Foremothers of Photography

The creative lineage of Southern Oregon’s separatist lesbian lands can help us reimagine the future.

Photos by Ruth Mountaingrove, from the Ruth Mountaingrove Papers, Coll 309, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.

Before moving to Oregon for graduate school, I had never heard of women’s lands, though I had certainly fantasized about starting communes in the woods with my female friends. Most women’s lands, or lesbian lands—intentional communities run by and often populated by women alone—were founded during the 1970s and ’80s, when they were particularly vital, though many continue to thrive today. As I began to learn about these communities and their history in Oregon, my fantasies evolved into actual intergenerational archival research, as well as personal relationships with former and current residents I could learn from. Rarely have the lessons imparted by these lands and the visual culture created by their residents felt more relevant than during the isolation and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As calls to reformulate systems like health care and public safety proliferate, I turn to women’s lands for a model of how to use conflict, isolation, and art to imagine alternative futures and make them real. In the same way these communities turn the problems of patriarchy into an opening to imagine otherwise, the pandemic can be an opportunity to reimagine the world rather than a temporary break from “normalcy,” as writer and activist Arundhati Roy writes in her essay “The Pandemic Is a Portal.” Accepting the problems of the past and present and seeing them as a call to reimagine the future resonates with the Oregon’s history as a home for alternative communities that do exactly that. The art from the state’s women’s lands show us how to walk lightly, leaving behind a broken system in order to make better worlds. 

Many of the individuals central to the story of women’s lands were not just feminists, but lesbian feminists. These women founded their communities in conjunction with the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, during which individuals sought to live a lifestyle more aligned with the natural world, often by leaving major urban centers for remote farms, cabins, and collectives. For feminist back-to-the-landers, rural separatism provided an opportunity to escape what they saw as patriarchal urban spaces, live a life more informed and inspired by the environment, explore their femininity and sexuality away from the influence of men, and reimagine ecological and feminist ways of living in communities of like-minded women.

Black and white photo. A crowd of women wave their arms in a clearing surrounded by fir trees.
Women at a festival on Southern Oregon women’s lands.

The back-to-the-land movement flourished in Oregon, a state where utopian and alternative communities had long made their homes. Since the nineteenth century, Oregon has been characterized as a fertile, beautiful, untouched garden that welcomes individuals seeking alternative ways of living—a characterization inherent in the ideology of Manifest Destiny that first brought settlers west. This image of the state prompted the founders of various communes and utopian projects to choose it as their site. But this site is not actually an untouched garden or a blank canvas; instead, it’s a landscape with a long history of Indigenous displacement—a colonial project that utopian communities often perpetuate (as well as environmental discourses that ignore this fact). 

Although women’s lands actively seek to nurture and care for the land rather than extract resources from it or change it, their founding is still part of the narrative of settler colonialism in Oregon and the United States, a truth that’s rarely acknowledged in the publications and artwork they’ve produced. The community called Rootworks, for instance, which will be my main focus in this piece, exists on and around land traditionally inhabited by the Takelma, Tolowa Dee-ni’, and Cow Creek Umpqua tribes. But the artists who settled here failed to acknowledge this fact—a failure that must be held hand in hand with the significant contributions made by lesbian lands such as Rootworks to queer world-making and the imagining of alternative futures. All utopian projects are caught between the future they’re working toward and the past they’ve come from. The residents of these lands embrace this tension, seeing their practice as that of engaging and reconciling the gaps between ideology and everyday life. Striving for something “utopian”—living one way today in the service of a possible future—is part of the speculative nature of queer ecologies, and part of the art of Oregon’s women’s lands. Such work has always blended the theoretical and the artistic with the ecology of both present and future everyday life.

This was especially true at the Ovulars, a series of photography workshops held at Rootworks from 1979 to 1983. Led by Ruth Mountaingrove, Tee Corinne, Carol Newhouse, and the artist JEB, the Ovulars hosted feminist and lesbian artists from around the country for a few weeks every summer. Many of the women took new names when they arrived at these lands; similarly, the term ovular replaced seminar, to distinguish the workshops from patriarchal modes of education and collaboration.

Black and white photo: four women talking outdoors
An Easter gathering at Womanshare

Rootworks was founded by Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove in 1978. It sits atop one of Southern Oregon’s many wooded hills, accessible only by a rough gravel road. The Mountaingroves played a central role in the women’s land movement, primarily through their magazine WomanSpirit, often dubbed the first magazine about lesbian spirituality, which they published from 1974 to 1984. For three years, from 1981 to 1983, each session of the Ovulars culminated in a publication as well: the Blatant Image, a mail-submission and subscription magazine of feminist photography. The magazine’s title is a reference to “the latent image,” or the photograph before it’s been developed—the invisible image yet to be made visible. The Ovular photographers sought to transform latent images into blatant images through the publication of their photographs in magazines, which could reach people and places that their rural separatist circles could not. Print media served as a network for rural feminist separatists. In addition to the Blatant Image and WomanSpirit, publications such as Country Women (a guide to rural living for new feminist separatists), the newspaper Off Our Backs (1970–2008), and the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs (1984–2006) were circulated widely. 

The Ovulars were part of a larger movement and conversation, and Tee Corinne was one of its leaders. One of the most well-known lesbian artists of the era and an instructor at the Ovular workshops, Corinne gained notoriety for her Cunt Coloring Book, first published in 1975 and still sold at feminist bookstores, though she also published extensively on the history of lesbian imagery in art and was featured in the 2007 feminist art exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Outside of a few publications and this exhibition, however, her work isn’t recognized in the art historical discourse, an omission indicative of the archival absence of both a lesbian art history and a distinct lineage of feminist photography—an absence that the Ovulars intended to address. Corinne’s participation in the workshops was motivated by the importance of developing that history. She considered the Ovulars a way to explore such questions as: What are the realities of our shapes and our lives? What are the differences between the ways men have pictured women and the ways we see ourselves?

The work of the Ovular photographers began to answer this question through an extensive exploration of not only how women see themselves, but also how they see the environment and their embodied relationship to it. Mountaingrove, Corinne, and the other Ovular photographers occasionally made cut-and-dry landscapes or portraits, but most of their images fall somewhere in between those forms, depicting women’s bodies in and with the landscape. This genre-bending melding of bodies into land mirrors the lesbian separatists’ queer ecology— defined by sociologist Catriona Sandilands as a specific lived connection between sexuality and the environment. Queer ecologies, of which there are many different kinds, reimagine the relationship of gender and sex to nature in order to unsettle ingrained colonial, patriarchal, and heteronormative paradigms placed on both bodies and landscapes. Disrupting and reimagining were certainly two central goals of the Ovular photographers—they disrupted what they saw as the largely patriarchal field of photography so as to reimagine the relationship of feminists and lesbians to land, nature, and place.

The organization and social environment of the Ovulars were much like those of a summer camp. Women stayed in tents at Rootworks and followed a schedule of classes, creative time, and free time. The workshops emphasized photographic skills and theory: how to create slide shows, use large-format cameras, take erotic portraits, print in color, and build a low-tech darkroom. Participants also studied the foremothers of photography and explored issues of race and class in ethical seminars. There were often field trips to nearby towns and art museums, and, as at summer camp, there were certain rules and certain traditions of flouting those rules. One participant told me that Ruth and Jean’s strict bans on contraband—such as meat, refined sugar, and alcohol—were occasionally broken with glee as women sneaked into town for a cheeseburger or stole into the next tent over for a romantic encounter (relationships among participants were also forbidden).

During their time at the Ovulars, participants constantly photographed each other—as evidenced by the abundance of portraits of women with cameras in hand. These images documented a highly embodied spiritual and sexual queer ecology, in which the female body and the landscape were always blurring and blending in a state of entanglement. This can be seen throughout Ruth Mountaingrove’s work, in which women are photographed working, communing, and simply being in the land. The texture of their bare skin and hair blend with that of grasses and flowers; they stand straight and tall like trees. Couples are almost always photographed within scenic vistas or surrounded by foliage, emphasizing the naturalness of lesbian sexuality at a time when it was often deemed unnatural. The images establish a strong association between the female body, queer desire, and nature, especially given the material volume and number in which they are presented in the Blatant Image and the Ovular archives. Lesbian separatists photographed their bodies in moments of harmony with the environment, moments of blurred boundaries and intimate minglings.

Black and white photo: Many women seated outdoors.
An Oregon Women’s Land Trust gathering

Tee Corinne’s Ovular photographs align the female body with nature in a more explicit manner, both literally and figuratively. Rather than documenting everyday life or capturing candid moments, her pieces are artfully manipulated compositions. The yonic landscapes of her Isis series, in which images of vaginas are seamlessly edited into Oregon scenery, epitomize this alignment of body and nature. To contemporary eyes, such a tactic may seem regressive and highly second wave, and while it does rely on an essentialist notion of genitals as indicative of gender, the Isis series also reflects Ovular’s progressive recognition of places and objects as lively, sexual, and gendered.

In these images, the vaginas are neither softened nor altered—they are typically centered, and are the element most in focus. Whether they’re depicted along a rocky coast, nestled into a tree trunk, or even floating amid cloud formations, Corinne cleverly pairs the vaginas with similar environmental textures: wrinkled tree bark, curved stone, rippling water. Like many of Mountaingrove’s photos, these pictures might appear to be straightforward landscapes at first glance. The body is easily mistaken for the landscape: Corinne’s yonic imagery could pass for geological formations, again linking the female body to the natural world. These collaged vaginas are disembodied from the human—feminizing and eroticizing earth, trees, and skies—and also anthropomorphize the land, casting it as a bodily human, a potential lesbian lover. 

On various women’s lands there was a practice of shaping the land to resemble the female body (cultivating a vulva-shaped garden, for example), but Corinne’s photographs seek to more overtly paint the land as a desirable partner in a lesbian relationship. The images work both to cast femininity as natural and to cast nature as female, though they rely on a definition of “female” that is biologically determined by physical characteristics such as a vagina. While women’s lands and second-wave feminism have been rightly critiqued for this kind of gender essentialism, in Corinne’s case it strategically opens up a portal to a new way of relating to the land—as a lively sexual partner, rather than an inanimate backdrop or resource.

Black and white photo. A woman stands in a creek, water flowing from her cupped hands.

Ecosexuality, or relating to nature sexually, has meant different things to different groups of people over the past fifty years—from promoters of sustainable sexual products to “landscape fuckers.” Queer ecology can include ecosexuality, and has touched on both ends of this spectrum: in her foundational study of Oregon’s lesbian lands, “Lesbian Separatist Communities and the Experience of Nature: Toward a Queer Ecology,” sociologist Sandilands asserts that eroticizing the land is one of the central tenets of “separatist ecological wisdom” on lesbian lands, and she discusses several examples of its manifestation, such as outdoor sex and masturbation. Corinne’s photographs take a different approach to the sexualization of space, casting the environment as female and erotic in its own right. This gendering and sexualizing of the land is one way of acknowledging its agency: if the earth is a body, it has a right to autonomy; if the earth is a lover, it has desires and can take actions to fulfill such desires; if the earth is female, feminism is an environmental movement; and if the earth is a lesbian, then ecology is inherently queer, and vice versa.

Artists have been exploring queer ecology since the 1980s. As the Ovular photographers combatted patriarchy by developing a new ecofeminist and lesbian visual language, so other ecosexual and queer ecological art projects have combatted crises such as the AIDS epidemic. One such example is Flood, a group of volunteers organized by the art collaborative Haha who grew a hydroponic garden in a Chicago storefront. The project produced nourishing greens and medicinal herbs for patients with HIV as part of Culture in Action, a landmark 1992 public art exhibition. By transforming commercial space into a site of collective care, Flood intervened in urban space instead of abandoning it, thereby celebrating the queer ecological tenets of environmental living and community-building in the city. 

Prospect Cottage—a project the filmmaker Derek Jarman began on the stark shores of Dungeness, England, after his HIV-positive diagnosis—is another example of a garden grown partly in response to the AIDS crisis. Jarman’s garden provided medicine and supported bodily health, like Flood’s did, but its growth and documentation also nourished the mind by creating a space for reflection, one that Jarman writes about in his diary-like book Modern Nature. The garden became a space where he could confront his anxieties, not only about his personal diagnosis, but also about emerging environmental issues that threw the future into question. Like the queer ecologies of lesbian lands, Flood’s garden and Prospect Cottage built new ecosystems in the face of crisis, using gardening as a way of caring for queer bodies when official health agencies were unlikely to do so. 

 More contemporary queer and decolonial ecologies are being explored by artists like Demian DinéYazhi’ (Nádleehí Diné), in their poetry and visual art about queer Indigenous identity in the stolen lands of Oregon, as well as drag queen Pattie Gonia, who documents her nature hikes and initiates intersectional social media campaigns. Both of these artists are continuing the work of decolonizing and queering understandings of nature and landscape, reimagining both collective and self-care for queer people through the lens of the environment. 

All of these projects approach nature and landscape via sexuality as a way to let go of various “normals”—whether that be a previous identity, a health status, or the pre-pandemic world. This assertion resonates with recent conversations in the United States about who has the right to natural and green space. These artworks underline the fact that the production, representation, and enjoyment of nature is never neutral, and that environmentalism and its visual culture still have homophobic, racist, and colonial legacies to unlearn.

Amid such conversations, and following a particularly isolated and reflective Pride month this past June, looking at the photography of Oregon’s women’s lands in conversation with these other queer ecological artworks testifies to the value of queering natural spaces. Queering landscapes reveals the interrelated constructions of gender, sexuality, and nature that disrupt assumed and accepted norms and open up individuals and their communities to alternative futures. 

The Ovulars and the Blatant Image were a collective visual experiment in new lesbian, feminist, and ecological modes of perception, education, documentation, and imagination. Like any groundbreaking experiment, the Ovular workshops represent both a leap forward in thinking and an incomplete project, something to be built on by their successors. And the Ovulars have many successors now: other women’s lands that are thriving and growing in 2020, artists who are experimenting with queer ecology, and the many individuals who are discovering and deepening their own identity by looking at these artists’ photographs. While intergenerational feminist and queer communities may come with the challenges of ever-shifting terminology and theoretical paradigms, listening to these artworks and speaking with their creators has a lot to offer those of us trying to embrace the experience of loss and isolation as an opportunity to reimagine.

One of the most sacred sites at Rootworks is the grave of its founder Ruth Mountaingrove. In a small clearing between a circular vegetable garden and a haphazard fruit orchard, two lilac trees bend together like bowed heads over her resting place. Before her ashes were interred permanently in the soil here, this grove was created as a place for Ruth and her partner Jean to have sex out in the land. Together, they planted the lilacs as an intimate canopy of delicate purple blossoms under which they would lie. As a bed, these petals served as a soft surface, crushed and fragrant under moving bodies. As a grave, they fall and accumulate in a thick blanket, undisturbed. Soon, this site may disappear from Rootworks altogether: while the placement of the lilac grove near a small creek was appealing to Ruth and Jean in the 1980s, today the creek has widened, eroding more and more of the land every year. Over time, Mountaingrove’s ashes, the lilac petals, and the soil that mingle here will fall away, flowing down the mountain and away from Rootworks indefinitely, leaving behind their previous way of life to be a part of, and make way for, new futures.

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

This article was brilliant. I'm delighted to see Oregon Humanities making it available. The author, Raechel Herron Root, did a great job describing a lot of things about women's land, art, history, and various key individuals in a fairly short article. Thank you for this! I found it fascinating.

Lori L. Lake | September 2020 | Portland, Oregon

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