Lynda Koolish: Portraits of Activism

I see my work as a celebration of feminist culture, a celebration of us all as writers, artists, musicians, critics, craftspeople, farmers, carpenters, mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers, friends.

In the early 1970s, when “women’s music” first began, and the first women’s presses began publishing mimeographed and offset chapbooks of women’s poems, there was no Olivia Records or Persephone Press, Diana Press, Firebrand Books, Naiad Press, no big feminist poetry readings, certainly no lesbian concerts at Carnegie Hall. In the San Francisco Bay Area, women began coming to performances at places like The Bacchanal, The Artemis, and The Full Moon coffeehouse, with our inexpensive cassette recorders and our tiny microphones. We didn’t have the technology and we didn’t have money, but we wanted to surround ourselves with feminist culture, to share it with one another. I was one of these women, eagerly taping, and then photographing, those first women’s concerts, poetry readings, and events.

37-ESW6-Slim-Ruthann-LLK-Exhibit-SDWM.jpgDuring the summer of 1974, I photographed the Third Country Women’s Festival in Mendocino, where 150 women gathered for five days to share skills and community. For five consecutive days, I worked from 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. and was absolutely exhilarated. The next year, I brought the photographs back to the festival as an exhibit. For the entire week, women who had been at the previous year’s festival came up to me saying, “I don’t know how you did it, but you caught the one moment during last year’s festival that was most important to me – the one conversation, the one moment lost in thought. How did you see it? How were you there?”

33-ESW2-Dobie-LLK-Exhibit-SDWM.jpgI really don’t know how to explain those images. I felt as if I were meditating with my camera, waking up at dawn and photographing from early morning until there was no longer enough light to see. The Mendocino Woodlands provided more than a familiar, essential geography. Nestled in its isolation, women had created a temporary Herland, a Wanderground. I felt a part of a collective sense of celebration and a participant in individual friendships and moments of solitude. That deep connectedness to other women enabled me to feel completely uninhibited about walking up to women in the midst of intimate conversations, setting up my tripod, and photographing them on the spot – something I would normally be apprehensive of doing at a feminist meeting or academic conference. And not once in the entire five days did anyone indicate the slightest uneasiness, the smallest indication of feeling interrupted or intruded on. It was a boldness I have never felt before or since – and one of the deepest spiritual experiences of my life. I am primarily known as a portrait photographer, but my earliest work was mostly of women working on the land. These work photographs became the foremothers of the work that’s most important to me now: photographing women writers. What I want to explore doesn’t necessarily happen with tools you can see. The tools are women’s minds. What I depict as beauty in women is a kind of responsiveness – forthrightness, expressiveness, internal strength. Over a period of time, I began to understand that a visual celebration of female strength did not necessarily require images of women swinging hammers or axes. I discovered that women’s strength could be a reserved quiet presence; the willingness to challenge one another’s ideas, the capacity for making choices that are compassionate, responsible and loving.


Lynda Koolish, Renowned as a portrait photographer, Lynda Koolish’s earliest photographs focused on women working on the land in Northern California.
You can see Lynda Koolish’s photography on display at the Women’s Museum of California from February 3 – April 2, 2017
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