A biochemist by training and university administrator by career, Victor Bloomfield now adds art documentarian to his lengthy résumé, thanks to an exhibition of his photos at the Minnesota Museum of American Art Project Space in downtown St. Paul.

The centerpiece of "Studio Sessions: Minnesota Arts in the 1970s," which runs through Oct. 20, is an assortment of 34 black-and-white portraits that Bloomfield made of Minnesota artists posing or working in their studios nearly 40 years ago. Paired with samples of art they made then, or later, "Sessions" offers a snapshot of the personalities, styles and media that animated a particularly yeasty era in Minnesota culture.

"It was a truly vigorous time because of all that was happening," said Stewart Turnquist, whom Bloomfield captured assembling tetrahedron sculptures from lightweight carpet tubes. "Everything was breaking out then, the sexual revolution, new music, war protests, civil rights marches. Everything was changing, and to get to something that didn't yet exist, we felt we had to make it, so you had this huge creative burst."

As Turnquist and others recall, art schools were embroiled in fierce debates about art, design, craft, pop culture and sundry 'isms — abstract expressionism, photo realism, minimalism, feminism. Within the decade local activists founded the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota (WARM Gallery); Forecast, an advocate for public art, and the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), the country's first artist-run curatorial department at a major museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

"Nobody was selling anything, but everybody was out there doing wacky things," said Tom Rose, then a young University of Minnesota art professor fresh out of grad school at the University of California, Berkeley. "It felt like a scene, and it felt really special."

Chronicler with a camera

Having taken up photography in the early 1970s, Bloomfield plunged deeper into it after meeting sculptor George Morrison and his painter/wife, Hazel Belvo. Their studio/home in a deconsecrated St. Paul church was a magnet for artists and the scene of legendary parties at which Bloomfield encountered other artists. He got the notion of photographing them from the work of Ugo Mulas, an Italian-born photographer who had documented the New York art scene in a popular book of the time.

"I thought this would be a neat thing to do in the Twin Cities so I made connections," said Bloomfield, 75, in a recent interview. "As the circle of people grew, other artists heard about the project. I would contact them and say, 'I'm photographing prominent Twin Cities artists. May I photograph you?' So, of course, no one could turn down a request phrased that way."

Within a couple of years he had photos of "upward of 70 artists," which were shown in the mid-'70s at St. Paul's Suzanne Kohn Gallery, an influential part of the scene. "Then the photos went back to my storage room where they've languished for 37 or 38 years," he said.

Then and now

The Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMAA) has paired 30 of Bloomfield's photos with work by those artists drawn from its collection or borrowed from the artists. Four additional photos are of Martin Friedman, then director of Walker Art Center; Sam Sachs, then director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; gallery director Kohn, and WARM members Belvo and Harriet Bart.

Because Bloomfield captured several generations, his images are a fine cross-section of the era's talent. The seniors of the mid-century generation — painters Syd Fossum, Cameron Booth, Bob Kilbride, Peter Busa and Herman Somberg; printmaker Eugene Larkin — are there along with prominent sculptors Katherine Nash and Anthony Caponi. Most of them have died, along with painters Jerry Rudquist and Phyllis Wiener, who were in their youthful prime when they posed for Bloomfield.

Several who were fresh out of college or just launching their careers are now well-established, among them political activist Carole Fisher, sculptor Stuart Nielsen, drawer Mary Griep, conceptualist Harriet Bart, photo realist Jerry Ott and ceramists Jeff Oestreich and Curt Hoard.

Many interests have shifted over time. A weaver then, Bart sculpts books and shapes ideas now. Then a painter under the sway of Matisse, Nielsen is now primarily a sculptor with an appreciation of lush color. After running the MAEP program for decades, Turnquist has retired to an acreage near Monticello, Minn., where he's building an "interspecies city," an updated version of the artists' colony for which he was creating tetrahedron sculptures when Bloomfield photographed him.

"It was just a really rich time to be an artist in Minneapolis and St. Paul," said curator Christina Chang, who organized the show.