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Catherine Opie surveys her life’s work in her new monograph

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The career-spanning publication features the diversity of Opie’s subjects, including high school football players, mini-malls, protests, freeways and her family

I first came across Catherine Opie’s work in college, when I saw her series Domestic from the late 90s. The work is composed of intimate photographs of lesbian families hanging out in their kitchen or playing with their children, created on a 9,000-mile road trip in an RV with her dog. Their exquisite ordinariness floored me. Made during a period of personal heartbreak, Opie traversed the US photographing friends of friends or scouting strangers in gay bars. She asked local DJ’s to announce casting calls and waited to see who turned up. The photographs describe the queer chosen family in all its beauty and variance, marking a refusal to be defined within the heterosexual construct of the family unit. Domestic, like so many of Opie’s series, is an exploration of belonging.

Untitled #3 (Freeways), 1994 © courtesy theartist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/HongKong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples; and PederLund, Oslo
Gina & April, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1998. © courtesy theartist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/HongKong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples; and PederLund, Oslo

“Between the body and the actual world, we’re always trying to build these kinds of signifiers in relation to what kind of group of people that we belong to. I find that incredibly fascinating to try to map out.”

Over the years, Opie has photographed diverse subjects, including high school football players, mini-malls, protests, freeways and her family. While refusing the confines of a singular identity, the embodiment of architecture seemingly connects these unrelated works. Opie examines people, places and politics as architectural sites that we build identity upon – all in service of our human desire to belong.

“This came as an early recognition from my San Francisco days. As soon as I got my leather jacket, I felt completely different walking through the Castro,” Opie shares. “In the queer community in the 70s and 80s, this was a codified architecture of our body for us to acknowledge each other.”

These codes are omnipresent in work such as Being and Having (1991) – a series of performative portraits of Opie and her friends sporting fake moustaches and beards, animating the assumptions of masculinity. They are also in her documentation of Los Angeles Mini-malls (1997-1998) describing the ever-shifting cultures that constitute community within the built environment. “

Between the body and the actual world, we’re always trying to build these kinds of signifiers in relation to what kind of group of people that we belong to,” she says. “I find that incredibly fascinating to try to map out.”

Football Landscape #14 (Twentynine Palms vs. Big Bear, Twentynine Palms,CA), 2008 © courtesythe artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, NewYork/Hong Kong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples;and Peder Lund, Oslo

In her new self-titled monograph published by Phaidon, we get to explore Opie’s universe of images. Born over four decades, the publication charts her prolific career offering dynamic new interpretations through sharp and unexpected sequencing.

Self Portrait/Cutting (1993), one of Opie’s most memorable self-portraits in which a child-like drawing of two women holding hands is permanently etched in her back, sits next to a scene from Domestic, of two lesbians relaxing over lunch with their adopted daughter.

Later in the book, we see her mixed media piece All My Sex Toys (1990), beside a collection of AIDS activism paraphernalia from her project 700 Nimes Road – a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor told through her personal ephemera. These are just two examples of numerous sequences that draw out and open up new conversations between bodies of work.

Occupying a space between critical thinking and critical feeling, the book animates how photographs move through time, how they are imbued with history and how they reflect the work that still needs to be done.

Joanne, Betsy & Olivia, Bayside, New York, 1998 © courtesy theartist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/HongKong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples; and PederLund, Oslo,
Self-Portrait/Nursing, 2004. © courtesy theartist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/HongKong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples; and PederLund, Oslo

“Empathy is really important. The sense of citizenship in relation to humanity and that we all are here to serve one another and to serve in kindness.” 

 

Photography is a cathartic practice for Opie. A space to wrestle with the questions and vulnerabilities that inform her own identity. “High School Football (2007-09) was the hardest for me,” she explains. “I couldn’t hide the way I look or who I am. American taunts of homophobia often start in places like a football field, and I had to face that intense kind of masculinity in relation to my own butch identity. It pushed a lot of different interesting types of feelings.”

The series builds upon Opie’s interest in the structure of space and how communities form therein. The project describes how the football field is synonymous with American culture and how its influence transcends the boundaries of location.

Opie makes portraits of boys on the verge of manhood. Adorned in oversized armature, the players exude the cliches of macho athletics while revealing the fragility and inculcated pressure to maintain mainstream notions of masculinity.

“Once, I realised that these were just young men grappling with their own subculture – facing what a singular identity might be for them and that it might not hold true. It really allowed me to enter that work differently.”

J.D., 2008 © courtesythe artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, NewYork/Hong Kong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples;and Peder Lund, Oslo
Tyler S. 2008 c-print 30 x 22 1/4 inches (76.2 x 56.5 cm © Catherine Opie.

In a conversation that frames the book, Opie tells curator Charlotte Cotton, “All I’m trying to do is to say, ‘I’m living here, now, at this time, and I am an artist who is interested in how we negotiate the lives that we’re all living.’”

Opie’s mastery is rooted in the embodiment of her politics. She uses photography to trouble our understanding of the world and creates work that moves us to be more accountable and empathetic. Her aesthetic force is rooted in democracy.

Employed through composition, providing context and elevating the whole over its parts – Opie ensures everyone has an entry point: “Empathy is really important. The sense of citizenship in relation to humanity and that we all are here to serve one another and to serve in kindness.” 

@csopie 

Catherine Opie is published by Phaidon, and is available now. For more information, you can visit their website 

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.

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