The Ruth Mountaingrove Papers include textual and graphical materials. The collection is currently arranged into four series, beginning with correspondence, diaries, ephemera and finally, photographs. The photograph series (Series IV) is currently the only series within this collection that is processed and available for research use.
Ruth's photographs depict her life on lesbian land, and as a member of the national feminist/lesbian network.
Ruth Mountaingrove bought her first camera and learned to take photos as a teenager, and by the time she had moved to Oregon and began to document the daily life of the communes in which she participated she was a technically and artistically accomplished photographer. The photos included in this collection cover a wide range of subjects, activities, and moods, and serve as a powerful visual record of both the mundane and the transcendent moments she shared with other women. Ruth worked primarily in black and white and was interested in exploring photography as an abstract artistic medium. She shared her love of photography with many of the women she met, and ran the Ovular photography workshops for women for many years. The Photograph series (Series IV) is comprised of matted or mounted enlargements, contact sheets, negatives, and slides.
The large matted or mounted photos that were enlarged and created for her exhibit at the University of Oregon are comprised mostly of portraits of the women with whom she lived and worked. These are often up-close shots of faces, and they are appealing to the viewer, as she captured a range of expressions and a plethora of faces. Many of these people were very close to Ruth, and their intimacy is apparent in their openness to the camera.
Some of the major subjects that are featured among the contact sheets, enlargements, and negatives are the upkeep and building of barns and houses on Rootworks and Golden, women participating in spiritual rites or ceremonies, and the Ovular Workshops.
Ruth and the women she lived with felt strongly about their need to dismantle the patriarchal social structures in which they had previously lived, and one way in which they effected this change was by existing independently on their land, and teaching themselves how to build structures, do electrical work, and fix cars. Ruth’s shots of barn and house building capture not only the technological process that the women were using, but also the teamwork and energy that went into this labor. The composition of the photos is often gorgeous, due to the interplay between the erected wood beams, the bodies of the women hard at work, and the natural world that surrounded them.
The women at Rootworks spent a great deal of time discussing patriarchy, feminism, and their spirituality, and Ruth captured the discussions and ceremonies that took place on the land. Maydays and solstices were important dates that were celebrated with rituals that the women had learned about or created on their own. The photos that document these moments are often informal and visceral; women dance, sing, play instruments, and perform rites, and frequently they do so nude. The spiritual ceremonies allow the viewer glimpses of the ways that women were interested in enacting their feminist spirituality. Photos of women in large or small groups discussing or processing (a frequent practice on the commune) underscore the importance that was placed on group dynamics.
When other women began to show an interest in learning the photographic techniques that Ruth was using to document life through her eyes, she began teaching the Ovular workshops for women with the help of Tee Corinne. Ruth photographed the women that came to the workshops as they learned to take their own photos, and the contact sheets also display Ruth’s interest in using photography as a medium for abstract art.
Ruth traveled to other communities throughout the country, or to visit friends, and these trips were also documented through her photography. She spent time in the San Francisco Bay Area with Tee and other friends, and photographed the women she met and had discussions with, including Tee herself and other luminaries such as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Sally Gearhart. These photos emphasize how important the lesbian community was to Ruth beyond the borders of Rootworks, and how much she valued the work that women were doing around the U.S.
Nudity was an important aspect of life on Rootworks, and women are shown bare-breasted or fully naked engaged in a wide variety of activities, from gardening and building to dancing to taking photos of their own. Nudity in the photos is often treated as a daily fact of life on the land, although other photos celebrate the endless variety of the female body as an aesthetic or erotic subject.
The qualities of the photographs that make them so valuable are their emotional and aesthetic appeal, and the insight the photos offer into life on Rootworks and other lesbian lands, as Ruth perceived it. From an emotional and aesthetic perspective, many of the photos are highly appealing—-the portraits are honest and intimate, and Ruth clearly loved the forms and bodies with which she was interacting. The information that is available in the photos is also critical to their importance, as they are a visual record of both the quotidian and special moments that occurred in Ruth’s life and at Rootworks. Still-life shots of the cluttered kitchen bathed in a soft light, naked mud-covered women frolicking together, and humorous car-repairs are treated with equal care and admiration through Ruth’s lens.