Over the past few years, artist Carmen Winant has been digging up a small community of feminist photographers, often unacknowledged, who lived and worked in the lesbian lands of Southern Oregon. Lesbian lands are separatist intentional communities, most of which were formed by women during the 1970s “back-to-the-land” movement. Winant’s 2018 installation Lesbian Lands, and her recent book published by Printed Matter, Notes on Fundamental Joy; seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us, honor Oregon’s self-titled “land-dykes” and their contributions to the history of feminist photography.
The feminist communities of the 1970s and ’80s were bound by paper: mailing lists, zines, bookstores, and photography were all central tools in the development of support networks and the centering of feminist histories. This type of print circulation was especially significant for remote, rural feminists such as the lesbian land communities of Oregon.
During the hey-day of the “back-to-the-land” movement, queer women flocked to this part of the country, becoming so proliferate there that the southern portion of Oregon’s Interstate 5 was sometimes called “the Amazon Trail.” During those years, lesbian lands were populous, thriving communities, with art workshops, writing groups, and publications producing a visual culture that spread across the country in the mail and on the shelves of feminist bookstores.
More than any other medium, photography flourished there, due in no small part to the land Rootworks, which hosted a series of summer workshops entitled “Ovulars” and published the Blatant Image, a magazine of feminist photography. Like many of the women who took new names when they arrived at the lands, so too the “seminar” was renamed “ovular” to distinguish it from patriarchal modes of education and collaboration.
Rootworks was founded by the couple Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, and the Ovulars came to be when Ruth realized she was “always fuming about the male generic pronouns in the photography books and magazines she read constantly.” Over the course of the early 1980s, five summer Ovulars were taught by the photographers Ruth Mountaingrove, Tee Corinne, Carol Newhouse, Clytia Fuller, JEB, and Katie Niles.
Winant has amplified the overlooked work of these photographers. Her 2018 installation Lesbian Lands at the Columbus Museum of Art was predicated on years of reading and encountering images that depict women constructing buildings, such as the barn photography studio at Rootworks. Winant found in those images a profound “forward-thinking-ness, a kind optimism baked into pictures of them building a new world.” Inspired by that optimism, Lesbian Lands recreates the frame of the barn studio as Ovular photographers captured it, mid-construction, and lines the floor with “sketches” that collage photographs from the Ovulars and Winant’s research notes. The installation invites viewers inside something both monumental and incomplete, like the project of the lesbian lands.
“Coalition is a difficult thing to sustain, progress is complicated, and it’s not about succeeding or failing,” Winant explained. While Oregon’s lesbian lands generally have fewer residents today, and while the idea of “women-only” spaces has become difficult to reconcile with contemporary rejections of gender essentialism, Winant’s work demonstrates the continued significance of this visual culture.
In Notes on Fundamental Joy, Winant’s essay reflects on this ongoing, evolving work of coalition-building, running along the bottom of each page in a single line. Additionally, an essay by Ariel Goldberg in the middle of the book reckons with what these images mean for trans and gender non-conforming viewers. While both essays do the important work of acknowledging the differences between the feminism of some of these images and feminism today, they both suggest that this intergenerational discomfort is necessary, and productive.
“I’ve become more comfortable with that discomfort,” Winant told me. She describes the book as a way of “understanding the space between” herself and the Ovulars, and of recognizing the complexities of a coalition while also trying to “enable” their images in the world.
The book features the work of many Ovular photographers, including JEB, Clytia Fuller, Tee Corinne, Ruth Mountaingrove, Katie Niles, Carol Osmer, and Honey Lee Cottrell. Their photos are all mixed together, with all the artist credits gathered on one page. This choice reflects the collective nature of the Ovulars themselves, and the shared visual language of their photographs: while there are some distinctions, many of the works share an emphasis on the relationship between the body and nature, ritual and queer desire.
The pages are also printed on a thin, translucent paper that allows traces of the photographs on the next pages to peek through, layering them in a mode reminiscent of the archive many of the photos currently reside in.
“For this project, having an exhibition in a museum space wouldn’t have the same kind of political urgency and power to circulate, I wanted it to live as a book and be cheap and be able to move around as their print materials did, to live as a kind of tribute,” Winant told me.
That a tribute to the lesbian lands should take the form of a book makes sense: publications, such as The Blatant Image, WomanSpirit, and Country Women were the beloved products of women’s meetings, festivals, and workshops — a way of expanding their theories and practice beyond the lands themselves. The experience of reading was private and intimate, with material wrapped in covers or mailing envelopes, making lesbian imagery and literature accessible to closeted women or those without a queer community. At that time, mail-subscription magazines and feminist bookstores were safe ways to participate in queer culture, protected by the privacy of paper.
“I published in newspapers, calendars, books, postcards and posters. I did not make my photographs to be exhibited on a gallery wall,” JEB has said of her work. However, this year, her photographs grace the façade of the Leslie-Lohman Museum in an ongoing installation entitled “BEING SEEN MAKES A MOVEMENT POSSIBLE.”
In 2019, JEB’s public installation is possible because of the work she and other photographers undertook at the Ovulars. The installation’s title reflects the underlying priority of the lesbian lands, as well as Winant’s engagement with them: to create and circulate a visual reality that will make possible new futures.
Notes on Fundamental Joy; seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us by Carmen Winant is available on Amazon and from Printed Matter.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that only a “handful of women” live in Oregon’s lesbian lands. While there are fewer residents than there used to be, there are more than a handful. This has been amended.