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Photography: Lesbian, Pre-Stonewall  
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-related photographs produced by Johnston include images of homosexual-appearing men, male sailors dancing together, and a portrait of Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) as a young woman.

However, the image that most clearly reflects Johnston's life is not one of relationship but of independence. Taken in 1896, the self-portrait shows the photographer seated in profile, the ankle of one leg resting on the knee of the other in a position of masculine power. She holds a beer stein in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Margarethe Mather (ca 1885-1952) was an art photographer who had a studio with Edward Weston in Southern California in 1914. She was part of an extended lesbian friendship network and left photographs of dykey-looking women and of her young, -appearing gay male roommate.

Images by French Jewish photographer Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) (1894-1954) are at home in a postmodernist discourse of fluid gender roles and constructed identities. She was active in the theater, and some of her self-presentations--male, Buddha, femme-doll--may have been produced in conjunction with plays in which she was acting.

Lesbian Erotics

Unless sexual desire is encoded into images of them, lesbians are frequently interpreted as spinsters, old maids, or merely women friends who live together without any special category of relationship. Historically, the physical manifestations of love have been visually portrayed in nude images of the beloved. Lesbians, no less than gay males and heterosexuals of both sexes, have participated in and contributed to this genre of image making.

In 1900, in an early exploration of lesbian eros, Natalie Clifford Barney collaborated with her former lover Evaline Palmer (born about 1876) and her then current lover poet Renée Vivien (Pauline Mary Tarn) (1877-1909), in making nude studies of each other in Bar Harbor, Maine. Barney took the negatives to Paris to be developed and printed.

One of Natalie Barney's later loves was painter Romaine Brooks (1874-1970). A U.S. citizen, Brooks was born in Rome and spent most of her adult life in France. Outrageously wealthy, she created photographic self-portraits, nude images of Ida Rubinstein (a relationship that predated Brooks' with Barney), and images of herself and Barney paired as if documenting their relationship for posterity.

Canadian Clara Sipprell (1885-1975) did not have the luxury of wealth. She supported herself through soft-focus images of people, still lifes, and landscapes. She produced a few lovely female nude studies in 1915 and 1925. Sipprell lived with three women sequentially, although the relationships may have been chaste. The names of two are recorded along with hers on the small bronze memorial tablet affixed to an outcropping of granite, her choice in lieu of a gravestone.

A bisexual, Ruth Bernhard (b. 1905) is one of the primary definers of the nude female in twentieth-century photography. She created luminous, sometimes surreal images of bodies and of shells, among other subjects. One of her images--of an interracial pair of women lovers--has a memorable quality of distilled passion.

Definitive Portraits

Portraits are the staple of lesbian-themed imagery. They answer questions about lesbian self-presentation and lesbians as spectators. Lesbians and bisexuals are likely to appear frequently as subjects in the work of lesbian photographers, in part because they share intimate friendship circles.

In addition, however, lesbian and bisexual subjects may be more likely to commission images from photographers whom they suspect or know to be lesbian because they may assume that they and their relationships will be portrayed sympathetically.

American Midwesterner Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) moved to Paris in 1921, where she became the favorite portrait photographer of the younger generation of expatriate lesbian writers and artists including Janet Flanner, Solita Solano, Sylvia Beach, Djuna Barnes, Jane Heap, and Margaret Anderson.

Abbott returned to New York City in 1929 and photographed the city at a time of rapid change. She also made photographic images illustrating principles of science for educational texts, but continued photographing lesbians. She moved to Maine in 1966 and remained there for the rest of her life.

Best known for her portraits, the German Jewish photographer Gisèle Freund (1912-2000) arrived in Paris almost a decade after Berenice Abbott. She became friends with Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, who introduced her to the major English and French literary figures. Freund photographed Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, James Joyce, and Marguerite Yourcenar, as well as Beach and, especially, Monnier, who became her lover.

Freund fled the Nazis to South America, then lived in the U.S., and later returned to France. A lesbian sensibility is most visible in her portrait of Sackville-West at her writing table with a photograph of Virginia Woolf visible behind her.

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