Catherine Opie surveys her life’s work in her new monograph

Reading Time: four minutes

The career-spanning distribution features the diversity of Opie’s subjects, including high school football players, mini-malls, protests, freeways and her family

I actually first came across Catherine Opie’s work in college, when I saw the girl series Domestic from the past due 90s. The work is composed of intimate photographs of lesbian households hanging out in their kitchen or even playing with their children, created on a 9, 000-mile road trip within an RV with her dog. Their exquisite ordinariness floored me. Made during a period of personal heartbreak, Opie traversed the US photographing friends of friends or scouting strangers in gay bars. The lady asked local DJ’s in order to announce casting calls plus waited to see who turned up. The photographs describe the queer chosen family in most its beauty and variance, marking a refusal to become defined within the heterosexual construct of the family unit. Domestic , such as so many of Opie’s series, is an exploration of belonging.

Untitled #3 (Freeways), 1994 © courtesy theartist and Regen Projects, La; Lehmann Maupin, New York/HongKong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples; and PederLund, Oslo

Gina & April, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1998. © courtesy theartist plus Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/HongKong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London plus Naples; and PederLund, Oslo

“Between the body and the actual world, we are always trying to build these kinds of signifiers in relation to what kind of group that we belong to. I discover that incredibly fascinating to try to map out. ”

Over the years, Opie has photographed diverse subjects, including high school football players, mini-malls, protests, freeways and her family. While refusing the confines of a singular identity, the embodiment of structures seemingly connects these unrelated works. Opie examines people, places and politics since architectural sites that we create identity upon – many in service of our human desire to belong.

“Thi s came being an early recognition from our San Francisco days. As soon as I got my leather jacket, I actually felt completely different walking with the Castro, ” Opie shares. “In the queer local community in the 70s and 80s, this was a codified architecture of our body for us in order to acknowledge each other. ”

These codes are omnipresent in work such as Becoming and Having (1991) – a series of performative portraits associated with Opie and her close friends sporting fake moustaches plus beards, animating the assumptions of masculinity. They are also in her documentation of La Mini-malls (1997-1998) describing the particular ever-shifting cultures that constitute community within the built environment. “

Between the body and the actual world, we’re at all times trying to build these kinds of signifiers in relation to what kind of group of people that we belong to, ” she states. “I find that incredibly interesting to try to map out. ”

Football Landscape #14 (Twentynine Palms vs . Big Bear, Twentynine Palms, CA), 2008 © courtesythe artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, NewYork/Hong Kong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Photo gallery, London and Naples; plus Peder Lund, Oslo

In her new self-titled monograph published by Phaidon, we reach explore Opie’s universe of images. Born over 4 decades, the publication charts her prolific career providing dynamic new interpretations through sharp and unexpected sequencing.

Self Portrait/Cutting (1993), one of Opie’s most memorable self-portraits in which a child-like drawing of two ladies holding hands is permanently etched in her back, sits next to a picture from Domestic, of 2 lesbians relaxing over lunch time with their adopted daughter.

Later in the book, we notice her mixed media item All My Sex Toys (1990), next to a collection of AIDS activism things from her project 700 Nimes Road – the portrait of Elizabeth Taylor told through her private ephemera. These are just 2 examples of numerous sequences that draw out and open up new conversations between bodies of work.

Occupying an area between critical thinking and critical feeling, the guide animates how photographs move through time, how they are imbued with history and how they will reflect the work that should be done.

Joanne, Betsy & Olivia, Bayside, New York, 1998 © courtesy theartist plus Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/HongKong/Seoul/London; Jones Dane Gallery, London plus Naples; and PederLund, Oslo,

Self-Portrait/Nursing, 2004. © courtesy theartist and Regen Tasks, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/HongKong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Photo gallery, London and Naples; plus PederLund, Oslo

“Empathy is really important. The feeling of citizenship in relation to humanity and that we all are right here to serve one another and also to serve in kindness. ”  

Photography is really a cathartic practice for Opie. A space to wrestle with the questions and vulnerabilities that will inform her own identity. “ Senior high school Football (2007-09) was the toughest for me, ” she explains. “I couldn’t hide the way I look or which I am. American taunts associated with homophobia often start in areas like a football field, and am had to face that intense kind of masculinity in relation to my very own butch identity. I t pushed various interesting types of feelings. ”

The series develops upon Opie’s interest in the structure of space and how communities form therein. The project describes how the soccer field is synonymous with American culture and how its influence transcends the boundaries of location.

Opie makes portraits of males on the verge of manhood. Adorned in oversized armature, the players exude the cliches of macho athletics whilst revealing the fragility and inculcated pressure to maintain mainstream notions of masculinity.

“Once, I realised that these were just young men grappling with their own subculture – facing what a singular identity might be for them and that it may not hold true. It truly allowed me to enter that work differently. ”

J. D., 2008 © courtesythe artist plus Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, NewYork/Hong Kong/Seoul/London; Jones Dane Gallery, London and Naples; and Peder Lund, Oslo

Tyler T. 2008 c-print 30 by 22 1/4 inches (76. 2 x 56. 5 cm © Catherine Opie.

In a conversation that frames the book, Opie tells curator Charlotte 100 % cotton, “All I’m trying to perform is to say, ‘I’m living here, now, at this time, and am is an artist who might be interested in how we negotiate the particular lives that we’re many living. ’”

Opie’s mastery is rooted within the embodiment of her national politics. She uses photography in order to trouble our understanding of the world and creates work that moves us to be more accountable and empathetic. Her aesthetic force is grounded in democracy.

Employed through composition, providing framework and elevating the whole over its parts – Opie ensures everyone has an entry point: “Empathy is really important. The feeling of citizenship in relation to mankind and that we all are right here to serve one another and to serve in kindness. ”  

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster plus photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcasting, The Messy Truth.

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