Summary of Catherine Opie
Catherine Opie is a contemporary photographer who came to prominence in the 1990s for her uncompromising portraits of her peers in the lesbian, queer, BDSM and leather communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. As an openly lesbian artist who is part of often denigrated queer subcultures, Opie has spent much of her career documenting underground, subversive, and outsider communities - using extremely stylized, formal conventions of portrait photography to frame unconventional subjects, including herself. These photographs range from intentionally disturbing images of herself wearing a gimp mask with multiple needles protruding from her arms, to touching domestic scenes of lesbian couples in their homes.
Moving away from explicitly portraying queer, gay, and BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) subcultures, Opie began to photograph members of other American communities, such as surfers and footballers, continuing to make portraits towards fostering empathy between sitter and viewer. Opie's most recent work is portrait photographs of contemporary artists of all ages, showing their humanity and bodily fragility.
- Catherine Opie's chief contribution to contemporary photography is her use of classical, formal portrait conventions to portray unconventional subjects, such as butch lesbian mothers and BDSM practitioners, each pictured as important, worthy and individualized subjects for formal portraiture.
- As a lesbian herself, Opie has documented and shared varied lesbian experiences more than any other contemporary photographer. Her photographs of lesbian mothers, gimps, girlfriends, and drag kings show the humanity and complexity of lesbian women to a broader population.
- Important feminist theorist, Judith Butler, wrote that gender is "performative" and that identity is comprised of layers that appear over time according to the actions an individual performs, not just something we are born with. Opie's photographs play with gender - masculinity and femininity are often both present in the same image, and a subject's gender identity is often ambiguous. This is unusual in conventional portraiture, and helps viewers to think about how our own identity is constructed.
- Opie's later photographs provide a thorough and original documentation of important contemporary artists working now. These photographs allow us insight into the real identities of these loved and respected artists, and Opie does not shy away from imperfections on the artists' bodies and clothes, allowing us to see them as real humans, as well as important creators.
Important Art by Catherine Opie
In Bo, we see a young Catherine Opie staring intensely back at the viewer. She is wearing a fake mustache and carries the both comical and unnerving expression of "a serial killer from the Midwest who's a used aluminum-siding salesman".
The mustard-yellow background echoes Hans Holbein portrait paintings, as well as more recent Pop Art aesthetics. The image presents Opie's signature style; the highly focused, studio print of a human subject against a bright background as she merges past aesthetics with present politics. It is a device to add gravity to the image; to confer authority to the marginalized.
The Being and Having series consists of 13 photographs of Opie herself (as in Bo) and her lesbian friends playing with exaggerated, camp signs of masculinity - mostly fake moustaches and beards. The work is a playful representation of Judith Butler's ideas that gender is something that is performed, and layered, as opposed to a natural thing we are born with. The photograph also documents popular forms of dressing up and male drag amongst Opie's own lesbian community.
The piece subverts traditional visions of female beauty presented in art, by allowing the subject (also the artist) to have agency in looking straight at the viewer, and by covering 'beautiful', 'feminine' features with fake moustaches and beards. "My women embody space, they look back at you, they look off at you. I've always treated women in relationship to holding a sort of power within the frame and a lot of male photographers photograph the woman only as object."
In creating Bo as an alter ego, Opie subverts the traditional male gaze, in which men create 'beautiful' images of women for other men to look at. Instead, Opie looks straight at the viewer out of the picture. She takes on the role of photographer and subject, creating an ambiguous image of masculinity, in place of the expected feminine subject.
Photographic Print - Regen Projects - Los Angeles
Self Portrait - Pervert
In this unsettling image we see a topless Opie, sitting up straight, facing the camera with her hands crossed. Her chest is bleeding and her arms are pierced 46 times from the shoulder down to the wrist with two-inch needles. She is dressed in leather and a gimp mask hides her face. Scratched into her sternum is the word "pervert", embellished beneath.
Catherine Opie was an active member of leather, kink, and BDSM scenes, denigrated by some members of the gay community. Her connection with the BDSM scene was as political as it was sexual. "We talked philosophy in those dungeons. And for me it was a way of coming to terms with my own body," she said.
The piece is deliberately confrontational, using blood and the word 'pervert' - often ascribed to queer people just for being queer - to challenge the American Christian Right and the Congressmen and women who were campaigning against funding AIDS research at the time of this photograph's first display at the Whitney Biennial in 1995.
In Bo (1991) the artist looks directly out of the picture to the viewer. In Self Portrait - Pervert (1994), her gaze is completely absent, hidden under a black gimp mask. This forces a viewer to read her identity only as it is inscribed on her body, in blood - mirroring the way people judge whole communities without understanding individual people and identities. The work is at once a celebration of sadomasochistic practices within the lesbian community, and a critique of the way this community is vilified by outsiders as faceless, homogenous, and dangerous.
Art critic Linda Yablonsky said in 2008: "Sensational content combined with formal virtuosity has set Opie's work apart since her breakthrough at the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Women's bodies have been the site of political discourse in art across the ages, and Opie's skillful technical ability paired with her thought-provoking subject matter brings this conversation into a new light."
The piece disturbs Opie now, and she says she struggles to look at it.
Photographic print - Guggenheim Museum, New York
Self Portrait Nursing
In Self Portrait Nursing we see Opie using the autobiographical approach once again to challenge gender and bodily norms, but also to reveal something deep and personal. In this Madonna-and-Child tribute, we see the top of Opie's unclothed body filling the frame as she breastfeeds her naked son. The image of their bodies is sumptuous, fleshy, and tender, and they are set against an ornate red and gold background in tribute to Renaissance art. In the past she has used blood to make a point, but in this image the color red is darker, comforting, and womblike.
The subject of the photograph, Opie herself, is in her 40s, butch, tattooed, topless - challenging preconceptions about what motherhood should look like. Her scars are visible on her skin but the blood is gone. This time she is not looking at the camera - all her attention is on her young son as he gazes back into her eyes. Her breasts, full of milk and being happily clutched by her hungry baby, provide a sharp contrast to the airbrushed sexualized images shown in commercial photography today. At the bottom of the frame are Opie's hands, broad and strong, capably enveloping her young child's body. It is a glorious rebuke to traditional images of maternity and of the societal expectation that women exhibit "modesty" in nursing.
Considered alongside Opie's other self portraits, Self Portrait Nursing demonstrates the range of possibilities, desires, and uses for the artists own body, and for lesbian and women's bodies more generally.
Photographic Print - Guggenheim Museum, New York
Opie released this series in 2003, depicting the community of Malibu surfers from her hometown Los Angeles. In this image we see a band of surfers, so small in the frame they could be seabirds. They are bobbing quietly in a calm ocean, waiting for a wave, while some appear to be talking, and others sit alone. There is a gently rippling sea in the foreground while in the middle of the frame a hazy horizon melts the ocean with the sky.
The figures wait patiently in a muted sunlight against a blue grey horizon. The natural frame for these images would be the landscape, but Opie's use of the portrait format personifies the landscape, binding it with its subjects.
At first this piece looks like a departure from her other works. But on closer look, we see Opie returning to her trope of deconstructing images that have become iconic, while also documenting close-knit subcultural communities. She said: "The iconic image of the surfer is the action shot. Just like the action shot of the football player. But if we take it as landscape, then how do we think of it in a different way? Can it be meditative? Can we acknowledge space in a different way?"
There are no waves in these images, no action. The surfers in this portrait shift from the brave, strong and daring men traditionally imagined by sports documentary photographers, towards demonstrating more traditionally feminine ideals of patience, community, and stillness.
"Upending the heroic vision of surfers as daredevils suspended on the face of towering breakers, the artist focused on a seemingly marginal aspect of the sport, the long periods between waves that foster the conditions in which surfers bond as a surrogate family," said Douglas Fogle, Chief Curator at the Hammer Museum.
Photographic print - Guggenheim Museum, New York
In this photograph from the High School Football series we see a young, muscular man in full football gear staring back at the camera. There is symmetry about the image as he stands straight, his arms hanging by his side with the backs of his broad hands exposed to the camera. His face is lit against the twilight and he wears an intensely focused expression.
In this picture the artist is challenging the viewer to really question what we see, what we perceive, and the gulf between the two. She wants us to ask how sure we are about what we believe to be true, presenting young football players as vulnerable, discrete individuals, as opposed to gangs of violent jocks. "There's a certain kind of equality I'm trying to create, which is what I believe American democracy is about. If I were to pass judgment on, say, football players - that they were the asshole kids who used to beat me up in high school - that's not really true."
She continues: "So many of these young men are going to go off to war, and some of the ones I photographed did go off to war and they did die... As a culture, we load the politics of masculinity and power and all these things onto them."
Once again, by inviting us to look beyond the uniform and the appearance, Opie asks us to examine with compassion the societal expectations that can crush: "The same way AIDS devastated the gay and lesbian community, war is devastating this generation."
Opie's anthropological exploration of American identity here shows that despite our differences, and the many varying ways in which we chose to present ourselves, people are inextricably linked; our desire to fit in and our vulnerabilities amongst wider society make us much more similar than perhaps we would choose to believe.
Photographic Print - Los Angeles County Museum of Art
David Hockney (2017) is one of a series of portraits Opie has taken of the art world's contemporary greats. We see the subject, David Hockney, in his trademark spectacles, wearing comfortable clothes, hands clasped on his lap in an unremarkable chair. The background is completely black, and the darkness spreads across his body in patches reminiscent of baroque portraits, a device designed to get the viewer to slow down and properly absorb the image.
"It's important to bear witness, to spend some time...I love the paint splatters on his trousers and the hearing aid. The bulge of the wallet in the pocket," she says of the photograph of Hockney, whose own portraits of bohemians such as Ossie Clark helped establish his reputation. Opie wanted to capture artists - portrait painters especially - from different generations.
She added: "These images are meant to be very formal, to hold somebody. It's important to me that these portraits go beyond the idea of the snapshot, as if the black backdrop were the subconscious. They are very controlled portraits, highly staged, to the point where I even place their hands where I want them to be, and I tell them where to look, and position their heads and eyes."
In these images Opie is determined to highlight the difference between a character and a caricature. The photographs are uncompromising in showing the frailties and imperfections of artists' bodies, and help us to see the real humans behind the famous signatures. Just as members of the queer, football, or any communites can be sidelined and stereotyped, the lauded subjects of these portraits are vulnerable to press glare. So, in presenting these dark and dramatic shots, Opie uses her technical skill to bring these creatives' physical beings into clear focus and sharp relief.
Photographic Print - Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Biography of Catherine Opie
Catherine Opie was born in Sandusky, Ohio. At eight years old she wrote a school book-report on the photography of Lewis Hine and was moved by his appetite for social reform. "Hine was able to change the law through his images of child labour and I got very attached to the idea of what those pictures could do. I haven't stopped using the camera since," she said.
Opie was given a Kodak Instamatic by her parents and immediately began photographing herself, her family, and her neighborhood; exhibiting a fascination with community and identity that still pervades her work. By the time she was 14 she had built her own darkroom in her family's new home in San Diego. "I wanted to figure out the world through making images," she said
As a "quiet rebellious" teen, Opie knew she was gay, but the lack of role models around her made coming out a difficult process. This experience shaped her and influenced a life-long career photographing the LGBTQIA community. She said: "It is really important to be out and do the work that I do. I want to create examples for younger people."
Education and Early Training
Despite her passion, Opie's parents told her a career in art was not a feasible one, so she decided to become a kindergarten teacher instead. One year into her studies, though, she called home and said: "Mom, I'm an artist and I need to go to art school". She completed her Masters of Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts in 1988 and three years later shot to fame with her breakthrough Being and Having series, which portrayed her friends from the queer, leather and BDSM communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Their faces and bodies were juxtaposed against bright backgrounds and her depiction of everyday peers using traditional portrait photography was unusual and attention grabbing. She said: "A lot of my friends were fighting AIDS or dying. And I wanted to make a body of work that used bright backgrounds offsetting it, almost like a Hans Holbein painting." Opie considers herself a political activist as well as an artist, fighting for equal rights for LGBTQ people. She added: "We all witnessed partners dying of AIDS and not being allowed into emergency rooms, and we saw families come in, who were conservative, and take everything because the other partner didn't have any rights."
Opie was also inspired by landscape and architecture and in 1994 began to examine the Los Angeles cityscape in her photo series In Houses, Freeways and Mini-Malls.
She returned to portraiture in 1998 when she set off on a road trip to hunt down lesbian relationships for her series Domestic. Her outgoing and affable personality helped her win her subjects' confidence, enabling her to produce insightful and intimate portraiture. The series was a nod to Robert Frank's 1950s road trip photo series The Americans - the highly influential photo book depicting post-war America. The images unpacked the gloss of American culture, highlighting racial and class divides. Taking this one step further with her work, Opie's Domestic subverts the heterosexual norm and presented another way to think of the family.
By the age of 40 she had fulfilled a lifetime's ambition when she gave birth to her baby Oliver - realizing a dream she had thought from childhood would be denied her due to her sexuality. This experience led Opie to document her own role as mother, framing a multiplicity to her identity as woman, lesbian, and mother: she presents herself as butch, kinky, and sexualized, but also as a devoted mother, as in Self Portrait, Nursing (2004).
Opie is also a celebrated landscape photographer, and her 2003 Surfers series shows the Malibu community set against the dramatic seascapes of the west coast.
In 2012 Opie began a series of portraits of fellow artists, and to date she has produced portraits of a range of influential designers, painters, filmmakers and writers, including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; Isaac Julien; Duro Olowu; Celia Paul; Gillian Wearing; Jonathan Franzen; John Baldessari; Rick Owens; Anish Kapoor; and David Hockney. The portraits, which draw on Renaissance painting, were heavily staged and lit against a black background. British conceptual artist Gillian Wearing, who sat for Opie, said: "Her lighting brings an amazing painterly quality. She captures people in an extraordinary way."
In 2018 she released her first film, The Modernist, a 22-minute movie containing 800 photographs about a frustrated artist who, unable to buy his own home, starts burning down houses.
Still living in West Adams with her wife, the artist Julie Burleigh, Opie is a key figure in the city's cultural life, so much so that she has been dubbed by friends "the mayor of Los Angeles". She has served as a professor of photography at UCLA since 2001 and now sits on the boards of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation.
The Legacy of Catherine Opie
From Opie's subcultural roots working out on the margins of society, the photographer is now a well established artist and personality, listing well-known creatives like David Hockney and Gillian Wearing among her friends, and having her work displayed in the White House. She is considered to be one of the leading fine art photographers working in the United States today. In a time when everyone has a camera on their person at any time, and the selfie is the mode of choice in the online galleries of Instagram, Opie's thoughtful, carefully staged, and highly political work stands out among a world of photographic images and invites us to explore our relationship with memory, with history, bodies, and the self. Opie has said, "I think it's harder to be a photographer now than at any other time. We are so oversaturated with images. Right now with my practice, it is the simplicity of - can I hold you? Can I get you to look at the image for any more than a second? Can I allow you to think about skin and expression and light and landscapes that become abstract"?
Mary Coble, the American feminist performance artist, credits Opie with inspiring her work, and in 2016, the Eastman, the world's oldest photography museum, hosted a Catherine Opie inspired Instagram Takeover in which a diverse group of individuals were encouraged to post portraits of themselves and their belongings.
Working in university education, she fights for equality and against misogyny, which she says dominates the art world. In 2017 Opie said, "Being a professor, I track my students, and I have to say that the majority of my male students seem to do very well after graduating, while for my female students it's much harder. It's also visible in the relationship between the quality of the work and money. I'm a very very fortunate artist in that I could make a living out of just being an artist if I chose to, but I also like to teach. I think it's important to mentor a generation of artists."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Catherine Opie
- Catherine Opie: Empty and FullBy Helen Molesworth / March 2011
- Catherine Opie: Keeping an Eye on the WorldBy Ana Maria Bresciani, Russell Ferguson, and Tone Hansen / November 2017