Book Review: Photographs by Donna Pollach

sinister-wisdomPhotographs by Donna Pollach
Edited by Sue St. Michael
Blurb Books
ISBN 978-1-36-470359-2
Hardback $112.19 – 167 pages
Reviewed by Wendy Judith Cutler

(Published in Sinister Wisdom 103: A Multicultural Lesbian Literary & Art Journal, Winter 2017)

“To me, photography is about not hiding. I have always felt that the best thing about art is that you get to be yourself. So that is the gift I get and also the risk I take–being myself” (5).

What a perfect introductory statement from the photographer, Donna Pollach, to these beautiful and herstorically-relevant photographs, illuminating the precious gift (and risk) of living openly as a lesbian and passionately capturing her life through taking photographs. This stunning collection of one-hundred and fifty black and white photographs documents her life, and the lives of lesbians in the Portland, Oregon community from the nineteen-seventies to Pollach’s death in 2002.

Photographs by Donna Pollach is an oversized, hard-bound, black book with a self-portrait of Donna holding her Nikon camera, taking a shot, on the cover. It is a perfect replica of her and her photography; Donna took photographs wherever she was, whatever she was doing, knowing somehow the importance of what she was capturing through her lens. Donna’s method was simple. She started taking portraits of the people around her. The book is a conversation between Donna and the viewer/reader.

Lovingly edited and compiled by Sue St. Michael, Donna’s partner of twenty-five years, Photographs by Donna Pollach is divided into sections entitled: “Community; ”Sisters;” “Lesbian Families;” and “Portraits.”

During my years living in Portland in the late seventies and, later, returning in the late eighties, I felt a kinship and sisterhood with both Donna and Sue. Their passionate partnership took place in these heady and vibrant times of collective households, demonstrations, creative flowerings of all kinds, coming out as open lesbians, creating lesbian culture, communities and consciousness and the merging of the personal and political.

This book follows a retrospective show at the White Gallery of Portland State University as part of an anniversary celebration of the establishment of the Women’s Studies Department (that Donna helped establish as a student and member of the Women’s Union), three years after Donna’s death from breast cancer. Many lesbian and feminist publications during the seventies featured Donna’s photography of lesbians and lesbian communities, including Women: A Journal of Liberation; Margins: A Review; and Womanspirit Magazine, as well as local Portland community publications including the Portland Scribe; Zero: Quarterly Review; Women’s Sports Calendar and Just Out Newspaper.

Photographs by Donna Pollach includes Donna’s own artist statement and chronology, as well as statements by her close friend, Ellen Goldberg; Donna’s identical lesbian twin-sister, Karen Pollach; and Sue. This collection is more than only a visual representation of lesbian images; it is also a social, political, cultural herstory of lesbian lives.

In Ellen Goldberg’s introduction, she tells us these photographs show us: “..the way we loved, raised children, and made households while establishing lesbian counter-culture….Here are photographs of women finding passionate, intimate expression with other women for the first time in their lives” (9-10).

Donna and Sue were both school teachers. Donna adopted a son when Sue could not legally be considered his parent. Sue was embroiled in a child custody challenge. As Sue’s statement reminds:

“In 1978, there were no legal protections for lesbian mothers. We witnessed the suffering of mothers in our community who lost custody of their children solely because of their sexual orientation…Not only did lesbians struggle with custody issues but as lesbian school teachers we might be out in our communities and closeted in our jobs” (82).

Sue concludes her statement with her gratitude to Donna: “Thirteen years after her death, I feel privileged to offer this book of her photographs, taken with great care and love” (83).

I, too, feel privileged to be able to relish these photographs as a testimony to the passionate photographer illuminating these transcendent times for us.