American Life

Catherine Opies photos redefine who we are

In a 1997 interview for the catalog of her eponymous exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Catherine Opie reflects on the relationship between her two major bodies of work, Portraits and Freeways, and elucidates the ways in which her queer portraiture and regional landscape photography invigorate and inform each other: "Those two bodies of work have a really interesting relationship to each other because they are both about portraiture and perception we bring to a given subject. [All of my work] is still about being an individual, but within the construct of a community."

Community, identity and a particularly nuanced attention to the history of photography thematically typify much of Opie's work. The 45-year-old artist and UCLA professor is best known for her groundbreaking and provocative 1991 series Being and Having, a collection of 13 portraits of the artist's butch female friends whose physical features and gender identities are deliberately ambiguous. Photographed against vibrant single-color backgrounds, these highly stylized photographs are inspired by Opie's own experiences being mistaken for a man in public. Opie explicitly composes these portraits in a way that undermines the stability of contemporary gender formations and points to the historical specificity of gender-signifying practices. Opie also successfully ruptures the viewer's privileged ability to stare at her marginalized subjects by enabling her friends to return the gaze, an act that is simultaneously disarming, seductive and humanizing.

Opie followed her first major series with Portraits in 1994, a cycle of classically composed images that engages a practice of traditional portraiture to document Opie's friends in the Los Angeles transgender and leather communities. Like Robert Mapplethorpe's technically inventive and critically scandalous photographs of the gay male community from the early 1980s, Opie treats her queer subjects with reverence and solemnity traditionally reserved for normative studio portraiture. However, unlike Mapplethorpe, whose photos almost exclusively represented the erotics of male masculinity, Opie's pioneering scope is much broader in that it represents a frequently suppressed and often ignored aspect of the gay community: lesbian subjectivity.

Abandoned TV from In and Around Home series, 2005, by Catherine Opie
Abandoned TV from In and Around Home series, 2005, by Catherine Opie

Opie's unflinching commitment to both visually representing and dignifying the broader queer community prompted her to depart from creating portraits of single subjects to instead produce images of lesbian couples and households in her 1995 utopian series Domestic, a work composed of 40-by-50-inch color prints that dramatically re-imagine traditional definitions of American family life.

Though Opie is closely identified with her early queer portraiture, her more recent series of American urban landscapes and domestic interior spaces have become a central and integral part of her oeuvre. Informed by a long-standing interest in the physical and social landscapes of both urban and (post-)suburban American communities, Opie has photographed sites and spaces emptied of animate objects: Wall Street in Manhattan; the skyways and icehouses in and around Minneapolis; and, in Los Angeles, freeways and mini-malls. These photographs work within and depart from the careers of Robert Adams, OC-native Lewis Baltz, and other practitioners of the "New Topographics" movement during the mid- to late 1970s.

Many of these landscape pieces, including a print from her Domestic series, constitute a new exhibition of Opie's work at the Orange County Museum of Art. OCMA's exhibition functions both as a presentation of Opie's new work (the series 1999 and In and Around Home) and a reconsideration of her earlier work organized thematically around issues of domesticity and California urbanisms. The exhibit begins in 1986 with Opie's rarely exhibited CalArts MFA thesis Master Plan, a series of prints depicting the development of a master-planned community in Valencia, laying the groundwork for much of the rest of the show.

These photographs share similar thematic qualities with Opie's portraiture: they document, question and ultimately permit an expansive vision of undepicted communities and spaces in American life.