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Joan E. Biren is the woman your mom has over for coffee and shop talk on Sunday mornings while your dad mows the lawn. She’s the one who brings her pint-size pooch in a green mesh carrier when she comes to meet you, the one who can cry sitting right there without making you feel like shit. She’s someone you would call a nice lady.
But Biren is also an activist, an artist, and an upstart. In the early ’70s, she established herself as a pioneer photographer of lesbiansas lesbians, for lesbians, by a lesbian. The D.C. native’s work expanded to document all aspects of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender life, from marches to bar mitzvahs, and JEB (her nom de caméra) is now touted as the premiere source for the photographic record of a community once doomed to underexposure.
JEB is being honored in a retrospective, “Queerly Visible: 1971-1991,” organized by James Kaser for the Special Collections Department of George Washington University’s Gelman Library. The exhibit continues to Nov. 21, but JEB will deliver the real goods in an artist’s talk, slide show, and reception this week.
“The core of my work has always been to make the invisible visible,” Biren declares as her dog snuffles inside its bag. “When I was doing these photographs, I was so interested in having them be authentic and in having them be real reflections of who these people were.” Stark and simple, JEB’s pictures have a zinging immediacy, whether it’s in the un-self-conscious sexiness of two lovers flirting or the grit of an outdoor kitchen worker, feet firmly planted and breasts aflop.
“Queerly Visible,” which comprises 61 photographs plus books, buttons, albums and other ephemera, is an ode to lesbian and gay activity in D.C., and the show helps kick off Gelman Library’s newest venture, the Lesbian and Gay History Archivesa collecting initiative that aims to compile an exhaustive record of the D.C. community. Biren is the ideal cheerleader: “I thought about moving several times, especially when Reagan came into office…but I have very deep roots here.” Her devotion to the District is due not only to the presence of her family or her extensive support networkwhere else could Biren find a new circle of friends to indulge her yen for “feminist Jewish lesbian rituals”? Well, maybe in New York, but, as Biren says, “If it doesn’t have a Capitol dome, it’s wrong.”
JEB has moved away from photography in the past few years and into the realm of videography, because “the pictures wanted to talk.” She is currently concentrating on a video for the Mautner Project for Lesbians With Cancer, while maintaining her involvement in the D.C. history initiative. And the 53-year-old Biren scoffs at the idea of aging gracefully: “I’m never going to be satisfied.”Sharada Chidambaram
Biren speaks Thursday, Oct. 9, at 5:30 p.m. in GWU’s Ross Hall, Room 101, 2300 I St. NW. Gelman Library is at 2130 H St. NW.