A nude woman, her dark brown hair in long braids, stands in the middle of the forest, tersely conversing with a fully clothed park ranger. The woman is Jean Mountaingrove, who in the 1970s and '80s was co-publisher of the lesbian feminist quarterly WomanSpirit and organizer of a women-only gathering of the same name.
The encounter took place more than 40 years ago, and the photo of it, shot by Minnesota-born Carolyn "Meadow" Muska, could've gotten Mountaingrove into trouble.
Women discovered to be lesbians back then were at risk of losing their jobs or kids. They still felt the effects of laws that had barred gays from working in the federal government with the threat of being fired if they were found out, and still remembered the McCarthy era's "Lavender Scare." It was a contentious time to identify as queer, even as a rights movement emerged. For that reason, Muska kept this photo under wraps.
It and other Muska photographs have come out in a big way at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as one of 30 black-and-white photos in "Strong Women, Full of Love: The Photography of Meadow Muska," organized by curator of photography Casey Riley.
"There's an immediacy and an intimacy to Meadow's camera work that lends itself to that feeling of, 'I know that I've seen this,' " said Riley. "Her subjects are so present — they are her friends, these open, smiling-at-you faces."
Muska's photos capture her world, from self-sustaining lesbian communities on off-the-grid rural lands to LGBTQ rights protests, lesbian-run cafes and bookstores, communal women-only living spaces in south Minneapolis, to homemade gay lady erotica.
Because her subjects knew the stakes of being outed, every photograph was built on a basis of trust and consent.
"I didn't take these photos of people and subjects," said Muska. "We created them together."
Muska's photographs transport viewers to a world that lesbian women created on their own. Born in 1952 in Roseville, Muska grew up in a time when she didn't see lesbian role models. Even in lesbian romance novels of the time, the butch woman always either committed suicide or died in some other manner.
It was an era when girls were seldom allowed to play sports. Their only option was cheerleading because, they were told, "the boys needed it," Muska recalled. "I will never forgive them for that. I am still mad."
Title IX, the federal policy that protects against gender-based discrimination. wasn't enacted until 1972. And before the 1974 passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, women had a difficult time getting credit cards. Career options were also limited — women were mainly secretaries, nurses or housewives.
Finding her niche
Muska, who came out as a lesbian at age 20, found navigating that world complicated. She had a desire to communicate, but realized she wasn't a writer. She turned to photography.
"I thought out-of-the-box, how could I do something for a career that I have integrity with?" she asked. "Using a camera to do social documentation was a way to do something, because I was still angry. Anger is energy."
After earning a BFA in photography from Ohio University, she was hired at the Albany Democrat Herald in Oregon. She was living in her van at the time. After getting an assignment to shoot dogs at an FBI convention, she was mysteriously fired. She believes it is because someone found out she was gay.
After living in her van for years she moved back to Minnesota and switched careers again, becoming a master electrician, attending Dunwoody College of Technology. In this path she also became an advocate for women and people of color in the trades. But photography never left her.
Coming of age in the 1970s, she was drawn to women's land cooperatives like Rising Moon in Aitkin, Minn. One of the photos in the show is a close-up portrait of River Brady, one of the land's first residents. Her hair is cut short, boyish, her chin hairs all grown out. Every photo has a story.
"On New Year's Eve 1973, the house [at Rising Moon] burned down," said Muska. "River and a friend slept in a three-sided structure and put hay wheels on the outside walls and tried to stay warm during the winter by doing pushups in the middle of the night so they didn't freeze to death."
A meeting of the minds
The idea for the Mia show was sparked by several outside forces. Muska was bothered by a photography show of 1970s rock stars she saw in Belgium in 2014 while honeymooning with her wife, Bridget Doak.
"They were sort of hostile toward women and put down women, and I got angry because that wasn't the '70s I lived through," she said. "I wanted my reality to be shown, so I just walked out and was like, 'I am gonna do what I can.' "
She was upset about the 2016 election, and decided to create her own form of resistance by showing the 1970s photos of radical lesbian life. Plus, some of the original photos she had given away to her subjects had made their way out into the world without crediting her as the photographer. She wanted to reclaim those, too.
An interview with Riley in Minnesota Women's Press, where she said she wanted "more diversity" at the museum, encouraged Muska to reach out. The two connected immediately over the photos and their shared love of women's archival research and photography.
"She is creating this counter-archive that speaks back to this history that is prejudicial, derogatory, inaccurate and creating something that's opposite," said Riley. "That's the truth."
"Our truth," said Muska, chiming in, collaborative as always.
Alicia Eler • 612-673-4437 • @AliciaEler
Strong Women, Full of Love: The Photography of Meadow Muska
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Wed. and Sat.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.-Fri.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 15.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
Info: 1-888-642-2787 or new.artsmia.org