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Catherine Opie: An American Photographer

I first met Catherine Opie photographing her for Stephen Cohen at the opening night of Photo LA. A tremendous woman with an even more tremendous resume, Opie is one of Los Angeles’ foremost photographers. She gave a keynote seminar at Photo LA where she signed her new book Inauguration and talked about her career and practice. She has been photographing the intersection of American landscapes and the faces that inhabit them for many, many years. Opie is best known for her documentary portraits of football players, surfers and her photography of gay, lesbian and the transgendered community, which include her own bold and honest self portraits as an out lesbian. She has two young children Sarah and Oliver and a life partner, Julie Burleigh, a painter.

Catherine Opie - Self-Portrait / Cutting, 1993. Chromogenic print - 40 x 30 inches (101.6 x 76.2 cm). Edition of 8, 2 AP

Catherine Opie – Self-Portrait / Cutting, 1993. Chromogenic print – 40 x 30 inches (101.6 x 76.2 cm). Edition of 8, 2 AP

Opie is represented by Regen Projects here in Los Angeles and has shown in numerous solo exhibitions all over the world. In 1995, she was included in the Whitney Biennale. Her sadomasochistic portraits jolted the art world. Perhaps her major retrospective at the Guggenheim, in 2008, was the most comprehensive exhibition of all the major bodies of her work- unifying her freeways, icehouses and portraits into a single visionary display that gave context, meaning and juxtaposition to the diversity of her subjects. An educator as well as an artist — Opie has taught fine art at Yale and currently teaches photography at UCLA — she graciously gave of her time to speak with me about her work.

Fabrik: How did growing up in Ohio shape you as an artist?
Catherine Opie: I lived in Sandusky till I was thirteen. Lots of artists from that part of Ohio. Andrea Bowers and I grew up 15 miles from each other. The landscape shaped me. I always had a cornfield across from my house …always had a lot of time to contemplate what was interesting for me.

How did your parent’s upbringing affect your artistry?
Dad owned a craft-based company that built découpage boxes. My uncle and my aunt were artists. We lived around interesting people who celebrated artists. They were worried about how I would make a living.

What do you think is your most compelling body of work?
All of them are compelling for me at different times of my life. The hardest to shoot were the icehouses…because of the weather.

It says in your Wikipedia blurb “Her assertive portraits bring queers to a forefront that is normally silenced by societal norms.” Is that part of a political agenda?
Homophobia and society …confronting and creating work that makes us visible is part of what I do. We live under an incredible amount of homophobia.

What was it like to have a Guggenheim retrospective? Has it changed the way you are perceived as an artist?
People understand more about my multiple bodies of work and the way they came together. The Guggenheim showed people that there was a common thread in all my work. I am interested in community and relationships and how they are formed. »

What are you shooting now?
Right now I am shooting these abstract landscapes. It’s about conjuring one’s own memory of landscapes. And I’m doing portraits in studio, shooting on black backgrounds. My son is in one, my trainer and Kate and Laura (Mulleavy) founders of Rodarte the fashion line, they’re in another.

What’s the name of the fashion line?
Rodarte. Have you heard of them?

They do wonderful, very feminine clothes.

Oh… Do you have any favorite writers?
I’m reading IQ 85 by Haruki Murakami. He’s amazing. Joan Dideon, of course. And Susan Sontag, she is very inspirational.

What about galleries here in L.A. Do you have any favorites?
I try to see as much new work as I can – I’m going to New York in a few days. In L.A. I like to go to Susanne Vielmetter…Blum and Poe and Regen Projects, of course. I ‘ve been with them since 1992.

Is there anyone you truly adore?
My partner Julie. Oliver and Sarah, our kids. We’ve been together 12 years in November.

Well then…when it’s all over, how would you like to be remembered? You know the words on the tombstone kind of thing.

As a person who was relentless in my goals as an artist…and as a person of character who believes in equality.

Catherine Opie’s honesty and bravery as an artist is a good and true measure of her character. She is a unique American voice; a singularity within what oftentimes is a howling cacophony of superficial art. I would proudly hang one of her brazen, queer self-portraits in my home on my favorite wall.

Words Phil Tarley
Images Courtesy Catherine Opie and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

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Phil Tarley

About Phil Tarley

Phil Tarley is a fellow of the American Film Institute, an artist member of the Los Angeles Art Association and writes about contemporary art, pop culture and photography for Fabrik Magazine. He curates at the A C Gallery in Los Angeles and founded Round Hole Square Peg, a biannual, international survey of LGBTQ photography shown at the Photo LA. Tarley is also a critical essayist for Katharine T. Carter & Associates, an art advisory service that  helps artists obtain museum exhibitions. His personal series of political and ethnographic videos is housed in the permanent collection of the New York Public Library and has screened in film festivals and museums like the American Film Institute,and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In 2009, under his nom de porn, Phil St. John, Tarley was inducted into the Gay Porn Hall of Fame for his 20-year producing and directing career. His writing and photography have also appeared in the LA Times, the LA Weekly, The WOW Report, Adventure Journal, the Advocate, Frontiers, Adult Video News, Genre, Instinct and American Photo Magazine. His book, Going down On Cuba: Notes from An Underground Traveler,  is slated to be published later in the year by Fabrik Press.  

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