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Butch meets hyperfeminine as Catherine Opie photographs Elizabeth Taylor's home

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

From Catherine Opie's 700 Nimes Road exhibit at MOCA, shot inside Elizabeth Taylor's LA home. Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie, one of today's most sought-after and collectable photographers, is very comfortable in her skin, which happens to be the skin of a lesbian who generally wears jeans and a T-shirt and no makeup and isn't a size zero. But even she admits her identity was challenged when she photographed the home of Elizabeth Taylor, the "ultimate" of femininity.

"Even in photographing her house, as a butch identified lesbian, I'd put my scuffed tennis shoe next to her silvery pump and I'd be like, 'How did she do it?!'" — Catherine Opie

Opie's photos also challenge us and our perceptions by showing a realness to Taylor that gets lost too easily: the many photos of Richard Burton and Michael Jackson show those were real relationships, a photo of Bill Clinton between Taylor and Sophia Loren shows her sense of humor, the easy comfort of the home shows her classiness.

Opie's new show, at MOCA's Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, is called 700 Nimes Road, for the Bel Air address of the ranch-style home Elizabeth Taylor lived in for decades.

Catherine Opie at MOCA Pacific Design Center. Her show "700 Nimes Road" is up through May 8, 2016.
Catherine Opie at MOCA Pacific Design Center. Her show "700 Nimes Road" is up through May 8, 2016. John Rabe

Opie walked me through the show, then sat down for an in-depth interview. Click the audio above for the full Q&A. Here are some highlights.

Catherine, why did you want to photograph Elizabeth Taylor’s home?

Well I think that it’s about a challenge and about different ways that we perceive ideas of portraiture, and it just so happened that we shared the same accountant — Derek Lee — and he asked me if I would like to do anything with Elizabeth. It took me a few years to wrap my head around it, and kind of entered it thinking about William Eggleston’s Graceland photographs that he made about Elvis’ estate. And I thought, "Well, how interesting would it be to try to take somebody as iconic as Elizabeth Taylor and truly make a portrait of her home?!"

You started working on this when Elizabeth Taylor was still alive — she was alive for a few weeks while you were in the house with her. Did you ever think about trying to get her into a photograph?

No, that was never really my intention. I felt like that would probably be asking a lot. I knew that her health wasn’t in top shape, and I really wanted to actually try to grapple with that idea of how to represent somebody through their belongings, versus photographing somebody who is utterly so iconic, so can you make a more humanistic and more truthful portrait to a certain extent by the observation of making images in one's home.

What did her house say about her?

I think it said that she was a very passionate person who really enjoyed entertaining, but really loved having family and people around her.

You write that you were this butch woman photographing this "ultimate femininity." You say (her femininity, as seen in movies) frightened you as a child, and challenged your adult identity. Why?

 I don’t know if I would use "frightened" to this day ... I probably said that at one point, but I am not scared of femininity. I’m more I guess frightened in relationship to something that I would never want to achieve, or the absolute inability to achieve ... Although recently I did buy a dress! (LAUGHING) It’s a post Caitlyn world we’re living in. 

Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road is at MOCA Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood, CA 90069 through May 8, 2016.

Through May 22, The Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90024) is showing Catherine Opie: Portraits, including Opie's photos of Jonathan Franzen, Kate & Laura Mulleavy, Mary Kelly, Matthew Barney, Glenn Ligon, John Baldessari, Kara Walker, Miranda July, Raymond Pettibon, Ron Athey, and Ryan McGinness.

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