CATHERINE OPIE, ALL-AMERICAN SUBVERSIVE
the course of a thirty-year career, the photographer Catherine Opie has made a study of the freeways of Los Angeles, lesbian families, surfers, Tea Party gatherings, America’s national parks, the houses of Beverly Hills, teen-age football players, the personal effects of Elizabeth Taylor, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Boy Scouts, her friends, mini-malls, and tree stumps. But her most famous photographs are probably two that she took of herself, early in her working life. In “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” which Opie made in 1993, when she was thirty-two years old, she stands shirtless with her back to the camera in front of an emerald-green tapestry, which offsets her pale skin and the rivulets of blood emerging from an image carved into her back with a scalpel: a childlike scene of a house, a cloud, and a pair of smiling, skirt-wearing stick figures. In “Self-Portrait/Pervert,” made the following year, Opie is faceless and topless and bleeding again: she sits in front of a black-and-gold brocade with her hands folded in her lap, her head sealed in an ominous black leather hood, the word “pervert” carved in oozing, ornate letters across her chest.
They are unnerving images—“ ‘Pervert’ is too intense for me now,” Opie told me recently—and they had a particularly jarring effect at the time she made them. When the photographs were exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, in 1995, they were “like shock troops crashing a mannerly art-world party,” the critic Holland Cotter wrote in the Times. Among other things, “Pervert” was a fierce response to Jesse Helms and his allies in Congress who campaigned against funding aids research. (The disease, Helms reasoned, was the consequence of “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.”) It was also a statement to the gay community, which Opie saw as chasing respectability at the expense of sexual radicals like her and her friends, who were avid practitioners of sadomasochism. “The leather community was really disowned,” Opie said. “The homophobia in relation to aids was so deep. People who weren’t in the leather community were, like, ‘Well, they’re perverts.’ ” But, above all, the two self-portraits were pictures of Opie’s secret selves. It was as if her invisible desires were exposed by the camera, her most intimate means of communication since childhood.
Really, what Opie liked best about transgressive sex was the way it created a feeling of family. “S/M was all about community for me,” she said one afternoon, sitting in her sunny kitchen in Los Angeles, with its gleaming stainless-steel stove and Heath-tile backsplash. On a bench by the window was a pillow with a needlepoint inscription that read, “Grandmothers are a special part of all that’s cherished in the heart.” Opie, who is fifty-five, smiled wistfully when she recalled that era: “You dress up with your friends; you do things together in the dungeons.” At the time, she was taking photographs of her cohort, with their tattoos and piercings, in formal compositions and vibrant colors that evoked the Renaissance paintings of Hans Holbein. Opie felt that she was creating a portrait gallery of her own “royal family.” There was something not just regal but disarmingly heartfelt in those pictures. As the Los Angeles art critic David Pagel put it, in 1994, “The strangest and most telling quality that Opie manages to smuggle into her images of aggressive misfits is a sense of wholesomeness.”
Opie grew up in the Midwest. She was going to be a kindergarten teacher before she became a photographer. She always wanted to be a mother. “ ‘Self-Portrait/Cutting’ was about longing,” Shaun Caley Regen, Opie’s gallerist since 1993, told me. “It was about an unattainable ideal—two women, a house, whatever it was she felt she couldn’t have—cut into her back.”
In the intervening decades, Opie has moved from marginal radical to establishment fixture. In 2008, the Guggenheim devoted four floors to “Catherine Opie: American Photographer,” a major mid-career retrospective that attracted some three thousand people a day. Several luminous shots that Opie took of Lake Michigan hung in the Obama White House. Opie is a tenured professor at U.C.L.A., and sits on the boards of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation. She earns more than a million dollars in a good year. Recently, when the Smithsonian Archives of American Art gave Opie a medal at a gala on the Upper East Side, the host noted that it was his first opportunity to honor a pillar of the “ ‘Los Angeles leather-dyke community.’ ”
Opie is so prominent in the Southern California art world that friends call her “the mayor of Los Angeles,” but her photographs have remained quietly subversive. “Often, in my work, I think about what’s iconic—and what is the way to reimage something that’s iconic,” Opie said. Surfers don’t surf in her photographs: they wait for waves, a motionless line of silhouettes in a smoky sea. Freeways are empty of cars, because Opie shoots them at dawn on Sundays, when they become something architectural and still, as elegiac as the Pyramids of Giza in the nineteenth-century photographs of Maxime Du Camp. For a portrait of Diana Nyad, who, at sixty-four, became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida, Opie photographed her naked, from behind, showing the ghostly white flesh that had been covered by her bathing suit, offset by the leathery brown of the rest of her body. Nyad’s skin had become a kind of photogram, marked by her quest, and in Opie’s portrait one sees both the heroine who managed an unfathomable feat and the vulnerable geriatric who nearly died in the process.
It is as if Opie were able to photograph aspects of people and mini-malls and Yosemite Falls that are invisible to the rest of the world. Her pictures ask how sure we are about what we know to be true. “There’s a certain kind of equality I’m trying to create, which is what I believe American democracy is about,” Opie said. “If I were to pass judgment on, say, football players—that they were the asshole kids who used to beat me up in high school—that’s not really looking.”