Visionary photographer and filmmaker Honey Lee Cottrell died at age 69 due to pancreatic cancer on September 21.
Cottrell co-founded the lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs in the 1980s.
“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,” her partner Susie Bright said in a Facebook obituary.
Cotrell’s idea behind the magazine 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.”
Born in Astoria, Oregon, in 1946, the eldest of two children, she grew up in Michigan. After completing a year at Michigan State University in 1964-65, Lee worked for at the Technicolor photo processing lab. As she later discovered, a number of lesbians were working there, having discovered it was a fairly safe place for butch women to work.
Lee was invited to visit one of these women, Harriet DeVito, who had moved to New York City, and then ended up driving across country with her to California in 1966. Along the way, Lee discovered what her feelings for women meant to her, and Harriet became her first lover.
Once she arrived in San Francisco, she made it her home and became deeply involved in the creative lesbian community of artists, photographers, and film-makers in the Bay Area, as well as the progressive sex education activists. She opened her apartment on Bessie Street to friends and artists, helping find jobs and shelter for people in need.
In order to support her work as an artist, Cottrell worked as a member of the Marine Cooks and Stewards and as a banquet waiter in Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union when she first moved to San Francisco in 1966.
In 1978 Cottrell co-authored a feminist book celebrating masturbation called I Am My Lover. She was also an early member of the Gay Lesbian History Project in San Francisco. Her photographs have been in many galleries including the N.A.M.E. Gallery in Chicago.
“The lesbian gaze meant that there was contemplation,” she said. “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.”
In 1981, Lee 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.
Cottrell died at her family home in Santa Cruz, survived by her mother, brother, daughter, and life companions.