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Photographer Catherine Opie on portraits, painting and perversion

by Elizabeth Nonemaker | The Frame

Catherine Opie's portrait of Miranda July, 2013. Pigment print. 33 × 25 in. (83.8 × 63.5 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. ©Catherine Opie, courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York & Hong Kong. ©Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie is having a banner year. The photographer's work is currently on display at three different Los Angeles museums — LACMA, MOCA and the Hammer — each of which showcases a different aspect of her work.

The Hammer Museum features portraits of Opie's friends and fellow artists. Taken against dramatic black backdrops, the evocative images recall paintings by Old Masters more than her documentary-style photographs.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York recently mounted  “American Photographer,” a mid-career retrospective of Opie’s work. It included a striking early photo — a self-portrait of Opie bare-chested, her face covered by a leather hood, the word “pervert” carved into her chest and rows of needles piercing her arms. The image was featured in the 1995 Whitney Biennial and helped put Opie on the map.

Since then, she has continued to make a name for herself documenting close-knit communities, but she has also photographed abstract landscapes and explored stillness in her work. There’s a similar sense of stillness in her portraits at The Hammer show.

When she met with The Frame's John Horn, Opie explained how she went about choosing her subjects, which include artist John Baldessari, writer Jonathan Franzen and fashion designing sisters Rodarte.


They're people that have surrounded my life in various ways. Some of them I know very well. Others I just respect enormously and I think it would be interesting to try to make a portrait of them. So it vacillates between a history of portrait-making in which somebody like Ron Athey has been used in my work for over 20 years, and somebody like Jonathan Franzen. We didn't know each other at all but I certainly have read his work.

When you're thinking about creating a portrait that will engage the viewer for more than 30 seconds, or more than three seconds, is that intentional on your part that you want to have something that has so much information and background to it, that it will engage viewers for more than a brief moment?

I think that was the question that I brought forth to myself in making this body of work. What do we do with portraiture? How do we think about a history of portraiture in terms of Renaissance painting? I'm always impressed — I went to London and I went to see the Da Vinci show. The queue was around the block and down the street. And so can I use a certain sensibility within that to hold people?

Do you think these photographs are more influenced by painting than they are by documentary or editorial photography? Or do they all coalesce?

They have a stronger relationship to painting. But my early portraits had a stronger relationship to painting, too. It was Holbein I was looking at in the nineties. So I think I've always gone to painting. Then I did the book for Rodarte in which I used black. I was putting the figures on black with their clothes, and there was something about how the figure emerged from that black that I became fascinated with. Then I went and saw the da Vinci show. And I began to think about interior space.

Do you ever get an opportunity to watch people look at your art? Do you get to hide in the corner and see how they discuss the art? I think it would be fascinating.

Well, when I was at the Guggenheim I was looking at people look at the self-portraits, because the self-portraits are always really hard for people to figure out. Including how I had to introduce the work to my parents before showing it.

It sounds as if you were raised in a household that appreciated the arts and indulged your interest in photography. But it's one thing to have parents that support your art. It's another to show them images that might be difficult to look at. Can you describe what that experience was like? Was there an image you were particularly nervous about showing them?

Well, I went home and I showed them "Pervert" because it was going to be in the Whitney Biennial. I have a carving on my chest, and needles in my arm, and I'm wearing a leather hood. At that point, I had started showing, but I certainly didn't have the expectations that the first piece that ever showed would be the Whitney. So I had to go home and tell them.

I sat down with my dad first. My parents were divorced. I said, I have to show you this. You're coming to the opening. You need to know that not only am I a lesbian, but I happen to be a leatherdyke as well.

They knew I was a lesbian. They did not know I was a player. That I was indulging in exploring my body in other ways. And to try to explain that to somewhat conservative parents, even though they supported the arts, was hard. 

You know, even at the Guggenheim show, friends walked up to my mother while she was looking at "Pervert." They were like, How do you feel about that image? My mom was like, I'm so proud of Cathie and doing what she does. But of course it's hard for me.

Well that sounds totally reasonable.

Yeah. I think that's so reasonable. Exactly.

How important to you is it that a city like Los Angeles embraces public art and is willing to support artists to create and exhibit it?

I think it's really important. We inhabit this city in a very different way, all of us. Some are museum-goers, but art doesn't necessarily mean walking into the white cube. 

When you are doing things that are not directly related to your own photography — teaching at UCLA, working on museum boards — does that change the way in which you see the relationship between art and the viewer? 

I think there are a lot of different caps I wear. When I'm an educator, I'm certainly an artist as well, but you're really about mentoring their own vision. You're not thinking so much about what your belief is. And I'd say that's similar to serving on boards in museums. You're fostering a belief in the idea of contemporary art and how vital these institutions are to humankind. 

Do you think that's a problem, or that there's a disregard for that importance? Even among students, that they feel the arts are being marginalized?

I think the arts have been marginalized in terms of the cutting of education. My son went to UCLA Lab School, one of the great elementary schools of Los Angeles. But they had no art room. He was in elementary school without a designated art room. 

They are building one now. It was something I was just astounded by. If that is a snapshot from a progressive private school in Los Angeles, then think about what's happening at places not only throughout the city, but the country. That ability to think critically comes through the actual gestures and ideas of making art. And they're completely important in terms of developing as a person.

Catherine Opie's "Portraits" at the Hammer Museum is on display through May 22.

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