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

“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.

The Day After the Day After

(Published in Island Tides, Volume 28, Number 13, June 30 – July 13, 2016 and The Gulf Islands Driftwood, June 22, 2016)

I wrote this poem “the day after the day after” the recent mass shooting at the LBGTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, after attending a small “queer circle” on Sunday, not aware that a vigil was being planned. I read this at the vigil on Wednesday evening, lovingly organized by our local queer organization, a deeply moving event to bring our communities together to mourn together.

13 June 2016

Now I see. The light as well as the dark.

Pulse. The impulse to come together to mourn and celebrate.

Latin night at Pulse, the Gay nightclub that now will be remembered.

The tragedy—another mass killing—this, the largest counted dead.

A man firing guns onto the dance floor. People celebrating during

Gay Pride month. Another senseless, heinous, hateful act.

When you phoned and offered a gathering of a queer circle

I instantly knew I’d come.

And now I realize the power of the circle even more than before.

As we passed the sacred stone around in a heart circle,

we spoke and we listened and the circle, as it does its magic,

connected us to one another.

This is the power of our presence. This is how we can act in

our efforts to essentially try to make meaning out of this event,

the extinguishing of lives with so much living to look forward to.

Now I see, again and again, the principles of surrender, letting go,

releasing, not personalizing, of bringing who we are together,

to share the tragedies and highs, but especially the lows,

the collective terrors, the mourning.

It’s like coming out all over again. Not keeping it inside but

coming to understand better and being ourselves,

in our complexities and as yet invalidated desires.

We come out, come to ourselves, come together and each time,

each moment, our reach becomes wider and our breaths deepen,

we trust ourselves and one another and the world brightens

despite all the darkness and pain, like a salve for our sorrows,

our fears, our anger.

We queers and others transform hatred and bigotry and violence into

heart opening and knowing we’re in this together.


(Published in Island Writer Magazine: The Literary Journal of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, Volume 14, Issue 1, Summer 2016)

Yes, yes, I said yes.

To move away.

To be free.

Whatever the cost, the strife, the resistance.

Never will I ever forget the magic, the power of this assent.

Yes to my future.

Yes to my present.

Yes because I would not accept no.

Even if this meant the loss of my parents’ support and love.

I hope, I truly sense that I would have made the same choices.

Then, the yesses that followed me into the life I was actually living.

All the yesses even amidst the vocal and militant noes:

“No more wars”

“Stop the killings”

“Never again”

“Not in my name”

It was the yesses that propelled these movements

for change and complete transformation.

The yesses that fueled the visions of true equality, of peace,

of new ways to live and love and even work.

The yesses that underlie the heart of these struggles of ours.




Circles of Women Poem

CIRCLES OF WOMEN Wendy Judith Cutler (1992)
(Dedicated to all the circles of women writing everywhere)


Each time we pose
pen or pencil to paper
we connect with who we are      who we were      who we want to be
we are circles of women
writing together
in dialogue
reaching for the depth
or surface brilliance
writing our lives authentically      intuitively      consciously
coming together
to read       to write      to share      to listen      to speak
knowing ourselves more
as we come to know others
creating a space
safe enough for our pain
and joy
our losses
and our resilience

write anything
about what?
write about anything
write about your hunger      cravings      desires      obsessions
I don’t have any

let yourself go
go deeply
deny nothing

I used to write      a lot      stopped
someone read my words
my thoughts
I stopped writing
never wanted anyone else to know
tell the story of the betrayal      violation       criticism
there were other times
I became silent     ashamed      vulnerable
write it out
put it down
word by word
thought by thought

I’m scared
it’s too painful
too boring
too wordy
too hard

breathe      stay calm      own your feelings
acknowledge your experiences
confront your censors
go beyond your blocks
discover the source that fuels
your creativity    your words  your power

but that’s frightening
I feel overwhelmed

just start writing
put it down
whatever comes
keep writing
don’t stop

all right,   here goes:
I am a woman who…
This is a day in the life of…
An obsession of mine is…
If I could change anything I’d…
write anything
from your heart   your body   your soul
write your pain
your joy
write your regrets
your truths
your dreams
your visions
write your lies
I am on a tropical island…
I watch the waves…
I am in the forest…
I am alone in a cabin…
I  am on my bed…
I am in my favorite chair…
I am at my desk….
I am under a tree….
I am near the fire….
(in unison)

we write wherever we are
we write when we’re overwhelmed
we write to clear our minds
we write to express our anger
we write to clarify our thoughts
we write when we’re too tired to talk
we write to capture that exact feeling
we write to release our pain
we write to honour our truths
we write to connect ourselves to this circle
these circles of women writing

each time
we pose
pen or pencil to paper

(excerpted in We’Moon 2011)