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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

From the Archives: “The Lesbian House”

“The Lesbian House” exhibit in Special Collections features a selection of photographs taken by Middlebury alumna Barbara “Bee” Ottinger ’70.
“The Lesbian House” exhibit in Special Collections features a selection of photographs taken by Middlebury alumna Barbara “Bee” Ottinger ’70.

Shuffling through the Davis Family Library atrium crowded with students on the way to study and tour groups taking in said students on the way to study, a black-and-white photograph caught my eye from a display case. The photo pictured a young Bee Ottinger lying in bed, her hair artfully outlining her chest. I debated telling the father of a prospective student next to me that only at Middlebury can you find a nude of your professor in a school-sanctioned exhibit. 

“The Lesbian House (1972-1973)” is Middlebury Special Collection’s newest library exhibit featuring a selection of photographs by Middlebury alumna Barbara “Bee” Ottinger ’70. Ottinger has enjoyed an exceptional career based in Los Angeles, while her connection to Middlebury remains strong. She has been a visiting professor of film and media studies since the early 2000s, and I had the privilege of taking her recent J-Term course, Video Editing Fundamentals, in which she taught students how to cultivate aesthetic and narrative control through informed editing. 

Ottinger has a talent for maximizing the emotional potential of an image through thoughtful composition and an adept understanding of visual storytelling. This talent was wielded in music videos like Martika’s “I Feel the Earth Move” and Celine Dion’s “I Drove All Night,” both of which Ottinger edited. Her creativity especially shines in her California Institute of the Arts master’s thesis, “The Lesbian House.” 

“The Lesbian House” features portraits from the ’70s of lesbian couples and friends who had little in common in terms of class, race and region but had found a haven in a commune-esque house on Oxford Street in Los Angeles. In a 2010 interview, Ottinger described the house as being founded on a faith in lesbianism and acceptance; there were no men, no parents and very little privacy. Ten to fifteen lesbian women were living in the house at any given time from 1972 to 1973. 

“It was kind of like Peter Pan not growing up,” Ottinger said in the same interview about living in the house. “No one was very serious, no one was very career-minded — it was just a time that was a bubble.”

The house had a reputation for fun and experimentation while also being a politically vibrant place. In the Davis exhibit, the photo “Beach Lounging” offers a snapshot of this free-spirited, politically-charged ethos: The photo depicts a lesbian woman flexing her bicep, topless, at a public beach. The exhibit also features many pictures of lesbian couples and friends doting on one another. Photos like “Sandy and a Friend,” “Advice,” “Gloria” and “Kelly feeding her Girlfriend” all express a spirit of circumstantial toughness meeting interpersonal tenderness. Ottinger undoubtedly has an eye for capturing personal intimacies entwined with political mischievousness. 

“The Lesbian House perfectly encapsulates the late ’60s and ’70s,” Ottinger told The Campus. “The adventuresome, the nonconformity, the sloughing off of material goods, the classlessness, the feminism, the equality for women all took place in that house.”   

The title card for “The Lesbian House” features bold lettering in retro shades of orange, yellow and blue with a background of some of the more than 1,000 black and white negatives Ottinger gifted to Special Collections over 10 years ago. This backdrop serves as a reminder of the devout documentation that went into “The Lesbian House” and the power of tactful curation, as there is only so much content that can be placed in the library display cases.

The Davis display is bookended with archival material from Ottinger’s time as a student at Middlebury in the late ’60s. Ottinger was the president of Mortar Board, where she organized the Women’s Liberation Symposium in March 1970 and founded the Middlebury Photography Club. Passing through the Davis atrium by “The Lesbian House,” it’s hard not to feel pride for the larger Middlebury community and the influential careers alumni have developed. 

“I think it’s really inspirational for Middlebury students right now to think like ‘Okay, the things that I’m doing, the discoveries that I’m making can influence where my life is going to go,’” said  Special Collections Outreach Specialist Mikaela Taylor ’15.5, referring to this archival material from Ottinger’s time at Middlebury. “There’s such a beautiful opportunity at this point in students’ lives to make discoveries and connections that are going to influence them going forward.” 

Ottinger’s formative academic and extracurricular experiences at Middlebury led her to pursue artistic and personal excitement in California. 

“I really never fit into New England, though I love New England and it’s a part of me, but I always felt constricted and the West was much less ambitious, less individual. It suited me better, it was calmer,” Ottinger said in an interview with The Campus. “I loved Middlebury, but all my friends were white, upper-middle class, you know, and I love them to death but I needed a different environment, and L.A. and that house gave it to me.” 

Though rooted in the spirit of West Coast ’70s counterculture, “The Lesbian House” is apt to be shown at Middlebury today. With the recent opening of the Prism Center and a tense political moment, the content of the house feels more relevant now than ever.

“The Lesbian House definitely captured the changing role of women,” Ottinger said. “There was an idealism to feminism and the social revolution. There was a desire to be classless and inclusive, which I find to be very relevant to what’s going on now.”

Taylor agreed that the exhibit fits well in the current climate. 

“I think that with all the discussion around Roe v. Wade being overturned and a lot of women’s rights being challenged now I think [“The Lesbian House”] resonates a lot with the need to gather and find community so that one can feel comfortable to speak out against injustices,” she said. 

“The Lesbian House,” though first displayed 50 years ago, is a pertinent reminder to Middlebury that a major agent of artistic and political freedom is being in community with one another.

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Catherine Goodrich

Catherine Goodrich '24 (she/her) is an Arts and Culture Editor.

She previously served as a staff writer. Catherine is an English major and Film minor hailing from Birmingham, Alabama. She is the prose editor for Blackbird Literary Arts Journal and works concessions at the Middlebury Marquis where she's developed a love of trivia.