Honey Lee Cottrell, a visionary photographer and filmmaker who pioneered lesbian erotica in the 1980s through her contributions to the women’s sex magazine On Our Backs, died Sept. 21, in Santa Cruz, Calif. The cause was pancreatic cancer. She was 69 years old.
According to Cornell University, Cottrell donated her archives to the Cornell University Library Human Sexuality Collection: “a gesture in keeping with her lifelong goal of empathetically reflecting and documenting the lives and sexualities of the lesbian and gay community, beginning in an era when they were expected to live on the margins and in the shadows.”
Brenda Marston, curator of the Human Sexuality Collection, visited Cottrell at her home two weeks before her death and filmed Cottrell reflecting on her work. As she explained:
“The whole notion of people who were unseen was something that motivated her throughout her life, from the time she came out in 1966. She didn’t see images of lesbians so she wanted to create them. Part of her intent all along was to leave a record.”
Cottrell revolutionized the female nude, validated women’s right to pleasure, and opened possibilities for women to see themselves and their desires in new ways through her engagement in a variety of feminist, artistic, and sex education projects.
Gayle Rubin, anthropologist and theorist of sex and gender politics, notes:
“[Honey Lee] was never someone who put herself out front…. She was more of a quiet observer, but a persistently potent presence. She had a kind of strength and solidity that seemed to anchor things around her; as if she provided the gravity that held various circling planets in their stable orbits. And she just kept generating images, events, relationships, connections.”
She studied at the National Sex Forum and was a member of San Francisco Sex Information in the 1970s. She co-authored I Am My Lover, a 1978 feminist book celebrating masturbation that she created with Joani Blank and Tee Corinne. She was an early member of the Lesbian and Gay History Project, founded in late 1978 in San Francisco. [Read her artist statement.]
In 1981, Cottrell received a BA in film studies from San Francisco State University. She was director and camera for Sweet Dreams, starring Pat Califia (National Sex Forum, 1980), and from 1985 to the early ’90s, a cinematographer for Fatale Video, the first lesbian-created erotic movie company.
Left: A certificate bestowed on Cottrell by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors | Right: Cottrell She was one of the “core four,” along with Debi Sundahl, Nan Kinney, and Susie Bright, who gave On Our Backs its style and success. When it started in 1984, she proposed a “Bulldagger of the Month” centerfold for the first issue. She explained that the idea was “to stand this Playboy centerfold idea on its head from, I would say, a feminist perspective… what would I do if I was a centerfold and how can I reflect back to them our values?” Her idea was not to be “the regular kind of centerfold, but something that will make a difference, shake people up, show the other side of the mirror.” Cottrell was a contributing photographer to On Our Backs for seven years.
She photographed her lovers and friends and documented queer and kink cultures for decades with her first camera, a 35 mm Nikkormat. She was exacting and precise in the photographs and collages she created, as well as in her dark room work. She studied with Ruth Bernhard, who invited Cottrell to be her printer. In addition to I Am My Lover and On Our Backs, her still photography has appeared in publications including The Blatant Image, Coming to Power, Sinister Wisdom, and Nothing But the Girl.
As Cottrell explained:
“The lesbian gaze meant that there was a contemplation, a restraint, a sincerity and a warrior-quality. This lesbian look was compelling. While your heterosexual woman model might compel the rest of the world to look at her, a lesbian was addressing you.”