Shelby Sharie Cohen – Artist’s Statement

Artist’s statement and images by Shelby Sharie Cohen

Live to Ride by Shelby Sharie Cohen

The ‘Live to Ride’ spread with Shelby Sharie Cohen’s photographs in the magazine On Our Backs.

Artist’s Statement

Shelby Sharie Cohen: Being a Portrait Artist is a large part of who I am. I am well-known for my self portrait, Live to Ride, which remains a touchstone of self-expression and selflove 40 years later. On Our Backs, the groundbreaking sex-positive magazine for Lesbians, gave me FULL reign to create radical feminist photographs. As a Butch self-portrait artist, I used a tripod and timer to capture our group through black and white film. We were wild in the 1980s, very sexual and open. As an active part of the scene and the community, I took kinky BDSM photographs of Butches and Femmes. I had as much fun as the sexy queers I photographed. I was one of the few lesbian photographers to document the Lesbian BDSM scene. During the 1980s my work represented a community of queer women. Their self-confidence and love towards themselves and others shine through my photography. I am honored to have been chosen to photograph the first ever San Francisco Lesbian International Ms. Leather contest, sex clubs during the feminist sex wars, Theatre Rhinoceros, AIDS fundraisers, the Gay Games, gay weddings, and political activism.


Fall 1987, On Our Backs centerfold: Getting Away From It All by Shelby Sharie Cohen.


Castro Street Fair, 1983, by Shelby Sharie Cohen.

About Shelby Sharie Cohen and Her Archive

Shelby Sharie Cohen graduated from San Francisco’s Academy of Art in 1984 and from 1985-1996 Shelby’s photograph featured in On Our Backs, the first magazine to print lesbian nude imagery and erotica for a lesbian audience in America. Shelby also joined the production staff of Theatre Rhinoceros in 1985 and, over the course of the next 11 years, photographed production images for nearly 40 different shows. After the birth of her son in 1995, Shelby’s focus turned more toward developing her portraiture business, including many studio sittings of gay and lesbian couples. Her photos has recently been included in the following exhibitions, Radical Desire: Making On Our Backs Magazine. Cornell University, Hirshland Gallery. Ithaca, NY. 2022 and Raw Anatomy. Tom of Finland Foundation. Los Angeles, CA. 2021.

Shelby Sharie Cohen’s archive of photographs and negatives from her whole career as a lesbian photographer is now for sale. Of particular significance are the approximately 1100 negatives and 50+ prints of lesbian BDSM photography, many of which were taken on assignment for On Our Backs, Rack Productions and Spectator. Several thousand more negatives, prints and digital files of sitters, many of whom were members of the LGBT community, are from her studio portrait in San Francisco are also included in the archive.


A two-page spread with self portraits(!) by Catherine Opie and Shelby Sharie Cohen from the art book, ‘nothing but the girl – The blatant Lesbian Image, A portfolio and explanation of Lesbian Erotic Photography’ (ed.Susie Bright and Jill Posner, 1996); Cohen’s self portrait (bottom right) is a nude photo of her and her partner during her partner’s pregnancy.

On Our Backs

On Our Backs was the first women-run erotica magazine and the first magazine to feature lesbian erotica for a lesbian audience in the United States. It ran from 1984 to 2006. The magazine was first published in 1984 by Debi Sundahl and Myrna Elana, with the contributions of Susie Bright, Nan Kinney, Leon Mostovoy, Honey Lee Cottrell, Dawn Lewis, Shelby Sharie Cohen, Happy Hyder, Tee Corinne, Jewelle Gomez, Judith Stein, Joan Nestle, Patrick Califia, Morgan Gwenwald, Katie Niles, Noreen Scully, Sarita Johnson, and many others.