LA-based photographer Catherine Opie (an inspiration to countless photographers, notably Ryan McGinley) is best known for her groundbreaking documentation of sub-cultures, and her powerful self-mutilation photographs. The works on view in her upcoming show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), however, signal a departure in subject, depicting the all-American high-school football player. Shot everywhere from Alaska to Louisiana, her poignant portraits address masculinity, youth, the power of the body, and national identity. In a conversation with her longtime friend Jenny Shimizu, Opie talks fashion, literary inspirations, and political change.
JENNY SHIMIZU: What are you currently working on?
Today I finished my installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). My show is in relationship to a Thomas Eakins retrospective of his Sporting Images. There are about 42 pieces in the show.
JS: How many shows have you had at LACMA?
Well, this is my first show at LACMA and my second solo museum show in Los Angeles. The last one was at MOCA back in the ‘90s.
JS: Going back to the ‘90s, it’s been a long time since Casa de Estrogen, the apartment building that we lived in all together—a bunch of us rebels, transients and stalkers. What do you think happened in order for you to meet [Los Angeles art dealers] Stuart and Shaun Regen?
I was living in Casa de Estrogen, as we so lovingly call it. The curator and critic Ralph Rugoff had known my work and put me in an exhibition. He told Shaun Regen she should visit me in the studio, and she put me in a show with three other women artists. The work was placed immediately with Peter and Eileen Norton. Stuart and Shaun really loved my work even though I had only made two bodies of work at that point, since graduating from Cal Arts. They asked to represent me and we’ve been together since 1993.
JS: And you’re making a transition into fashion [working with Rodarte].
I don’t know if it’s necessarily a transition. Rodarte asked me to shoot for this book that they’re publishing in September. I imagine I’ll continue to work with them because they’re very inspirational. And if other people come my way with kind of interesting propositions, I’m open to them. But I wouldn’t say that all of a sudden I want to be a fashion photographer. My feet are still very grounded in the art world, and I kind of like that that can happen.
JS: The Rodarte girls are so ahead of the curve, like you are as an art photographer. They respect your art so much and you respect their fashion so much that it becomes almost equal.
It was a peer collaboration. They came to me and said, “What do you see?” Their clothes are sculptures. So I said, “Well, one thing is the amount of detail and texture to these pieces that needs to be described in some way.” After the shoot, I came away with 2,500 images. Probably 70 will be in the book. It’s really interesting for both of our styles to merge together, and it was Kate and Laura who came up with it.
JS: Your show Girlfriends, in which you come back to your roots, is mind blowing. People were wondering if it was going to have the same impact as your earlier work, and it was so powerful.
It’s reassuring to me too, that I can go back to things that might be gestures within my work of almost 20 years and that they still can have an impact—especially in relation to homophobia. We haven’t really resolved those issues in our culture, so it’s important to continue to create a representation of our community.
JS: Who are the top three people you’d love to photograph?
I would love to do a domestic portrait of the Obama family in the White House. I’ve always wanted to photograph Joan Didion. She’s one of my absolute writing heroes, and it would be just so amazing to make an image of her. And then the writer Gore Vidal. I’m such an avid reader and I wish I could photograph more writers and artists that influence me.
JS: What do you do in addition to creating art?
I’m a full-time professor. I have a pretty busy exhibition schedule in making my own work, and then my family is a huge priority. I’m teaching my son how to ride a bike right now. Between being a full-time professor, mom and artist, that’s about all I can really handle.
JS: Whom would you want to date if you weren’t in a relationship?
Oh God—well, I wouldn’t mind k.d. lang singing me to sleep at night, I’ll be honest. I think that she’s unbelievable though, and she just really did a lot for the Queer Movement in terms of coming out so early. I’ve always been in love with Pig Ben as well. I think she’s the person I have photographed the most in my life. I would also date Idexa, because she is one of my best friends.
JS: What made you a name in the art world is how far you went in documenting queer transgender individuals. What you have done politically is so important.
Thank you. Sometimes I even forget that myself. When my UCLA students ask me if art can really create true political change, I say, “Well, I don’t think it can create change, but representation creates change.” So it’s not to make work that deals with harder ideas that would be a real problem because those ideas need to be put forth in order for change to seep through slowly. [Also,] I’m glad that I’ve had such amazing friends have trusted me to represent our community. I feel very honored by that alone.
JS: I always like to end an interview with a bit of inspiration for anybody.
I think that the best way to think about being a young artist is to really not think about where you’re going to go at it. It’s about [seeing] beyond the whole gallery or museum system, believing in yourself, in your own ideas and wanting to portray those. The only way that you’re going to stay committed is by the fact that you just literally schedule it. I don’t think that I would have had as much success if I didn’t actually pull out the date book and say, “Okay, I don’t want to photograph today, but I’m going to go photograph.” Go forth and do it. That’s my best advice.
Catherine Opie's 'Figure and Landscape' is on view at the LACMA from July 25 through October 17, 2010.