When I think of Honey Lee, I always see that scene from Casablanca in my mind: "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
This chapter requires my most personal disclaimers. I lived with Honey Lee for six years, and produced lesbian photography with her for almost every day of that period. When I had my first child in 1990, she became my daughter's godmother. I don't believe in God, but I have to admit I believe in Honey Lee, mythically as well as personally.
Honey Lee was my second butch girlfriend, but she was my first famous love, my first older woman lover . At the end of our first date, she dropped me off on the curb and said, "Bye--You're a nice kid." I was put out by that, but I was dutifully intimidated. Honey Lee had already been partners with a string of women who were like the Who's Who of Lesbian History. I looked up to all of them, from Melinda Gebbie, the virtuoso artist of the underground comix scene, to Tee Corinne, with whom Honey Lee had done legendary collaborations. Just before me, her lover was Amber Hollibaugh one of the architects of modern queer radical politics.
I don't know how much these lovers were influenced by Honey Lee, but I had never met anyone like her before. She was an adventurer, one of the first astronauts of lesbian eroticism, looking for women and places and circumstances that had never been seen before.
Although she photographed every kind of person and sexuality imaginable, her most memorable portraits for me were of working-class women, people on the street, women who lived by their wits, women who the mainstream cameras never see. She took their pictures with complete empathy into their sexuality. Her models, both men and women, knew they could trust her with their sexual secrets, and she collaborated with these friends to make those ideas visually alive.
"In the 60s and early 60s," she wrote, "The ambition of the people surrounding me was to build an alternative society and then live in it...forever. The reward would be that then you wouldn't have to live out the big lie so thoroughly absorbed by the 'others.' Our secret hope was that the 'others' would see the errors of their ways and come over to our side.
"I think they have seen the error, but sadly they haven't migrated to our side so...now we have been invited to show our wares to them. I am skeptical. You could say that I'm not ambitious, but to me the notion of ambition is a distortion of my original intention. My work, and I believe this is true of other lesbian photographers, is tied to the context of the community that it has emerged from. Most of my work is a point-for-point retaliation for damages done to me. The problem is that the Art Establishment won't allow such vindictiveness to be certified as true art. Especially when it is done so blatantly, blatancy of course being a source of great pride to us.”
Honey Lee has always been in love with not only blatancy, but beauty; her photography is melodic that way . I used to tease her because every time she would be given some anti-romantic, shocking subject, she would come back with the taboo content delivered in an absolutely classic style: poignant sado-masochism, dildos as still life, conceptual beaver shots. She was incorrigible at mixing races: the fine art and the pornographic.
"If you're photographing your tribe from the inside out, she says, "to use as publicity for the outside world - then I want the outside world to see something that is not typically included in their label of queerness. Many of my photographs have this lovely quality ... I don't know if it's a desire to be seen more positively, but something like that, some of the reasons have washed away, because a lot of the hard-edged images of queers these days are just repelling.”
Honey Lee was forever inspired and amused by making lesbian eroticism out of her fine art and fashion photography inspirations-- as in the "Helmut Newton" scene in a lesbian leather tailor's studio, a Bruce Springsteen version of dildos, "Born In the USA", the famous Bulldagger centerfold.
"The context that I created for the Bulldagger self-portrait was lifted from the Playboy centerfold," she writes. "The response to that picture was amplified by the context of presentation in a lesbian sex magazine. The variety of responses was truly astounding. Those of us who are urbane East and West Coast dwellers were prepared to take it in stride, but those in the Heartland couldn't tell if it was 'real' or a joke. I think it must have been painfully confusing for those middle people who couldn't figure out what the intention was.”
Cottrell is so persistently analytical that every censorship dilemma or feminist put-down becomes another fascinating puzzle for her to solve photographically. When On Our Backs was repeatedly being seized and destroyed for depicting penetration, she decided to shoot something that created the sense of penetration without showing it at all. The result was the delicious portrait of Nina Hartley's ass and vulva posed above a ripe slice of watermelon. When she sensed that many lesbians felt that their more "vanilla" tastes were being ignored in favor of S/M sensationalism, her quest became that of putting together a pictorial that made "soft" sex look like a radical adventure.
While most lesbian feminist observers were pissing and moaning about the lack of images featuring women of color, Honey Lee just went out and shot the most creative and challenging pictorials of every kind of woman. It was her mile. Honey Lee photographed her circle of friends, and she has never segregated those circles. She is very shy, but she is never closed.
"Honey Lee did things that nobody else had done," Jill Posener comments to me. "Her work with black women in leather, for example-- I mean, we may not blink an eyelid now, but we sure as hell were blinking an eyelid when it first appeared. Her complete empathy with women of color, with women of different ages-- it was something that came out of the kind of feminist awareness and lesbian heightened context.'
I asked Honey Lee what she understands to be "the lesbian gaze".
" You mean, the 'lesbian glare?' I date the idea to the 1970s," she said, "when there was this whole drive to explain the gaze and what it was about— the way a lesbian could look at you that was defined as erotic.
"Tee [Corinne] and JEB [Joan Biren] and others spent an enormous amount of time trying to separate out the lesbian gaze from the rest of the world.
"The lesbian gaze meant that there was a contemplation, a restraint, a sincerity and a warrior-quality, you might say. 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.
Honey Lee refers to the introduction of a book on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. "The editor speaks of Mapplethorpe as an 'advocate', she says. "In contrast, I would say that lesbian photographers consider their work to have magical, healing properties. Wishful thinking maybe, but nonetheless the intention is to heal the actual mind-body-soul of fellow tribe members.”
"Recently I've been thinking of [Depression-era photographer] Dorothea Lange as a comparison. Her work has never intrigued me... All those desperate, fierce faces and starved bodies. Not a pretty sight. She, however, was an advocate hired by the government to 'see' what they didn't have the guts to see for themselves. She was passionate about her responsibility, and compassionate with her subjects. I don't think her work has been considered "art," but rather documentation of common people that had no voice.
"Maybe...a more noble comparison to lesbian portraiture would be to the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux...whose magical powers are thought to have strengthened the survival of a small but tenacious tribe of Homo sapiens. I like this idea. It fits in with my high-mindedness.”
The reason Honey's work is so "high-minded" is not only because she's curious and competent, but because she relishes spending considerable time working with her models. Many of her photographs can be best understood as collaborations to depict her subjects' erotic identity.
To be sure, she doesn't hold anybody's hand or stroke their egos. In fact, she is fond of quoting Helmut Newton to the effect that "The shoot's not over 'til the model cries." You might be ready to wring her neck by the time it's finished, and you can also be sure that her results is going to seduce you into doing it all over again.
Honey Lee's work is noticeably cinematic. and is deliberate in that sense. Her short film on lesbian fantasy and masturbation, "Sweet Dreams", was produced for a sex education company, but its most lasting effects are her artistic signature.... sensuality combined with unabashed taboo-breaking.
She inspired my own "How To Read A Dirty Movie" show, a presentation of film clips that she edited, plus pornographic deconstruction of my own. Unlike a lot of people whose memories of film school are like some boulevard of broken dreams, Honey Lee really ate up film theory; she subverted its language and gaze to a queer aesthetic.
"In a fine arts milieu," she writes, "they appreciate work that is premeditated, constructed; whereas the lesbian community will be offended if you do construct it, because they want it to be real.
"They feel, like since they're real lesbians and this is a document of their true lives, this is important. It's important that when that opposition happens, that lesbians working as photographers have to account for both forces in their work."
It was Honey Lee's exploration of what it meant to be erotically literate that led me to understand the basics of pornographic deconstruction. She could apply critical and sympathetic thought to the process of making a sexual image, and she understood the audience's sexual appetite as well as their resistance.
She would literally take me into the porno theaters B.V. (Before Video), and brushing past the nervous men, she'd sit us down and begin our lessons. I remember the first time I did this with her, so scared we'd be molested by some of the strokers, tugging on her sleeve every minute with some bewildered question about what pornographic convention we were seeing enacted on screen. I was sort of turned-on, sort of disgusted; I had no idea what to do with that confusion. Honey Lee did.
She was so patient, so un-superstitious. Those are the two qualities it takes to break into porn: not flying off the handle and not falling for the bogeyman myths.
Honey Lee's work is the culmination of her analysis of Hollywood, fine art, pornography, and gay camp. Her inspiration, however, comes from her family and the people she loves.
"I recognize other lesbians by the way they're looking out at the world. If I'm on the street, or in a restaurant, or at a bar, somebody can look at my eyes, and be directly in front of my eyes in such a way that I go -- snap! --you're one. It's that moment of recognition, over and over, in situations that it's a comfort, that gives it a power and a definition that's different from the rest of the world."
Essay: Nothing But the Girl, 1998, Cassell Publishing, London.
Cottrell’s artist statement: https://www.cla.purdue.edu/waaw/corinne/Cottrell.htm
Guide to the first part of her archives:
Sept. 6, 2015 Honey Lee Cottrell Video Recording about her archives: https://youtu.be/o30jpQIwcBw
Honey Lee Cottrell is survived by her mother Patricia Cottrell, brother Mike Cottrell, and daughter Aretha Bright.