Rachael and Elexis/The Subway Map
Archives open windows into the intent and creative process of On Our Backs artists. Displayed here are Honey Lee Cottrell’s notes for two stories, photographs she created for the features, and the final result as printed in the magazine.
The 1985 film “Desperately Seeking Susan” starred Rosanna Arquette and Madonna as two women brought together by the personals section of a newspaper. It was the spark for Cottrell’s “Desperately Seeking Rachael and Elexis,” which appeared that same year in On Our Backs. Cottrell’s handwritten notes outline her objective, the elements she wanted to resist, and the subliminal message: “Lesbians are not one dimensional sexual beings” or “What to do if you experience a sexual desire that lays outside the lesbian norm, as defined by popular demand?”
The models who worked with Cottrell for this story chose to be identified by their first names. Their modeling, art direction, and perspective on the shoot contributed pioneering images of Black lesbians to public media.
Cottrell wrote, “It was not the intention of either the models Rachael and Elexis or myself to make a visual statement about black lesbian sexuality. Our intention was to address restrictions within lesbian life in general.” The story paired an imagined personal — “Desperately Seeking Fantasy Lover. Let’s meet for the first time, every time.” — with images of Rachael and Elexis on a carousel, in a restaurant, and in a place of restricted public access, a commercial rail yard with freight cars. In those settings, they wore, respectively, a lace dress and a uniform, two black tuxedos, and black leather. Cottrell also created erotic studio shots of the pair.
The 1987 “Psychosexual Subway Map of Urban Lesbian Life” is replete with references to complexities of contemporary lesbian life. “Did Gertrude Stein like her body?” is one of many questions posed along the route.
A contributing photographer to On Our Backs for its first seven years, Cottrell collaborated with Sundahl, Kinney, and Bright to establish its style and success. She grew up in Michigan and in 1965 got a job at a Technicolor photo processing lab, which she discovered was a fairly safe place for butch women to work. A road trip with one of her co-workers, Harriet DeVito, who became her first lover, brought her to San Francisco. There, she became deeply involved in the Bay Area’s lesbian community of artists, studied at the National Sex Forum and the San Francisco State University film department, and joined San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI) and the Lesbian and Gay History Project.
She opened her apartment on Bessie Street to friends and artists, helping find jobs and shelter for people in need. To support her artistic work, Cottrell had two union jobs. As a member of the Marine Cooks and Stewards, she fulfilled her dream of travel to the South Pacific where her father Duane Cottrell had served in WWII. With the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), she worked as a banquet waiter in the 1980s and 90s. She walked many a picket line protesting the mistreatment of workers, especially recent immigrant populations working as room cleaners at San Francisco hotels.
She photographed her lovers and friends and documented queer and kink cultures for decades with her first camera, a 35 mm Nikkormat. She was 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.
Gayle Rubin, anthropologist and theorist of sex and gender politics, noted that Cottrell “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.” Comparisons to the cosmos also came to Susie Bright’s mind: “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.”
“The lesbian gaze meant that there was a contemplation,” Cottrell 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.”
 Bright, Susie. “Honey Lee Cottrell in Memorium – January 16, 1946 – September 21, 2015.” https://susiebright.medium.com/honey-lee-cottrell-in-memorium-january-16-1946-september-21-2015-171076c67644 ↩
 Brenda Marston. “Honey Lee Cottrell (1946-2015): Lesbian Photographer, Filmmaker, Pioneer of Women’s Erotica, Dies at Age 60.” Press release, Sept. 24, 2015. ↩