A rare visit with Golden State photographer Catherine Opie reveals a fresh perspective in her latest endeavor.
On a blustery Friday morning near USC, photographer Catherine Opie opens the front gate to her 1908 Craftsman home. “Come on in,” she says. She’s wearing a peaked hat, dress shirt and loose-fitting jeans, eyes framed by thick white glasses. We pass a tangle of succulents and overgrown flowers and walk inside, where Opie’s partner—a painter and resident green thumb—Julie Burleigh, is just leaving for the day.
The feeling is cozy and intimate: worn oriental rugs, an Arco lamp, a disco Gumby by Raymond Pettibon, a small Lari Pittman in the hallway, a stylized photograph of two men dancing together by Robert Mapplethorpe is in the living room. Out the back door, past a chicken coop and a beehive, is Opie’s Roger White-designed studio. Here, the skylights have shades so Opie can block out the sun and create those Holbein-inspired studio portraits for which she’s known. Today, however, the shades are pulled back, shedding light on her latest project hanging on the walls: Elizabeth Taylor’s closet. Shot with a Hasselblad H2 with a digital back (in Opie’s opinion, the closest approximation to film), the photographs are close-ups of silks and ermine hanging cheek by jowl, almost unrecognizable beyond texture and color. “What is iconic?” she asks. Throughout her career, she has consistently toyed with that concept. In the 2003 series “Surfers” and the 1994-95 series “Freeway,” she reworked those L.A. motifs. “Surfers are always on a wave; mine are waiting,” she says. “Freeways are always full; mine are empty.”
With Elizabeth Taylor, Opie took a similar approach. “The estate understood I wasn’t interested in the project in relationship to her celebrity. I was interested in the relationship to what is human,” she says. It’s the first time any photographer has tackled the inner sanctum of Taylor’s closet. A business connection first put Opie in touch with Taylor’s people (they have the same accountant), and Opie began the six-month project in 2011 without ever meeting the actress, who had been promised the final edit of the photographs. “She would watch me through her bedroom curtains,” recalls Opie. Then, when Taylor passed away before that final edit, the body of work became both a documentation of her possessions and the dismantling of Taylor’s personal space. “That in itself was a challenge,” says Opie. “I didn’t want the project to be in the realm of morbidity, but this was intense because it was through a transformation.” As I flip through the binder of contact sheets, there are jewels piled like pirate’s booty spilling out of a box. Other images are shot out of focus so the gems become abstract shapes and forms. In later pages, the objects become archival—the members of Christie’s tagging them like artifacts. Opie hopes to have completed her final selects by August, and she plans on an Eggleston-style portfolio, a coffee table book and exhibition. Nothing is firmed up yet, however.
Along with her ongoing work as a professor at UCLA, Opie recently exhibited at Regen Projects; the Woodbury University gallery in Hollywood, where she received the Excellence in Photography award from the Julius Shulman Institute; and the Long Beach Museum of Art.
The Ohio native, with degrees from SF Art Institute and CalArts, was first noticed for photographing members of San Francisco’s LGBT community, often in formal poses and with a regal air. Shaun Regen of Regen Projects, who has represented Opie in L.A. for the past 20 years, calls those endeavors “tender and proud at the same time.” Her self-portraits, more aggressive, have also made a profound impact. One shows Opie, blindfolded, pierced by 46 18-gauge needles with the word pervert cut across her breasts. In another, a house and two children are carved into her back. The most recent, the 2004 Self Portrait/Nursing, shows Opie naked, breastfeeding her son, Oliver, with the word pervert now faded. Many of these polemic portraits explore identity and community. High-profile figures make appearances—K.D. Lang, Jenny Shimizu, swimmer Diana Nyad—but there are also the unsung heroes: high school football players trying on their newfound manhood; lesbian couples at home with their children; shopkeepers in South Central standing in front of their wares. “I’m not interested in being a singular identity,” she says. “I’m just not.” She collaborated with fashion label Rodarte and Alec Soth on a book; documented rural Minnesota and the wedding-cake-like exteriors of Angeleno homes. “Her range is astonishing,” says Regen. “And she’s making some of the most painterly photographs I’ve ever seen.”
After coffee in Opie’s kitchen we drive to the new Michael Maltzan-designed gallery at Regen Projects in Hollywood, where her latest show signals a coming of age. “I was going back to what inspired me from the early days,” explains Opie. This time, she creeps out of her own paradigm. Gone are the bright, seamless backgrounds, but the formality of 15th-century painting lingers. Some portraits are housed in sweet, cameo-style frames, making the relentless black of the backgrounds lose some of its edginess. Abstract shapes from natural parks are interspersed between the portraits; the forms are wispy, ephemeral. Jonathan Franzen hunches over a War and Peace, practically seething with his legendary grumpiness. Laura Mulleavy whispers in her sister Kate’s ears, the shape of the two figures reminiscent of a Botticelli painting. “They finish each other’s sentences. It’s almost a symbiotic relationship,” says Opie as she walks through the space. Blood drips from Opie’s trainer’s hand in another portrait. “Blood is no longer about identity within a specific community; it’s simply a substance of the body,” she adds. The people she chooses to capture are still from all walks of life, but there is a unifying characteristic: They are, quite simply, loving. “I’ve mellowed,” the artist says. “I decided to go maternal,” says Opie. “I feel secure doing that.”
Written and edited by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler
Photographed by Jessica Sample
Catherine Opie’s photographs courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie