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Photography: Lesbian, Pre-Stonewall  
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It is likely that lesbians began making photographs almost as soon as the medium was invented in 1839, but the record of those images has been obscured by time, disinterest, and overt hostility. However, the past thirty years of scholarship--primarily by lesbian and feminist researchers--have produced enough material to have a dialogue about photographs made by lesbian-identified or lesbian-identifiable women.

For some, the term "lesbian photography" presents a complicated reality. As used here, it means photographs made by women who participated in loving--often physical--relationships with other women. Within a lesbian context, the most significant of these early images are those that reflect lesbian iconography, convey relationships, or show the photographer looking at and recording her beloved.

How openly pre-Stonewall lesbian women might behave in public depended on a combination of factors, including economics, geographic location, race, ethnicity, and position in time. Paris, with its lack of inhibiting laws and long history of independent women, was a haven for lesbians decades before it became the expatriate destination of choice in the 1920s. Greenwich Village in the 1910s and Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s also particularly drew women who loved women.

The Loving Eye

The vast majority of photographic images made by lesbians remain hidden in private photo albums and never reach public display. Representative of this group are pictures by Norma Jean Coleman (1924-1998) and Phyllis Ann Farley (1932-1984), whose scrapbooks are in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York. Made between 1941 and 1984, they visually affirm friendship groups and domestic relationships.

As is often true in pictures such as these, one member of a couple will take a photograph of the other, then switch places, producing images obviously made at the same time and against the same background.

The earliest lesbian-produced work currently known is by Emma Jane Gay (1830-1919). For many years, Gay maintained an unrequited love for anthropologist Alice Fletcher, with whom she lived in Washington, D.C. Gay photographed Fletcher at work in the West with the controversial U.S. land allocation program. She documented camp life, the landscape, Native American tribal women and children, as well as men. Later, Gay moved to England where she found her love returned by a woman doctor.

Edith Watson (1861-1943), thirty years younger than Emma Jane Gay, was a U.S.-born photojournalist who spent much of her adult life photographing in Canada, where she produced images for magazines, newspapers, and tourist brochures. Her intimate companion for thirty years was writer Victoria Hayward.

In loving portraits of Hayward--such as one taken in 1916 by the Atlantic in which Hayward stands at the water's edge with her skirt bunched around her thighs--the lesbianism of the image-maker is most apparent.

Southwestern U.S. photographer Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) studied in New York City before returning to Colorado to work. She is best known for her photographs of the Navajo, but she also frequently photographed Elizabeth W. Forster, her dearest love for more than fifty years. Like Emma Jane Gay, Gilpin sometimes photographed Forster in a group setting, as if she were just anyone, the anonymous "visiting nurse" in a scene with a sick Native elder or holding a lamb and a Navajo child.

Iconic Imagery

Iconic photographs have a symbolic or signaling effect, an import greater than their surface information. They make announcements or answer questions--for example, about the look of women as couples or as rebels. Such photographs have a quality of being "set apart" from the world and are often used as points of departure for study, communication, or worship.

U.S.-born Alice Austen (1866-1952), although she traveled to Europe and New England, lived almost her entire life on Staten Island, where she photographed her family, friends, and neighbors, often in iconic poses. There were other lesbians in her friendship group and hints of intimacy are frequent in her work: women embracing, touching another's leg possessively, smoking, hanging out in bed.

In a frequently reproduced image by Austen, three women wearing men's clothes and mustaches pose. An umbrella handle rises irreverently between the legs of one. Another lesbian iconic image shows two pairs of women embracing.

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), an early photographer and photojournalist, appears to have had no male lovers and at least one long-term relationship with a woman, photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt (d. 1956). The two women shared a studio and home in New York City from 1909 to 1917.

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Street Types of New York: Policeman by Alice Austen.
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