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Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie portrait - Los Angeles, I'm Yours

“I’ve always been here,” Catherine Opie says as we sit in one of her studios, speaking in response to being an Angeleno. We sit within very clean white walls that are lined with a body of new work. In some ways, this new group of photos are embedded in Los Angeles: they are a series of abstract portraits of actress Elizabeth Taylor through her belongings. The photos were unexpected to encounter when we entered her studio but, really, they are very much within the photographer’s world to push documentary and portraits to a project as such. Like Los Angeles, Catherine Opie is always changing and always challenging what you think of her and her work: she represents the heart of Los Angeles creativity.

Opie grew up in Sandusky, Ohio until she was thirteen, which is when she, her father, mother, and brother relocated to Southern California as a result of a familial illness. “We moved to a small town called Poway, near Rancho Bernardo,” she says. “My dad was sick and given a, ‘You have six months to live so you better move to a warmer climate, where you’ll be happier.’ diagnosis. He’s still alive to this day! We uprooted and moved to Southern California and it was kind of amazing.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

“I was born in 1961, so this was in the seventies,” she says, contextualizing the area. “California was at this incredible moment in time. Beach culture was very much a part of it and I liked the chaparral landscape. The countryside was traded from a view of a cornfield to a view of mountains with big rocks and chaparral, like I was in the middle of a John Wayne movie. That suited me just fine because I watched a lot of Westerns.”

Like Southern California, photography has also been a through line in her life. “I had been doing photography since I was nine,” she explains. “I built my own darkroom by the time I was fourteen, in a bathroom. My mom still complains that I ruined the tile. I was always in love with what images could make. I felt that in a certain way it was how I began to understand ideas in my own life and my relationship to what I saw and I became interested in trying to weave these stories together and explore their relationship to documentary. I certainly have a little bit of experimentation I put into documentary: I’m not a photojournalist and there is a huge distinction between the two.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Opie went to an all girls school in Virginia after high school and was planning to become a kindergarten teacher. “My parents told me, ‘Well, I don’t know about the art thing. You need something that is solid and you are great with children. You’re a great teacher and have been doing that for a long time.’ So, I went off to become a kindergarten teacher,” she says. This pursuit was very short lived though as photography grabbed her again very soon. “I went to visit my dad’s girlfriend in New York who is a painter and she was looking at my photographs and said, ‘You know you’re an artist, right? You’re really good.’ And I responded, ‘You think so? Really?’ And she asked if this was what I love and told me that I had to get out of that school in Virginia–which I had only been at for a year–and move to a major city and go to art school. I called my mom and told her, ‘Elanor said that I need to do all of this!’”

And, she did that: she pursued photography with gusto. She transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute and lived in the city for five years. She received a bachelors degree in photography and eventually came to Los Angeles in 1986 to attend graduate school at CalArts. In a sense, heading to Southern California was a surprise. “Coming out as a leather dyke and deciding my whole life was amazing in San Francisco, which was the best city in the world, where do I find myself? Back in suburbia, in Valencia, which is like Rancho Bernardo,” she says. “I began documenting master planned communities and thinking about what the effect of a master plan community is in relationship to how we view our lives and how we begin to live.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

“The community work in relationship to that body of work really launched this very long exploration I’ve had since 1986. Before that, I was a very solid black and white street photographer. I was coming right out of the Szarkowski school and looking at Friedlander, Winogrand, Frank, Nick Wessel was my teacher, Larry Sultan was my teacher–I was really moving in that direction. But, then I was at CalArts and was working with Catherine Lord and Allan Sekula, who were pushing me to think more conceptually about my practice in terms of documentary.”

Her work started to shift and she was looking toward photographers like Joe Deal and Bernd and Hilla Becher for inspiration, New Topographics very much influencing her work. “I tried to figure out the suburbs in relationship to that work,” she notes. “I kept documenting community after that, from a personal place and the politics of looking.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Working in and distilling her artistic voice in Los Angeles was also greatly influential to her work and incredibly unpredictable. “When I was in LA, everyone kept assuming that I’d move back to the Bay area,” she says. “They kept saying I would move back because the North does not like the South. I kept saying that LA was too interesting for me. There’s too many things to look at. There’s too many things I can talk about here. I was also really interested in the contemporary art community as I felt it was too conservative in the Bay area. It allowed me to make many bodies of work on LA because of my interests in this place. It’s a very friendly art community to be a part of, too. We all teach and are interested in the idea of communicating and sharing our experiences with one another. It’s huge.”

“The first landscape I did after Master Plan was on the gentrification of MacArthur Park entitled A Long Way From Paris,” she continues. “It was about this not being Paris and I wrote a Raymond Chandler-eque text about how I lived in an 1898 house by MacArthur Park with all these French musicians. Every night, there was a drill underneath the house as they put in the first Metro station. It rattled all the windows in the house. At the same time, they were burning all these other houses down. This was 1989, 1990. They thought they could fully gentrify MacArthur Park in relationship to being Downtown: Downtown has this amazing history of boom, bust, boom, bust, boom, bust. I did these very simple photos that really focused on what was happening politically in that area and as simplistically as possible. Master Plan was done in 200 photographs–this was done in five with a text.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

“From there, I started making portraits of my friends,” she says. “All of a sudden AIDs had a huge effect on me and my friends. I decided that I really, really needed to make portraits of my friends. When I made portraits of my friends, I realized that that was the work everyone was attaching to me. That’s what they had expectations of but didn’t know that I had this whole other history. So, then I did Freeways to bring everyone back down.”

“That move early on allowed me to be diverse in my practice. I don’t think that people necessarily have an expectation of what they think my work should look like. I think they just kind of follow along, thinking, ‘Oh: Cathy’s doing this now!’ Even though it all ties together in the same ideas that I explore in the language it can be vast in terms of how I choose to represent it.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

This sense of not being able to pin Catherine down is something not only very her but very Los Angeles. When she mentioned she had a new body of portraits she was preparing to share, we anticipated portraits in the classic sense. However, what we encountered was a terrifically abstract view of Elizabeth Taylor. Catherine shakes her head with a laugh in response to being so untraceable in her work: “Yeah, that’s how I roll.”

She finds that the experimentation comes from space to work and space to think, something wonderfully unique in Southern California. “I think we are very experimental because we have the room to be–not just physical room but mental room in relationship to not being so tied into the broader forces. Yes, we all sell our work and show at galleries but I don’t think that the commercial world dictates to us as much as certain New York artists are concerned. Maybe they aren’t but that’s just how I see it.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

“I think there is an incredible amount of freedom,” she continues. “When you look at someone like Ruscha, the vastness of his practice is unbelievable–and it’s because he really believed in following his own ideas in relationship to what he wants to figure out in his mind in terms of making work. I really have to say that that is true of most LA artists that I know. There’s an aesthetic to each of us but, within that, there are lots of possibilities.”

And, the new work on Elizabeth Taylor fits perfectly into this idea. “I was really interested in trying to create a further conversation with someone that is an iconic movie star, doing a portrait of her through her home. I’m playing with the idea of what portraits are, especially in terms of someone as iconic as Elizabeth Taylor.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

“I initally started when she was still alive and she passed away while I was doing it,” she explains. “I literally watched Christie’s take all of the jewelry away. It was really interesting. This body of work has so many photographs that documents so many things.”

“It happens to me time and time again. As a photographer, you are very engrossed in the dialogue of documentary and how documentary serves us. When I was photographing Wall Street, 9/11 happened. When I was photographing freeways, the Northridge earthquake happened. In a certain way, I’ve always held onto the idea that photography and history always come one hundred years after the image, in relationship to realizing its importance in terms of ideas of representation. I’ve had many things happen in my life where there is this immediate read of it that you don’t necessarily think is going to happen. It’s very curious to me how we read these images and how documentary photographs work in relationship to a certain sense of nostalgia we might have as viewers.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

The photographer is changing, though. Their role is becoming more complicated and the practice is reflecting that, too. “If you were a photographer, you had to be a photographer,” she says. “Now, my students at UCLA use photography to help better other work. They don’t have a problem with it. I think we’re less compartmentalized, especially the younger artists. I think because of the artists that explored so much–like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy–and the video work that has come out have made people more apt to go with what they want to go with. I don’t think that was as true in my generation of artists.”

Catherine also is deeply tied to the next generation of artists, specifically Los Angeles artists, with her work at UCLA. Her being there also adds to the school’s building legacy of legendary artist-teachers. “We have a phenomenal art department. It was always my dream department. When I got hired, it was John Baldessari, Mary Kelly, Nancy Rubins, Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy–and I was the younger member of this established set of artists. That was incredible to be with. A lot of them have retired but, now, it’s this really interesting, intense feminist program: we have Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, Jennifer Bolande, Andrea Fraser, myself–very interesting, strong voices from women. This is mixed with Lari Pittman, Russell Ferguson, Rodney McMillian, Hirsch Perlman, Adrian Saxe, Roger Herman…I am very lucky to be able to teach at a place where I have very interesting young artists to work with, who also keep me on my toes and make me ask a lot of questions in terms of my own studio practice.”

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

“People come and do stay here,” she says. “They realize the rent is cheaper and there is a community of young artists.” She is one of those artists as well: save for her early childhood, college, and a few brief periods, she’s been in Los Angeles. “I had a blink in New York and a blink when I taught at Yale. It was just a year. I was headhunted back to LA and offered tenure. So, it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m coming back home!’”

Catherine is not going anywhere and will continue to push her work to different places. Up next for her, she has a book on her hometown of Sandusky coming out later in the Summer, more work on the evolving Elizabeth Taylor project, and an upcoming Spring 2013 show at the new Regen Projects. She’s even entertaining the idea of going further into different mediums. “I did a video in New Zealand last Summer, my first self-portrait video,” she says. “I think I am more interested [in film] whereas before photography was my only medium. I think I need to play more with photographs now because photography is having a personal crisis of not knowing what it is or what it will be. It’s a good time for me to muck around with images. I also just want to have more fun in the studio.”

For more on Catherine Opie, she will be participating in the Inaugural show at the new Regen Projects in Hollywood, opening this Autumn. Additionally, her work will be shared in the Water Tank Project in 2013.

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

Documenting Communities: An Interview With Catherine Opie

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