︎︎ ︎︎︎

true stories and inspiration
from creative women
challenging the status quo

︎  ︎  ︎

Your favorite platforms
Private View Podcast

︎︎︎ Subscribe to the newsletter

With the support of


Transcript of the episode

A Conversation with Renée Jacobs

Photojournalist, and then litigator turned one of the most celebrated photographers of the female nude of our time, Renée Jacobs talks about her career transformation, the visual representation of women in society and being a queer woman in her field of work.

season 3 episode 12
Nov 5 2021

Speakers: Mauren Brodbeck and Renée Jacobs

Mauren  00:20

Hi, Renée, welcome to the show.

Renée  02:28

Thanks so much for having me. I'm so excited to be with you today.

Mauren  02:32

It's a pleasure. So I would like to talk about your story and your involvement in activism. You are a former civil rights and constitutional litigator in the US. And you studied photojournalism. So you worked on gay rights cases starting in the 90s. And can you tell us about this transition you made from these two different kinds of work? And how they are related to each other?

Renée  02:59

Yeah, it's interesting, because a lot of people would look at the different career paths and not see a through line. And to me, they're complete bookends, you know, one to the other. I guess, if you can have a bookends that are a set of three, I guess, because I started out in photojournalism. And that early work was very much activist work as well, because I, I had a book come out in the 1980s, that was about an environmental disaster. And then that book led me to want to go to law school. And then from law school, I became involved in civil rights and constitutional litigation. And I ended up taking some early gay rights cases, as you mentioned, in the 1990s. And then when I stopped practicing law in about 2006, and I started doing female nudes, photography, it very much felt like the same degree of activism to me. The litigation that I was doing around gay rights was so much because I was struggling to come out then. And this was my way of acting out instead of coming out. So I didn't see myself reflected in the laws of the United States. I wasn't protected, I wasn't represented. And so my acting out in response to that was to get involved with litigation and to sue various governments and individuals and entities, you know, for gay marriage or in other human rights cases. And then when I started to photograph female nudes it was very much the same sort of motivation. I didn't see authentic representation or visual imagery of who I thought I was, what I was hearing from women about how they wanted to be represented. So they're very much different sides of the same coin, I suppose.

Mauren  04:51

Yeah. So what was the biggest challenge for you for this transition as a woman because I'm guessing it's not so easy to stop something and jump to something different completely.

Renée  05:02

Yeah, I was sort of pushed. You know, from very early on, I got in trouble, you know, as a lawyer with the activism that I was doing at the very beginning of my career. And so, because I got actually pushed out very early on, I never really established the legal career that someone who, like me, had 15 years in the practice of law. So I never really had the foothold, because I was always pretty raw and radical in my legal work. And so, [...] I never really had a solid foundation career wise in the law. So when the recession hit, you know, coming into 2008, it meant that I didn't really have a fraction and the deep roots to survive, you know, the sort of cuts that were happening across the legal profession. So yeah, I was sort of pushed out of that and I just went back to picking up my old film cameras on a fluke, as a lark. And it turned out, I went on vacation with a woman I started seeing at the time and I took the cameras and did some photographs of her that I thought were beautiful. And I had never had any interest in nudes. I thought they were exploitative, I thought they were boring, ... . I had absolutely no interest when I was a photojournalist, in doing nudes. So it surprised me that I found any kind of resonance for me in the edges that I took. And then it just sort of went from there.

Mauren  06:37

It's really beautiful, actually, as a story because sometimes when things get a bit difficult in our life, we resist, we try to hold on to what's there. And you actually follow the flow, and it brought you here. So this is really beautiful, I think. And it's a good story

Renée  06:56

Yeah well thanks because, I mean, you never know when you take that initial leap, or you have that initial shove in the back , you know, out the door. And then, I don't know that things always work out the way they're supposed to but, you know, I think as you age, you know, as you get older, as a woman, your bullshit meter is different and your survival instincts are different. And so, you know, the things that fulfill you and sustain you become very different, you know, the things that you realize really are important. And my wife sort of opened my eyes ,when we got together with this amazing phrase, and her answer to everything is '''use your words". And so you know, this idea of presenting your emotional, real self, you know, to the person you're with, to yourself, to the outside world, you know, it's sort of a critical tenet to live by.

Mauren  07:58

Yeah, yeah. Beautiful. So what made you decide to explore erotic photography and the female body in particular? Because you could have gone to explore many different things about, you know, around these themes you're interested in, so activism, rights, etc.

Renée  08:19

Yeah, absolutely, I mean, some of the last photojournalism that I did, before I went to law school, I was out photographing the Ku Klux Klan and Pennsylvania, you know, doing that sort of thing. But I think, when I started taking female nudes, I started with the very traditional, sort of body scape photography of women's bodies, and, you know, no faces were revealed, it was all just, you know, light and shadow. And very quickly, that came to not just bore me, but bother me, that it really felt like it wasn't an authentic representation of sensuality, of desire, of, you know, all of the things that I felt, I didn't understand about myself, you know, in being a lesbian. And, and so I wanted to give voice to a more authentic representation of desire. And so I sort of call the work that I do erotic journalism. But yeah, to me, it's activism.

Mauren  09:23

Yeah, yeah. You said something very beautiful and I would like to quote you for that. You said: "For so long, women have been told to hide their sexuality, or pretend it doesn't exist, or have it only exist to sell soap or shampoos, but not to own the pride and the power behind it. Sexuality is incredibly powerful". I love that.

Renée  09:49

Thank you. Yeah. I mean, I often say that, you know, women's sexuality in general and lesbian sexuality in particular, it's either erased or exploited, but it's very rarely empowered. And that's something that I wanted to do, I really wanted to explore. And it's funny because it just sort of evolved very organically, you know, as I was photographing, you know, women individually and doing nudes, the number one request that I would get is "Can you find me another model to pose with? You know, I've always been curious or I really want to glory that" , like "You know what? Okay, I hear what you're telling me". And, you know, so many women came to me with different desires and things and request just come flooding back to me. I'll share one that I think was just amazing. I was photographing for my Paris book. And this must have been in in Paris in probably about 2012, 2011-2012. And there was a model that I've been photographing quite a bit. A stunning woman, I mean, cheek bones, like Audrey Hepburn, ... just a classy, gorgeous, stunning woman. And we're out one night at a burlesque show with some friends and somehow she just steered the conversation around to ropes. And, you know, and she just kept joking about ropes. And it didn't register with me, you know. And then the next morning, I woke up, and I thought, that's her thing, you know. I've been shooting with her for years and, you know, she's been edging up to telling me what her authentic self desired. And so I called her up and I said, you know, "Okay", so and so, you know, "Go get some rope or whatever, you know, and come by my flat at three o'clock, and you know, we'll do something". So she shows up with rope and apparently, she had taught herself how to tie herself up on the internet. She'd never shared this with her husband with her lover, no one. And you know, but she brought this to me, as you know, "okay, this is my thing, this is my jam. And, you know, I want to explore this". And so many women that I photograph, those are the kinds of things that would come out, you know: this one likes this, this one wants to walk down the Champs Elysees naked, you know, this one wants to try being with a woman, this one wants that...  It's just… For me, so much of the photography from other photographers that resonates with me is the one in which women get to use an authentic voice like that.

Mauren  12:19

So in a way you give them a space to be and to own their own sexuality.

Renée  12:26

Yeah, completely. And what I understood about that was, the more that I gave women, you know, the ability to place themselves on that spectrum, the more I understood myself. So, you know, suddenly, you know, just being a lesbian was so vanilla. It was fantastic. It was such a great way of me understanding that there was nothing wrong with me, that there was nothing wrong with my sexual orientation. Everybody is on this very, very long continuum somewhere, and it's all great. It's all fine.

Mauren  13:00

Yeah, because, you said something else that I also wrote down to quote you about this exactly. And this is what you say, you say, "These were the photos, the models wanted me to make of them, as they explored their own sexual spectrum. And artistically, exploring the infinite and powerful gem of women's desire made me understand and accept my own."

Renée  13:24

Yeah, yeah, again, that's where I think this sort of visual activism comes in. Understanding their stories made me a much richer participant in my own. Yeah, no, all of the things that we doubt about ourselves as women, that we were told we're not allowed to want, we're not allowed to desire, if you throw that open to a random group of women, you're going to get things all across the spectrum. And it's incredibly enlightening. I think it's so much easier these days with social media. But, you know, back in the day when I was coming out, in the 90s, like, we had no role model and we certainly didn't have visual touchstones about our desires being healthy and okay, you know. We just didn't have those, at least I didn't have those.

Mauren  14:18

Well, I think many women did not have it. And, you know, what's beautiful is that I realized, also for my career, that when we work on a subject, you know, whatever those are, we do something for a subject for an idea, but it's an exchange, and it goes right back to us. It always makes us grow, and it always makes grow someone else. And this is what I think is so enriching. And it brings us so much because there's just so many things to be discovered, to be explored, to be taken from inside out of us to give to outside, to give to the world and it's so rich.

Renée  15:03

Yeah, that's so beautifully true. And I think the other part of that, as well, is that for so many years, women have not been present in the presentation of our stories, our visual stories. And men have been the gatekeepers about what images of women should be like and look like. And so we're still, today, having books and exhibits on the female nude, where not a single female photographer is included, certainly not a lesbian. And not long ago, I searched in the MEP s on European fotografie website, just out of curiosity to see what they had in terms of lesbian representation. And so I searched the word lesbian, and it came up with one entry and that was an exhibit (you know where I'm going with this) by a male photographer of his lesbian dreams. And, you know, it's okay. You know, and I'll be the first one to say that there are many male photographers that do beautiful work around portraying women. But you know, and I think there are plenty of women that do very poor work of, you know, photographing women. It goes both ways. But the bottom line is that women just have not been represented in telling these stories. And we, you know, we accept this version of male gaze, without questioning it, without queering it, it just felt like a really opportune time to jump into helping to visually tell our stories.

Mauren  16:40

Yeah, we can enrich this dialogue very much, I think, because one version is cool. But it's not the only version.

Renée  16:49

Exactly, exactly.

Mauren  16:51

Well, there's something very beautiful, it seems, about what happens during your photoshoots and I would like you to talk a bit about this. Because it seems that during your photoshoot, it's like a story in itself. And I was wondering if you can describe one of your photoshoot, and this whole narrative with intimacy in authenticity.

Renée  17:13

Yeah, I so appreciate that. Because it really gets to the guts of, you know, of what I do, and why I think it's important. Because, again, when I started photographing women, it was sort of emotionally visually distant, it was, you know, these women are sculptures, and so on. And it became very important to me as I would photograph the same woman over a period of time, and we got to know one another, and there would be this sharing of really, you know, heartfelt emotional information. And so again, this idea of being non judgmental, and hearing, accepting, exploring what women wanted to share. So, as I, you know, described that one woman whose thing was ropes, and this woman has something else, and that woman has something else. And it just became very important to me, to give space to women to explore what they wanted to do because every woman that I photographed was a stand-in for my own attempts to understand myself. And again, because we didn't have visual markers, when I was coming out in the 90s. And, you know, so much of what I've tried to do is open up a space for women to tell me who they are. And, you know, as you mentioned, there is an incredible intimacy around that in the photoshoots. And, you know, I never wanted to impose my needs, desires, objectives, you know, on what happened in the photoshoots, I wanted to hear what these women wanted to be. And so there's an incredible vulnerability and intimacy that happens with that, because you're putting yourself out there. These women that I photographed put themselves out there in a way that I never, I don't think I could ever have done with someone, you know, to basically say, okay, you know, we've let other people define us, pretty much our entire lives, you know, these are the things that are important to me, this is how I want to be seen, you know. And I think that's the most intimate part of, you know, photographing anyone, you know, whether it's nude or a woman, you know, anything that you photograph, opening up that space so that someone can tell you how they want to be seen, I think is just incredibly important.

Mauren  20:01

Yeah, yeah. And it's really beautiful as well.  Would you say that there is a real need for women to express this need?

Renée  20:11

Oh, I think it's foundational, you know. I think, you know, because, something else I've often said is, if we don't do this, someone else will, you know. If women don't do this men are left to tell the story alone. And, you know, oftentimes they get it right, oftentimes, they get it great but there's just something that we can add, an authenticity, we should be able to add into this conversation. So yeah, I mean, I've often also said that repression is the enemy. And unless we open up the space for us to tell ourselves these stories, or one another these stories, you know, we don't define ourselves, other people will. And that's been happening since the beginning of photography.

Mauren  21:01

Yeah, exactly. And I'm interested in this idea of authenticity and representation that you mentioned, and work with, with all your art and this concept of depicting authenticity and woman and their body in their representation. You also say, it's critical, you know, to you that women feel their voice is being heard, and their desires are being reflected. And, you know, I also think that it's really a major thing for women to be expressed authentically, because so many times, whether it's through our visual culture, or just society, in general, women are pushed to be expressed a certain way or to express themselves in a certain way. And this is really changing the balance, it's reversing the scale, in a way, to me, so this was really major,

Renée  21:58

It's funny for me, too, because so much of the push for me to sort of realize this was some early trips that I made to Paris when my relationship back then was sort of failing and I was really in a sort of "in between stage". And, you know, so what do women, especially American women do? They go to Paris. So, you know, I started shooting in Paris, and I was living in LA at the time. And I think, you know, Paris, as a concept, also helped me open this up, you know, open up this dialogue, because, again, you know, Paris is a lightning rod for freedom for so many people, you know, women around the world. And I was so influenced by, you know, some of the artists and writers, especially the Americans that lived in Paris in the 20s and, you know, all of the women that lived on the Left Bank. And so, when I started regularly going to Paris in 2011, and 12, that really opened up and broadened the type of photography that I was doing with women, because everyone would come to Paris, this magnet for freedom. Yeah, and there's so many quotes. There a couple of African American writers that write about their experience fleeing racism, you know, in the Americas, in America in the 30s 40s 50s and how going to Paris, let them breathe, in a way. I think it was Gordon Parks who said, you know, he felt that Paris helped put distance between him and those soiled years in America. And that's very much what it felt like for me too when I started going to Paris, and I started feeling a visual, artistic, sexual freedom that just, to me, was absent in the United States, you know. To go to Paris as a lesbian, you know, sort of steeped in the knowledge of, you know, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas and, you know, all the lesbians on the Left Bank, you know. It opened up a door to freedom to me that, you know, then all of these women that I started photographing in Paris, they ran through that door, just, it was this beacon of freedom of expression for so many women. It was, you know, I guess that could be true in a lot of places. I mean, you go somewhere that's different, or you're not familiar with, and it's exotic, in a way. But, yeah, always, you know, sort of basing so many realizations, you know, on what Paris represented to so many women that I met. So it was that was the first time that it really sort of opened up to me as the way that I wanted to shape my work in terms of giving a voice to the women that I was photographing.

Mauren  24:53

Yeah, I found that changing location is, I mean, especially to Paris but changing location in a general way, gives you some kind of extra freedom because people don't know you so you can really start to invent your own identity the way you want it. And it seems to be easier than to convince everybody that already knows you where you already, you know, where you grew up, that "No this is actually me, you've been seeing me wrong all this time". Yeah.

Renée  25:21

Well, I think so much of that is up to you, you know, we see our strong. We let, I mean, when I knew that I was a lesbian, you know, I grew up in Philadelphia, on the east coast of the US, and as I started to come to that realization, I went about as far across the country as you could go. I moved first to Portland, Oregon to go to law school, you know, and my mother would, you know, I would have kept going, but I hit water, you know, and it's like, I took all that time and distance, to reinvent, not to reinvent myself, but to understand myself from the ground up, you know. And it's true. And I think this is why visual imagery is so important because we imprint so many things from other places and other sources about who we should be. And, you know, if you're not being represented authentically, if your experience, your desires are not being represented authentically in that, that's a really tricky thing to find some peace within yourself.

Mauren  26:24

Yeah. So now let's talk about pleasure versus pressure. Pressure from the art world and from society. What was your experience to make it as a woman-photographer, to make it as a woman-lawyer, etc, etc. Did you have all good and wonderful.

Renée  26:46

It's always been a walk in the park. Yeah, totally. No, certainly, as a lawyer, you know, I always felt, as a woman, that I had to work twice as hard. And I was a very, very, very good lawyer. I don't know that I fully realized it a the time but, because I was always so over-prepared, you know, and so. And I was pretty young, you know, when I started walking into courtrooms, so I, you know, I had to really work three times as hard, you know, as a woman, as a younger woman. And certainly, as a woman-photographer, doing female, erotic nudes, it just, people don't know where to slot that. You know, I often, you know, it's like, I often get this discussion of, you know, whether it's pornography, or it's exploitive, or, you know. I've had one publisher, at least one publisher and very well known male photographer, female nudes, just totally walk away from me when my work became more erotic. So when they could understand it as very, you know, woman on a rock, distant, you know, sculptural, non emotional, non challenging, non threatening work, they loved it. But then, you know, when it became more authentic and erotic, they walked away from it. And I had one photographer, one male, a very well known male photographer, tell me, and this just blew my mind, he looked at some of my more erotic work, as it started to become more authentic, and he said, "You know, in so many of your pictures, so many photographs, the women have their chins up and I just, I find that to be just such a show of arrogance. That gesture just seems so arrogant to me". And I, it just, it crystallized everything for me in just a moment. It's like, to me that symbolizes grace and beauty and power, you know, the uplifted chin and, you know, the strong neck and he found it to be arrogant. And, you know, I found it to be just emboldening and empowered. And, you know, from that revelation on, I sort of never looked back. He also told me, you know, he was great to me in the beginning of my career, introduced me to collectors and things, and he basically told me that if I published some of my more erotic work my career would be over. And he wasn't entirely wrong about that, you know. I, it becomes much more difficult for people to accept authentic erotic representations of women. They're too threatening. I mean, he also told me to make sure that I didn't reveal my sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of some of my models, to collectors because for them, the experience of collecting nude photographs of women was about access. And if they felt that they actually didn't have access to these women, they would be very threatened, they wouldn't be interested in the work and so on. So all of these things just sort of cascade to making me feel like what I was doing was even more important for me. And I, it may have harmed me and my relationships with collectors, with the institutions but it helped me understand who I was. And from what I hear from a lot of women I photographed it helped them accept and understand things about themselves.

Mauren  30:14

So would you say it gave you the power to keep going, actually?

Renée  30:18

Yeah. And certainly because I had no other choice, you know. It's like, once you step off the plank, you just keep going, you know. But I guess the water is down there somewhere. But, you know, I'm still sort of floating through space, you know, doing what I feel like I have no other choice to do at this point.

Mauren  30:39

Yeah, I guess this is the difficult part. When you start doing something that's not in the norm and people are not used to it, sometimes it gets very, you know, you get thrown a bit left and right. And it's very hard to hold your ground without questioning yourself. And I find that it's very interesting, what you're saying is how it gives you the power to keep going and to really even push even more.

Renée  31:07

Yeah, you know, I think Gary Winogrand is sort of an excellent test case in all of this. It's like when I had photography classes in college, you know, the received wisdom was "the Gary Winogrand’s women are beautiful". It was one of the (and no pun intended) the seminal works of photography. You know, this was a master photographer. And, you know, it was only years later that I realized that I found Winogrand's very beautiful work more exploitive than the most erotic pornography out there. You know, he was taking photographs of women on the street invading their spaces in a way where they had no say, no consent, you know, and things like that. You know, I think that any pornography, any erotic photography, where a woman is fully authentically present, and representing herself, is so much more real. And, you know, it's like, very few people question Winogrand's work, and I saw an amazing article on it a few years back, I think was by Jörg Kohlberg, in which he said something like, "You know, here's a photograph of someone I didn't take". And he talked about the ethics of street photography and the dignity of the person being preserved and you know. So I just think there's so many photographers of the female nude, of women ,of the female nude, over time, you know, where the received wisdom is that: this is great. You know, and there's not a moment where people stop and think about how the women in the photographs feel about the way they're depicted. And, you know, actually, I'm really looking forward to this as well. In April, I have a current exhibit alongside Helmut Newton, in Barcelona. And so I'm really excited about being able to open a dialogue, you know, because so much of his imagery used, you know, the perception of lesbianism, you know, women together. And, you know, and for me, as an authentic, real-life lesbian, to exhibit alongside him, you know, with real-life queer, you know, women depicted, I think is going to be a fascinating dialogue. I'm really excited about it.

Mauren  33:28

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, this is great, this is very exciting.

Renée  33:33

Come to Barcelona in April.

Mauren  33:34

Yes I will. So you have two books coming out in November: the second edition of your book 'Paris' and a new book called 'Polaroids'.

Renée  33:43

Let me do 'Paris' first. 'Paris, the second' first. Yeah, it came out, it originally came out in 2013 and it's been sold out and out of print for quite a while so we decided to revisit it. And we'll have about 10 to 12 new images swapped out for some old images, a slightly different format. And so that's exciting. And so it's fun to revisit that because, you know, as I discussed, Paris was such a turning point for me, shooting that book in 2011 and 12 and sort of giving me the permission to walk through a certain door to freedom. And so it's fun to revisit that. And then Polaroids has been in the works for a while. And it's about 100 images from old Polaroid type 55 film. And yeah, and it was expired back when I used it, and I haven't been able to get my hands on it for a very long time, of course. But these are nudes, some of my most erotic work actually. So some of my previous-supporters-turned-critical, have their heads blown when they see some of this work. Yeah, these.. I photographed a number of women-couples who were just extremely fantastic and authentic and definitely had something to say. So those images are scans Type 55 positives. And so both of those books, they're actually at the printers right now so they should be coming out in the next few weeks. We're still waiting on it. Yeah, everything is sort of off with COVID but hopefully the next few weeks for sure.

Mauren  35:33

This is great. Do you have any message for, or messages for all women to help them look inside to the authenticity and keep going and expressing themselves in this art world?

Renée  35:47

Yeah, I think if anything, it would be: empower yourself and, for gods sake, empower other women. You know, there was another book of female nudes that came out a while ago that didn't have a single female photographer in it. And it was edited by a woman. And it's just, how in the world, in 2021, are women not lifting up other women and, you know, allowing the diversity of our experiences to shine through, you know. It's so exciting to see how much queer work is being done right now and how it's being elevated. But, you know, the tendency, I think, in the art world to say, okay, so we did that one, you know. It's like we did one photographer, so you know, we checked that box, we're done now. You know, nobody said that to Weston, you know. They didn't go to Weston and say, well, Stiglitz already did female nudes of his wife's, you can't you know, or, you know, nobody said it to Ralph Gibson or to Iraqi or to, you know, the dozens and dozens and dozens of men who have photographed female nudes. And so yeah, you can't just have Ruth Bernhard and exhibit her female nudes, you know, there are women and again, it's just a matter of giving voice to women's authentic desires and listening to them and supporting one another.

Mauren  37:09

I have one more thing you created with your wife, Wendy Hicks, in 2018, an organization called 'Photo de Femme'. And you say, and I quote, "with the aim of redirecting the dialogue around images of women so that women themselves could have more agency and authenticity in photography.'' And you also wrote ''Invisibility is no longer an option.'' So with Photo de Femme; you organize exhibitions, and the first one was WOMAN SEE WOMAN featured at Portugal's National Museum of Photography, the 'Centro Português de Fotografia' as part of the Porto photo festival in October 2018. And then it was shown in the Miami photo Festival and the Indian photo festival. So this is incredible.

Renée  37:58

Yeah, thanks so much. And we actually had one solo freestanding show, separate and apart from other photo festivals, that we did at a chateau in north-central France, right...well, it was in October 2020. So we managed to squeak one in as COVID was still very, very iffy. So yeah, unfortunately, we put the festival on ice for a little bit until COVID cleared up a bit, but it's so important to us and thank you so much for highlighting it. We started Photo de Femme as a way to, as you said, you know, redirect the images around women, the dialogue around images of women, and we opened it up worldwide to male and female photographers, because for us, the aim was to promote the most empowering images of women no matter where they came from. And so, women, men, non-binary, you know, we wanted to see the most enriching empowering images of women and girls. And so we managed to, you know, get one free standing exhibit before COVID really shut things down and we're looking forward to getting back to that. When we do restart, we'll be doing a call for entries for photographers all around the world to see... because again, this is such a core principle for my work and who I want to be and who I want to have in my world and the way I want women to be perceived. The motto for Photo de Femme is, "Women can't be heard if we can't be seen." And, you know, it's just, again, a nod to how powerful representation is, you know, how powerful visual imagery is in defining women and what we can do, and what we can desire and what we can achieve and who we can be. All of that comes from visual representations, you know. We imprint that stuff so early and so, I mean, not a minute a day goes by where we're not deluged with images of women. And again, if we're not helping shape what that's about, we're gonna be defined by somebody else.

︎︎︎ back to episode