Her images of California’s LGBT community—including a self-portrait wearing a bondage mask, her body punctured by needles and the word pervert razored into her chest—threw Catherine Opie onto the social-documentary scene of the early 1990s. But the ensuing years have revealed this early concern—describing the complexity of individual and communal identities—to be the thread that ties together the artist’s otherwise diverse bodies of work. Her double-venue exhibition, on view at Lehmann Maupin in New York January 14 through February 20, encompasses abstract landscapes, formal portraits, and a series dedicated to an absent subject. Opie spoke with Juliet Helmke of Modern Painters about the humanism in each.
JULIET HELMKE: How are the bodies of work in your show at Lehmann Maupin related?
Catherine Opie: I think of them as two different ways of looking at portraiture. The Chrystie Street space is showing the Elizabeth Taylor portfolio, “700 Nimes Road,” the address of Taylor’s home, in which the series was shot. The Chelsea location has the abstract landscapes taken in national parks, along with new portraits of my friends emerging from this very black background. They have a very strong compositional relationship to history painting, such as Da Vinci’s, shown with the abstract landscapes that act as moments of memory. I feel like this is a body of work where I’m departing from my history of documentary photography, because the portraits in particular are about a very internal space, even though they’re images of real people. They have more to do with the subconscious, and desire, and the question of what a portrait does for us in the age of social media. Can we be held? I’m interested in this question of being held by an image now, in a society in which they are constantly passing in front of us. We flip through our screens. Making these portraits, I was using an idea of history painting, so to speak, to remind people about desire, and to will them to look longer.
How did the “700 Nimes Road” series come about?
It happened that Elizabeth Taylor and I shared the same business manager. I had just finished the inauguration portfolio of the 2008 election of Obama. After that, I wanted to work with a subject as iconic as Elizabeth Taylor, but to make a quieter, humbler, more humanistic portrait of her by looking at her through her home and her belongings. It was six months of very carefully figuring out how to do it, and in the middle of it, in March of 2011, sadly, she passed away. It changed the meaning. All of a sudden I became the last person there, the person bearing witness to her home. I tried not to let that dictate it entirely, but it certainly was present in finishing the body of work.
You never actually met Taylor, but did it feel different to be in her home after her death?
It was hard. I was sad. Even though I didn’t know Elizabeth and I wasn’t friends with her, I became friends with the people who were always present with her at the house. I developed a close personal relationship with her assistant, Tim Mendelson, and in some ways it was almost a collaboration with him because he would tell me the stories of the objects I was photographing. While I don’t allow the stories to come out, they linger in my mind. It was a very intense thing to go through and it was similar to what happened while I was photographing Wall Street years ago. I’d finished shooting and was editing the body of work when 9/11 happened. One of the things I have always loved about photography is its relationship to history, particularly coming out of a documentary practice. This notion is especially present in the images of Elizabeth’s house. The house is gone now—it was sold—and none of the objects are there anymore; most of them went off to Christie’s to be auctioned.
So in talking about history, it’s like you’re not only speaking about the past, or what came before the photograph, but also what came after, and how that can change the image.
Yes, I love that about photography. It’s probably the reason I wanted to be a photographer.
When did you start taking pictures?
I had to write a book report when I was eight, as big a book report as an eight-year-old writes in Ohio. I remember looking in my textbook at Lewis Hine’s famous photographs documenting child labor, especially in the Carolina Cotton Mill. Those were such powerful images for me. I lived around artists growing up. My family owned a craft company in Ohio, and my uncle and aunt are both artists. It was kind of laid out before me. My dad had a political-campaign collection and I grew up around the images of Lincoln, which you see in the Smithsonian, and amazing political posters from all different time periods. I guess in my subconscious, I was aware that all these things within history could tell a story. For my ninth birthday I asked for a camera, telling my parents I wanted to be a documentary photographer. By the time I was 14, I had saved all my babysitting money to build a darkroom in the bathroom. Basically, I kept photographing all the way through high school and ended up going to art school. I went back to read my journal the other day because I wanted to pull out an old photograph I knew was in there, a self-portrait from 1982, for a talk I’m about to give in Cincinnati. In ’82, I’m like 20-something years old and I wrote, “More than anything in the world I want to be a humanist with my images. I want the human experience to come through.” I wrote that I wanted to be “dedicated to kindness in making images.” I read this and was like, wow, even back then I was really thinking about what it was to create images of the human experience and what it meant to represent different factions of American culture and life.
What was growing up in Ohio like?
Ohio was living with a cornfield always across the street. I had a conversation with Andrea Bowers—who grew up at the same time in the same hometown as I did—a couple of years ago about our art and being from northeastern Ohio. One of the things we both realized is that we grew up at a time that was interesting in terms of media. Every single night during the Vietnam War the news would scroll all the names of soldiers who had died that week. We had only three television channels, and we grew up being keenly aware of how information is dispersed, which is really different than it is for this younger generation. We also both talk a lot about emptiness of space and what it means to just be bored. I’m constantly telling my son, “Look, just be bored because creativity comes out of boredom. Try to imagine other things besides the fact that you’re bored.” I worry about losing how our imagination can lead us to other ways of answering questions in life, because in terms of fulfilling curiosity, everything is answered by the click of a finger. The works at Lehmann Maupin’s Chelsea space are so much about this, especially the abstract landscapes. They’re saying, imagine the place you might be. I’m putting you somewhere literal, in an actual national park, but that you can’t recognize and so you’re slightly displaced—in a way that a portrait won’t displace you. The portraits just ask you to keep staring. But then the landscapes ask you to keep staring as well, because they harken back to the idea of American genre painting, without the clarity of American genre painting. You imagine a moment of Bierstadt, but at the same time, you’re not looking at Bierstadt because the detail’s not there. You’re left only with the atmosphere.
Speaking of the changes in communication, the dispersal of news, and proliferation of photographs, I noticed you’re on Instagram.
I’m the lamest Instagram photographer of them all! I’m not a snapshot photographer. My son set it up for me and I think he’s going to take it over. Some artists are really great at it and use it well: Look up Daphne Fitzpatrick’s account.
Taking a photo on your phone for Instagram is obviously so different from what you do when you’re working. But how do the experiences of making a photograph differ even within that practice, or, for example, when you do editorial photography for the New York Times?
I love editorial photography. I like thinking about the platform and how images are put out in the world. I don’t talk a lot when I’m photographing, even in making portraits. I’m posing people and really watching them; looking for more of an internal space that probably mirrors my internal space too. It’s definitely a portrait of the person, but I think, as with every portrait, there’s an element of self-portrait to it. I don’t want that to be confused, for example, in the football players series, with wanting to be a high school football player; I don’t. It’s more about bearing witness to each other. There’s a moment: I’m looking at you, you’re looking at me. We’re here for this one little, teeny moment together. It’s just such a wonderful short dance. You’ll never see them again, yet you carry them with you your entire life because you’ve had this exchange. I really love that. That goes back to humanism. We’re all in this together. Let’s all be human together, whether our political views or aspirations in life are different. We get to have this shared moment.
It seems like after finishing one body of work, you often move on to something very different, from portraits to landscape, for example. Is that shift an urge or more of a conscious effort not to be typecast as a certain type of photographer?
Both. The most radical shift is from the early portraits to then photographing freeways. That was me saying, “OK, I do not want to be the poster child for queer art.” I really don’t. I’m not a singular identity. I’m much more complicated and interested in space in different ways. I think the shift is about having a large platform within the language of photography yet dealing with many of the same questions that circle in my head. It’s a way of allowing myself to be fluid within ideas of representation. I’m pretty multifaceted in terms of my technical ability with my medium. And I’m almost too hyperactive and too curious to stick with one thing. The shift is about not being pigeonholed, but also a very intense curiosity that I need to fulfill.
What will you work on next?
I want to make a piece in conversation with Chris Marker’s film La Jetée. He was working on it in 1961, the year I was born. It has to do with the future. It has to do with desire. It deals with photography in the most ultimate way of any film I’ve ever seen. I’ve written a script and I have it all imagined in my head; I just have to get the time and the people together to actually make it. It will be called The Modernist. It has to do with the desire of L.A. modernist architecture and arson and all kinds of fabulous things.