Karin van de Wiel

10 jul. 2024 • 11 min

Hard to believe it’s been almost nine years since I was standing right here, in this same spot. I look up, as I did then, at the Smith–Ninth Streets metro station.See the New York City Department of Transportation website, the ‘NYC DOT – the Bridges of the Gowanus Canal’ page, With its elevation of twenty-six metres above ground level and its grey, weathered matte gloss panels on the exterior, it looks like a space structure straight out of a 1990s science fiction film. It’s the place where almost a decade ago I took one of my favourite photographs of New York. Unsurprisingly, this location has undergone significant transformation. I immediately know I will not return to this spot.

It's my third day in New York City. I’m not only here to revisit the places I once photographed or uncover new places linked to my study of the interplay between identity and spaces and of their inherently political nature. I also aim to explore photographic records at the Lesbian Herstory Archives.I will also use ‘the Archives’ to refer to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, as the volunteers and stakeholders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives commonly do themselves.


DOB collection, Lesbian Herstory Archives

Often excluded from or misplaced within archives and institutions that shape the historical record, marginalised groups typically lack access to the very materials that could give structure to their lived experiences.Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, Art and Queer Culture (Phaidon Press, 2013), p. 38. Recognising that their history was just as quickly disappearing as it was made, the Lesbian Herstory Archives was initiated in 1974.Bakaitis, Smith-Cruz, and Washburn, ‘Forty-Five Years: A Tribute to the Lesbian Herstory Archives’, Sinister Wisdom Journal (118): 17–23. Rooted in a political movement, the women contributing to this archive took risks in deciding what to preserve.‘The Archivettes’, directed by Megan Rossman (2018), Throughout the years, I’ve come across numerous documented images of the lesbian community, mostly protest rallies in the streets and organised meetings indoors. I want to find out what more has been preserved, and what has remained hidden for me. What other narratives lie untold?


Photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB) bought an old camper to tour the US and Canada from 1979 to 1984 with her slideshow Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–the present. The Dyke Show, as it was more affectionately is known, shows hundreds of photos dating back to the earliest days of photography.Sophie Hackett, ‘JEB’S Pathbreaking Archive of Lesbian Photography’, Aperture, 4 June 2021, Historical photographs of figures such as Lady Clementina Hawarden, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Alice Austen, and Berenice Abbott are presented. Lacking definitive ‘proof’ of the queerness of these long-ago artists and subjects, JEB instead invited audiences to read the queer potential within the images. The slide show told an alternative history with images, which may or may not have been lesbian images, to fill the void.Hackett.

JEB felt it was necessary to ‘read between the lines’ of the existing biographies to interpret the images herself given her own experience and instincts.Hackett. I learned that this was within the spirit of the lesbian and feminist consciousness-raising sessions of the 1960s and ’70s, which aimed to cultivate another perspective, a queer way of looking.Hackett. From my own experience, I know how lesbian culture is, out of necessity, collaged from fragments, mined from close reading and based upon the intensity of the gaze.Lord and Meyer, p. 39. It interpreted the road movie Thelma and Louise as a lesbian love story and to allocate a lesbian subtext to Ellen Ripley, the character played by actor Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

I realise I need to look closely and critically at my journalistic practice of objectivity – my first job was at a press agency, where I covered court trials – because it cannot do justice to the place-bound identities and lived experiences of queer communities. It’s time to welcome a perspective that embraces speculation and imagination without distorting factual reality. As I contemplate this, I come across writers whose work inspires me in its willingness to embrace subjectivity. Both Annie Proulx and Rebecca Solnit have emphasised the pivotal role of subjectivity in crafting compelling narratives and storytelling. Proulx writes that to uncover the truth, particularly regarding distressing subjects, one must embrace subjectivity.Rohan Silva, ‘Fen, Bog & Swamp by Annie Proulx Review – Where Have All Our Wetlands Gone?’, The Guardian, 19 September 2022, underscores the importance of melding facts with emotion to effectively convey messages.Rebecca Solnit, Yotam Marom, and Renato Redentor Constantino, ‘Not Too Late’, public talk at the Brooklyn Public Library, 14 April 2023, it’s still a slightly conflicted journey for me, I’m welcoming the infusion of imagination and subjectivity into my thoughts, texts, and images. I can see this being a new point of departure in my practice.


Not far from the southwest entrance of Prospect Park, on 14th Street, I’m sitting in what used to be the living room of a two-story brownstone house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Surrounded by upper-middle-class families going about their daily routines stands the Lesbian Herstory Archives building, bought in the 1990s.Vanessa Friedman, ‘The Lesbian Herstory Archives: A Constant Affirmation that You Exist’, Autostraddle, 1 August 2018, The first location of the Archives was in one of the cofounders’ apartments; it had to move because the collection outgrew the place.Lesbian Herstory Archives website, ‘Home – Lesbian Herstory Archives’, The same seems to be happening in Brooklyn. Every day, new flyers, leaflets, books, and magazines are being acquired, and – this attracts my attention – emails from people who want to donate private photo albums land in the inbox.

In the past, being open about being a lesbian, especially up until the ’60s but also beyond that, often resulted in severe consequences. It could cause you to lose your job, face the suspension of your house lease, or be kicked out of the house by your parents. It wasn't something parents or family members wished their neighbours to discover, which lead to the destruction of many private photo albums. The destruction of evidence related to lesbian lives by relatives and others contributed to the scarcity of overt proof of lesbians’ existence.Hackett, “JEB’S Pathbreaking Archive of Lesbian Photography.” Aperture, 4 June 2021, It appears to me that those donating want to make sure that the lives of their loved ones aren’t being forgotten.

These vernacular photo albums are a record of everyday life, created by common people. They serve as evidence of personal but also a shared history. The photos fill a void and satisfy a small part of my immense need for other, more diverse stories of my community. Knowing that the Archives steadfastly reject any type of structural financial assistance from the government, thereby actively preserving their independence, gives extra ‘value’ to the materials I touch. The documents I’m holding, originally personal memory-preserving devices, begin to offer counter-narratives to what was previously offered by institutions. It feels like I’m part of this ‘wave’ after colonialism, where archives are not just places for history but also for discovering untold stories and unearthing hidden histories.Anna Kućma, ‘A Photograph's Life and Afterlives: A Theoretical Analysis of the Meanings Created and Reflected by a Vernacular Photo Collection Depicting a Family of Polish Refugees in Uganda, 1942–1952’, (MA thesis, Leiden University, 2018), 22.

Deborah Edel, one of the founders of the Archives, names as one of the most prized possessions a diary detailing the author’s personal experience of coming out in the '50s or '60s, at a time when the world was far less accepting than it is today. ‘I think really the most important things are the diaries and letters of everyday women who led their lives bravely as survivors in a difficult world’, Edel stated.Jo Yurcaba and Brooke Sopelsa, ‘A Lesbian Archive Inside a Brooklyn brownstone Has Documented Decades of Sapphic History’, NBC News, 23 April 2024, me, absolutely invaluable are the vernacular photo albums of that period, in which we see how lesbian women spend their days and nights – reclaiming public spaces as political arenas.I realise these materials include physical locations and places of which the traces almost don’t exist anymore in the physical world. The intricate relationship between identity and spaces – this can be urban locations, natural or cultivated landscapes – intrigues me. Spaces are not static or impartial containers but are imbued with power relations, inequalities, and struggles. They are continuously shaped and reshaped by social, economic, cultural, and political forces. This means that different groups and individuals have varying access to and control over these spaces, which in turn influences their identities. And this access to spaces can be changed overnight, without any warning. See, for example, Doreen Massey, For Space (SAGE, 2005).


Jerre Kalbas photo collection, Lesbian Herstory Archives


A large stack of photo albums is placed in front of me on the wooden table. I take the book from the top of the stack and open it up in the middle. It looks like more than eighty percent of the images are taken in the great outdoors of Alaska. I see a woman hiking and fishing, posing at a lake or in front of a mountain. This could have been me, I keep thinking as I flip through the album. I have countless photos of me doing the same things, only decades later, and taken in other countries. I move my chair next to the large filing cabinet that is filled to more than its maximum capacity with photographs.

For a while, I was actively buying up archival images at second hand stores and garage sales. It started with a series of slides from the 1970s of a middle-aged woman posing in front of Swiss mountains and beautiful views. I didn’t have a specific goal or project in mind; I was simply attracted by not knowing what I would encounter once I was home and could have a look. Had I stumbled upon the exact photographs before me at the Archives, I wouldn't have known that the women in these vernacular pictures were lesbians. It would have been an unnoticed layer that would have remained undetected. The only reason I can recognize it now is because of their presence, and mine, here at the Archives.

I’m looking through albums and folders filled with images never meant for a stranger’s eyes, not created and preserved for someone to browse through decades later. As I go through numerous personal photos of lesbian women, I wonder how to do justice to the lives they led, full of hopes, dreams, and secrets. Am I simplifying the identities of the women, reducing them solely to their sexuality? There’s no denying that being a lesbian has an enormous impact on one’s freedom to live one’s life as they see fit. How does this impact how we fill our days and nights, when we’re not protesting on the streets or participating in panel discussions? Judging by the photos I have in my hands, the lives of these women were as diverse as mine.


The documentation within this two-story brownstone house might appear extensive, especially considering that a part of the collection is also in storage. Yet it’s merely a fraction given the years of exclusion from, or misplacement within, the institutional and ‘official’ archives. This lack of access to materials that are crucial to shaping our lived experiences further underscores the fragmentary nature of what’s now available. At the same time, the Archives so profoundly emerged as a site of hope, joy, and resilience.


DOB collection, Lesbian Herstory Archives

It's with pain in my heart and fear that I read the latest headlines in the newspapers. There is a worldwide push of cultural issues at the heart of illiberal democracy: anti-LGBTQ laws, anti-abortion laws, anti-immigration laws.Heather Cox Richardson, ‘May 31, 2023’, Letters from an American (blog), 1 June 2023, https://heathercoxrichardson.s.... More than twenty years ago, Joan Nestle, one of the founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, wrote ‘once again, I realised how ugly Reagan America was, how every word I had written was meant to be a blow against the narrow, capitalism-drenched, anti-humanistic currents of that time. Sadly, Bush’s America and Bush’s vision for the world bring us back to those autocratic and deadly days. If my writing has meaning in the larger scheme, let it be that every word . . . was a political act.’Joan Nestle, A Restricted Country (Cleis Press Start, 2018), p. 6.

Once more, we find ourselves in a moment where the political atmosphere is alarming. This current climate of intolerance and regression echoes the struggles of the past. This fight for human rights seems to be cyclical, resurfacing with new intensity in different eras. The collection of vernacular photographs, capturing the everyday lives and experiences of lesbian women, serves not only as historical documentation but also as a powerful affirmation of existence, resistance, and resilience. Let every photograph be a political act, adding depth and nuance to our understanding of history and identity.

Karin van de Wiel is a photographer and journalist based in Amsterdam - The Netherlands.

Her work focuses on the intricate relationship between spaces and the dynamics of power and identity, exploring how these spaces shape and are shaped by the individuals who inhabit them. Currently, Karin's research delves into untold narratives of the lesbian community in both the US and the Netherlands, reclaiming urban spaces as political arenas and showcasing the diverse ways in which individuals assert their identity.

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