photograph, © Honey Lee Cottrell
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Honey Lee Cottrell
On Looking At Myself Over A Period of Time
I have taken photographs of my lovers, myself and the world around me since 1968. Some of my self-portraits are documents for myself so that I can see how I look in the world. Others look at me. How can I know what they see? Sometimes my pictures are like journal entries. They document my interior states of being as well as situate this experience in the world. (The world for me is divided into straight and gay parts.) I also use these photos in the process of constructing myself. When I share that process with others my intentions are twofold:
To be honest about who I am; to assist in the viewer's process of self-construction.
Since I assume my audience to be women, I am participating in the construction of a woman's language and culture. The language I'm talking about is largely nonverbal. It depends on the participation of people who either have a common experience to share or have access to identifying with what that experience must be like. When they look at me:
Do they see me as the other?
Do they project their own meanings and desires?
How is the spectator looking in on the photograph?
How is the subject looking out of the photograph?
How did the photographer look upon the scene being photographed?
These questions are important to the construction process.
It is important for the audience to know how they are responding to the pictures and stories. It is as important for the image-maker to know who the audience is and what kinds of responses are possible. Does the viewer react with self-conscious awareness as a spectator of her own life or does the art work overpower this and create instead a subjective identity for her within the imagery?
When I am the audience, I can do both. Sometimes I am swept into and overpowered by the memory of what it was like to be that person then. Afterwards, I experience the distance between that person then and who I am now. At other times, I remember what the picture was supposed to represent but not the feelings I had when I took it. This dialogue constitutes some of what I call my construction process. It shapes the way I describe myself and my relationship to the world.
When I was in grade school I remember thinking: All artists must be very stupid people because they don't draw pictures that look like what I am reading. In 1968, when I bought my Nikkormat camera, I had no intention of becoming an artist with this brand new piece of machinery. My intention was to take pictures of things that I liked that seemed to have the nasty habit of disappearing on me. In 1975, when I realized that I in no way could continue to be a waitress for the rest of my life, I decided to be a photographer. I set out to acquire the skills that I would need. I took many self-portraits during this re-deciding, skill-acquiring time.
Back in 1974, when I was still meditating on how to make this quantum leap from waitress to photographer with the added complication of having just been extricated from a deeply dependent relationship with another woman, I was given a photo class assignment to do a roll (36 exposures) of self-portraits. I was living in a tiny studio apartment near the Greyhound Bus Station at 7th and Market Streets in San Francisco. The transients on Market Street were my friends. The area was my home. I took my pictures there.
The first picture shows my shadow following a man with a wrinkled coat and a cardboard box. I watched this street bum in amazement as he negotiated his way down Market Street, totally unaware that there were other people on the street and everyone else was agreeing with him by not noticing that he was there. This shadow portrait seemed to me, then, to be an appropriate self-portrait. Now it seems to be what it feels like (then and now) to be not noticed as a dyke; how we all agree not to see me when I dress and act and say that I am a lesbian.
The second picture is a much more explicit document of this Market Street reality: how my street attitude and dress appear and how people don't look. I am aware of noticing what is happening even if the man scurrying past is not. If I turned this photo loose on the heterosexual world, would they remember the times that they refused to recognize my sexual preference, or would it be an amusing view of deviant behavior?
Not knowing the answer to this question is one of the reasons I haven't shown it to anyone except friends.
Pictures of Things I Don't Want to See
Often I take pictures of things that I don't want to see. Some of my images dramatize interior states of being like jealousy of a lover or loss when a love relationship ends. In these I actively recreate in front of the camera what I don't want to see in myself. In one image from this series I had shaved my head out of curiosity. I thought I looked beautiful. My friends were appalled.
Three weeks later I went to Michigan to see my family for Christmas. My mother thought I looked like my father's brother. My father thought I looked like his father as a young man. I thought I looked like my brother. My brother thought I looked weird.
In a photograph depicting jealousy, I sandwiched a self-portrait negative with one of dried flowers and driftwood. The combination made my hands look hairy and my chest tattooed. I felt like something of a cross between the tattooed lady in the circus and a thief. The look on my face is very predatory, determined and committed to winning. As a spectator of the picture (which usually makes others feel uneasy) I am caught by this look, whereas in the other images I am very much looked at by outsiders and victimized within that looked-at-ness.
Trying to See Ourselves Without Mirrors
Another series of pictures has to do with the way I wish to be seen as a photographer. I wanted to re-shoot a portrait for business cards. That day I wandered around the house taking pictures of myself in all the mirrors. I became increasingly absorbed in how I looked in the different environments, and less interested in how I should portray myself to my future business public. None of the pictures worked for business cards. I used a graphic design instead.
One image, created out of contact prints, was printed in the Sinister Wisdom #7 issue. "Trying to see ourselves without mirrors." In that issue, Judith Schwarz wrote about understanding another lesbian's feelings about being a lesbian by remembering what it was like as a child to be thought of by others as a freak, misfit and queer; because she was physically disabled. I think I am using my own life in a similar way when I write about these self-portraits.
I also collage images into a scrapbook which I use as a photo journal. The scrapbook is a way of creating other meanings from the images. Often this involves pasting things together intuitively and returning to them later to add something that makes them accessible and understandable to others. By enlarging my focus in this way I expand the dialogue to include those outside my personal network of friends: the construction/creation of our women's culture.
© 1981, 1997 by Honey Lee Cottrell. A different version of this article appeared in The Blatant Image: A Magazine of Feminist Photography #1, Sunny Valley, OR, 1981.
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