Owning her sexuality

Renée Jacobs
Dian Hanson interviews Lesbians for Men photographer, Renée Jacobs.

“I subscribe to the theory that all women are inherently sexual. I think that trying to reduce that to a binary is a failing proposition.”

In interview with TASCHEN Sexy Book Editor Dian Hanson, Renée Jacobs, contributing photographer to Lesbians for Men, talks about sexuality, pornography, and her role as a “Renéebler.”

DIAN HANSON: How did you get into this work?

RENÉE JACOBS: Wow. It’s hard for me to think of it as work. It’s such an incredible and easy extension of who I am and what I like.

HANSON: And what is it that you like?

JACOBS: Well, I don’t know if I’m your only real lesbian in the book, but I am a lesbian. I love photographing women. I love women’s beauty. I was a civil rights litigator in federal court for 15 years, and after 15 years of pushing paper and arguing with people in court, I realized that I’d had zero beauty in my life for that entire period of time. So I picked up my old film cameras that I hadn’t touched in 15 years and started photographing the woman that I was newly dating. I was stunned, because I loved the photographs. Previously I had thought that all nudes were exploitive and terrible and something I had no interest in at all, either looking at or taking.

HANSON: Was this a conflict between your sexual identity and your feelings that these photographs were being produced for men?

JACOBS: I had only a vague knowledge of the “lesbian for men” concept. The pictures in men’s magazines helped me understand my sexuality.

HANSON: How do you feel now about representing fake versions of your real sexuality?

JACOBS: I am so wrapped up in the moment of photographing, that I’m not concerned about how the work is going to be consumed. It’s much more about what I’m getting from the models, what I’m feeling myself, but mostly, for me, this was always about gaining an incredible body of knowledge that helped me understand where I was on the (sexual) spectrum. My audience is an audience of maybe one to five when I’m shooting. It’s me; it’s however many women are there. I have one photograph in my Paris book with about eight naked women on a bed. We really weren’t thinking what anybody else was doing that night.

HANSON: So, do you encourage women who haven’t been with women before to get together in your photographs?

JACOBS: Yes. And women have used me that way as well. For quite some time I’ve had a self-selecting group of women who have lesbian or bisexual feelings contact me about wanting to shoot. For a while I felt like I was the photographic Dear Abby for women around the world that were exploring their sexuality. Not only am I the enabler; a friend of mine actually nicknamed me the Renéebler.

HANSON: Do you subscribe to the theory that all women are inherently bisexual?

JACOBS: I subscribe to the theory that all women are inherently sexual. And I think that trying to reduce that to a binary is a failing proposition.

HANSON: You must have learned, by now, a huge amount about yourself and your own sexuality. Have there been any surprises?

JACOBS: Everything. Every day, every shoot, every photograph, every minute is a complete surprise. I was incredibly unimaginative before. Somewhere along the line just being a lesbian became so vanilla. I’m a femme; I am attracted to femme women. If I had seen the kind of work I’m shooting now back in my 20s or 30s, my life would have been entirely different.

HANSON: Do you find distinctions between male produced and female produced lesbian pornography?

JACOBS: I don’t think it breaks down that easily. I see just as many women depicting women without any strength or intelligence as I see men portraying women with incredible reverence, openness and appreciation of those women owning their sexuality.

HANSON: What’s the biggest challenge in your work?

JACOBS: Continuing to find women that want to share their pleasure in a way that is really honest and vulnerable. There are not four billion muses running around.

HANSON: Given what you once thought about the power dynamics of nude photography, do you now consider your models co-creators, subjects, or objects?

JACOBS: I consider my models to be whatever they want to be considered. I interviewed Charis Wilson, Edward Weston’s wife, at 94, right before she died, and we had exactly this discussion. Now, here is someone who was basically the first nude model in photography as an art form. Charis said that she loved to be objectified by Weston. That it was one of the most glorious things of her life. She also said a muse is just a fancy French word for a photographer having a mistress while his wife is cooking him breakfast. So much of this dynamic depends on the individual woman, her desires for learning about herself, her relationship or lack thereof with the photographer. Charis wrote Weston’s Guggenheim applications. They drove all over the west, but Weston never learned to drive, so she would drive. He would fall asleep, and she would stop the car when she saw a “Weston”. Yet she enjoyed being an object for him.

HANSON: What can men learn from looking at your photography and how you approach women’s sexuality?

JACOBS: This is not about you. You can allow every woman, and every person, to do what they enjoy, how they enjoy it, with whom they want to do it, without judging. And you can overlay your fantasies on the people you meet, and on your partners, and on what you view, but recognize it’s not about you, but about women owning their sexuality.

HANSON: What impact do you think the decades of lesbian photography for men has had on actual lesbians?

JACOBS: I was speaking to my wife about this, and she relayed to me something that was truly astonishing: Up until the age of 40, she did not think actual lesbians existed, because her entire Orange County, Southern California background and upbringing and consciousness informed her that “lesbianism” only really existed for women to perform for men for their arousal.

HANSON: You showed her, didn’t you?