Frances Benjamin Johnston, and Berenice Abbott - through a combination of their own work, portraits and self-portraits, and stories about their lives. My favorite photos were Alice Austen's. Out-rageous and delightful, never-intended-for publication photos of herself and her friends over many years. One that has been published around called "The Darned Club" (named by the boys the four girls ignored) shows two pairs of women (including Alice) embracing, two of them gazing into each others' eyes (and we know that gaze!). Another shows Alice and two friends "in drag" (dressed up in their brother's clothes, they said). They portray Austen's fine sense of humor, her delight in being "evil" (smoking cigarettes and posing in underwear and shooting pictures of three women in bed together.) She liked to include herself in her photographs as well as her friends, the old shutter-on-a-cord trick, so her photographs document her lifelong relationship with Gertrude Tate. From these photos, you know they had some good times.

Broadly defining lesbian

Using a broad definition of lesbian (gutsy women with no proven heterosexual experiences) JEB claims Frances Benjamin Johnston for us as well. While FBJ carefully left no trace of any love affairs, she and her crowd were considered "Bohemian" and "eccentric." I'd like a poster of her self-portrait. The background includes portraits of all the respectable people she photographed. In the foreground she flaunts all the social conventions of her time. She sits ankle crossed over knee showing not only her ankle (!) but entire calf as well and a fair portion of petticoat. She holds a cigarette in one hand, a tankard of ale in the other. Her posture and eyes ignore the camera and tell us she didn't much give a damn who thought what.

Berenice Abbott, still living, is more of a mystery. She refuses to claim or acknowledge lesbianism in her own life, perhaps out of a desire to protect the huge body of her work from being written off by straight critics as "merely" lesbian work or perhaps because she isn't lesbian....She's of interest to this slide show because fully half of the women she photographed in her Paris studio were women we know to be lesbians. (Of which she says, "I photographed the exciting and creative people of Paris." She certainly did!) There is a unique and powerful style to these photographs; each of her subjects looks directly into and at the camera. Each portrait looks directly into the eyes of the viewer. The photographer is a part of the picture, she is there. There is nothing shy nor self-deprecating in these portraits. The opposite is true. Each of these photographs portrays a woman who is self-conscious and self-aware. The center of these photographs is the center of the woman. They are a remarkable series. Whether or not there was a shared bond of lesbianism between the photographed and the photographer, there was certainly a recognition of strong woman to strong woman. Perhaps it is true that many of the lesbians of Paris of the day merely chose Abbott as their photographer because they knew she would see them, would not be afraid to photograph them. In any case, she did photograph and left us a fine legacy of images of strong lesbian women.


In the second part of the show, JEB searches out themes common to both historic and contemporary lesbian photography - she illustrates humor, costume, defiance of custom and self-determination with photographs from both periods. That direct gaze of Abbott's work appears again and again. We would seem to be a direct and forthright people. Lesbians then as well as now grappled with questions of what does one wear, rebelled against what one is/was supposed to wear. Laughed and survived with humor. Created them/our selves, again and again. In the contemporary photographs I saw lesbians dealing with these issues. In the older photographs I saw other women, earlier women, women who gently became my foremothers, grapple with these same questions. There were moments of gentle tender herstory in this part of the slide show that I will long cherish.

Against this background, JEB raises important questions about pseudo-lesbian photographs, about impostors, and the dis-base-ment of images of lesbians for pornographic and "soft-porn" purposes. How much of the image is in the eye of the beholder? How much is subtly (subliminally?) photographed in? Asking for audience response, JEB showed two very different pictures of the same woman. One shows her in a filmy dress, vulnerable in the ways women too often are vulnerable. Not a strong or desirable image of women. The other was a revelation to me. It was the same woman...not an amazon by any means, but neither a victim, nor victimized. Who took these two very different photographs? What did they wish to convey and why? For what purposes? Important questions as we look at images of women and lesbians. JEB also showed a photograph called "Laura Mae" by Judy Dater, a heterosexual photographer. (It has been reproduced almost everywhere it seems.) JEB asked if it made anyone uncomfortable and why? Although she is dressed in the finest of dyke-chic, something made many of us uncomfortable. Her body-posture? Her eyes? We weren't sure. JEB then contrasted this image with others by woman-identified photographers, then clicked back to "Laura Mae." Her eyes seem to be looking at the camera but on second look are actually looking over the photographer's shoulder. There's something not-quite-honest, something seductive in this photo. Something in my mind clicked and I think I shall never again be confused by pseudo-lesbian photographs again.

With this same clarity JEB disposes of "soft-porn" images of lesbians done by Playboy, David Hamilton, et al, wherein the "lesbians" are always young and nordic and/or willowy, where the women touch each other "as if by accident," where each photograph includes a subliminal seduction but no honest interaction, photos with elaborate undergarments and the most uncaring forms of touch - male fantasy-projections of how women (fail to) connect. JEB ends the confusion, creates a clear distinction between strong vital images of women in connection with other women and the distortions of lesbians that many women have grasped in our desperation for images of lesbians. Tee spoke to a similar issue with her French postcard series.

What is a lesbian photograph?

These two slide shows investigate questions that we, as lesbian-feminists are just beginning to ask: What is a lesbian photograph? Is there a lesbian aesthetic? Or is the answer in what we photograph more than how? What and where are the distinctions between erotic and pornographic? Between exploitation and illustration? The silence on these questions has been too long and too painful. Both of these shows address these questions, raise others, both of them give us our herstory in forms as unique as the actual herstory.

With all these questions fresh in my mind, it was even more exciting to see and re-see Tee's exhibit at the Bacchanal and JEB's collection of lesbian portraits in Eye to Eye. Tee's solarized photographs clearly capture the essence of sexuality that we words-in-print people think is the poet's or the novelist's domain to capture - tenderness, connection, communication and more. The photographs celebrate lesbians - fat women, skinny women, black women, short women, disabled women finding our ways in sexuality. If ever one wanted to find a clear example of the distinction between erotic and pornographic it is here in Tee's work. An identical selection of photographs was exhibited downstairs for disabled women. Here five or six or seven photos were mounted on a single mat. Each photograph represented a slightly different mood or time but the interaction of the collection of photographs on each mat moved and moved me in such a way that they seemed to be photographs of the changes in mood and energy from moment to moment as mood and energy change in my own life. I had to sit and look at them a long time.

What I value first about JEB's self-published Eye To Eye is her understanding of the need for photographs of lesbian women. And we are there. Clearly, directly, women working and playing and loving ourselves. Tenderness and struggle. Old and young, single and lovers, recovering alcoholics, independent disabled women, many is a yearbook (a decade-book?) of our moods and struggles and experiences as individuals and as a movement. What strikes me over and over is the authenticity of the photographs. Though my face is nowhere in the book, I feel my life to be in almost every picture. This sense is reinforced every time I see women in the bookstore picking up this book and looking at it. The smiles, the looks of recognition...women showing the book, a photograph, an image to their friends and lovers and saying, "Look! See!" They all seem to be saying, "Here we are."

Community hunger

As a community, I think our hunger for this book, or a similar book, has been such that we couldn't name it until we held it in our hands. Now that I hold it in my hands, I can barely comprehend why it has taken ten years of a women-in-print movement for this book to be published. Then I think of the slide shows and the questions they help clarify. The silences they begin to end. The distortions that we and lesbian photographers have had to clear up. I think of the miles of process between who we are told we are and who we find ourselves to be. Self-definition and the continual refining of self-definition. And in these ways I find this book to be a landmark summarizing what we have learned in ten-some years of lesbian-feminism. I sit with this book late at night, tired from the day's labor, and it comforts my exhaustion, reminds me to go on in the way that The Wanderground has comforted me and nourished me in weary times. But this book, Eye To Eye is visual, and so nourishes me in a way that I am just beginning to explore.

So these two slide shows exist in my mind. I hold them carefully in brackets between JEB's book and Tee's exhibit. But being a book person, I want to turn both shows into books. Want to put all these words and images securely between the covers of books and print thousands of them and distribute them throughout the world, so many of them that they can never all be destroyed. I want copies safely within my reach at 4 am when I wake disbelieving my own reality. I want these images, so carefully dug out of oblivion by Tee and JEB, so thoroughly unavailable, that JEB had to photograph some of them in the women's toilet in the Library of Congress....I want these images solidly in my hands and never made invisible again.

© 1980 by Carol Seajay, originally published in off our backs march 1980, quoted in "Dykes in Context: Some Problems in Minority Representation" by Jan Zita Grover in The Contest of Meaning, edited by Richard Bolton, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989.

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All text Carol Seajay.