The Witness

Art | Feb 2016 | BY Ted Loos

“I suck at Instagram,” says artist Catherine Opie, chuckling at the fact. “I’m on there because my son insisted. He said, ‘How can you be a photographer and not be on Instagram?’ I said, ‘Because I take lousy snapshots.’” She’s not being modest: There are dog photos, vacation photos, just like on your feed or mine. How is this possible? The Los Angeles–based Opie, 54, is certainly in the front rank of American fine art photographers. She had a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 2008 and has been showing her work successfully in galleries for 25 years.
700 Nimes Road

Opie’s Holiday Ornament, from her exhibit, “700 Nimes Road.” Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin.

Opie’s success can also be measured by her cultural presence in the first half of 2016. On the heels of dual New York shows at her new gallery Lehmann Maupin, there are two large institutional exhibitions now on view in L.A.: “Catherine Opie: Portraits” at the Hammer Museum (until May 22) and “Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road” at MOCA Pacific Design Center (until May 8).

So, Opie’s sucking at Instagram is really about two things. She takes pictures, really good ones, as a professional and doesn’t need it as a hobby. But this artist, who has long been steeped in critical theory and relishes deep thought on this topic, is also getting at something serious about the state of her art form.

“It’s a very, very hard time to be a photographer,” she says. “There are a billion images a day on Instagram. With social media, how do documentary and believability function now?” As it happens, Opie loves nothing more than a thorny, tricky moment: “I’m really enjoying tackling these issues.”

50 20x24 prints

Opie’s Living Room (West View), from the exhibit “700 Nimes Road.” Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin.

Opie is greatly influenced by painting, as you can see with the draped fabric background in her iconic image Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004)—it could be a Renaissance work. But she takes pictures of real things in a relatively straightforward manner, and in this way, she has a place in the great documentary and portrait photography tradition: You could see her as a descendant of August Sander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Berenice Abbott, Robert Mapplethorpe and the like.

An Ohio native who grew up loving the work of the crusading WPA photographer Lewis Hine, Opie studied at the San Francisco Art Institute with people like Larry Sultan—what she calls “the John Szarkowski school of photography,” after the influential MoMA curator, who worked with many faculty members there.

“The key was that I made a lot of pictures all the time,” she says now. “I have a very intense work habit from my undergrad training.” One of her many current projects is a dramatic, multi-part photograph of Yosemite Falls stretching over six floors of a new federal courthouse in L.A., scheduled to open this summer.

CO_LM22033_Untitled_12_hr0

Opie’s Untitled #12, from the exhibit “Portraits & Landscapes.” Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin.

Opie’s critical-discourse side came from her graduate work at CalArts in the late 1980s, back when theory was king. Opie, who now is married to the artist and landscape designer Julie Burleigh, came to prominence in the early 1990s with pictures of her L.A. friends, many of whom were gay and lesbian, and it was just the right moment for that visibility.

The transgressive, much discussed “queer sensibility” that brought her notoriety is still present in her work. The Lehmann Maupin Chelsea show, “Portraits and Landscapes,” included a picture of two subjects, Pig Pen and Julie, in the midst of a blood-drenched kiss (they had just taken the needles out of their lips). But mostly, it’s subtler now, she says: “That sensibility is still embedded within it. It ekes into the work because it’s my life, instead of being a political statement as in so much of the early work.”

Beautifully composed, penetrating portraiture is Opie’s strongest suit, and there are a lot of familiar art world faces in her recent show: Chuck Close, Matthew Barney and Glenn Ligon, among others. “But I always combine people who are known and aren’t known, and people I’ve always looked at,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be celebrity-driven.”

50 20x24 prints

Opie’s Paintings, from the exhibit “700 Nimes Road.” Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin.

And she turns the concept of celebrity images on its head for “700 Nimes Road.” The photographs are of the late Elizabeth Taylor’s closet, clothes and assorted personal effects. Opie and Taylor shared an accountant, and although they never met, the late screen goddess gave her enthusiastic endorsement of the project.

“It made me think about, ‘What is a portrait?’” says Opie, who had contributed to Nest magazine. “How could we get her life to come across in a new way, beyond the movie star image? It’s a portrait of her through her home.”

Opie is a tenured professor at UCLA, something she’s very proud of. “I love teaching, and I think it’s important to have another source of income and health insurance,” she says. “I don’t want to think I have to make money only through selling images. Part of me thinks that would kill the work.”

CO_LM22034_Untitled_13_hr0

Opie’s Untitled #13, from the exhibit “Portraits & Landscapes.” Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin.

That freedom allows her to be, in her view, untrendy and unfashionable. “Things are very material based now—there’s a nostalgia for the history of photography,” she says of one dominant theme. “You see an enormous amount of abstract chemical dripping.” On the other side is the prevalent mode of photography that combines fine art, fashion and commercial imagery, but doesn’t really belong in any one category.

Neither does her style—but she sees opportunity in the crisis. “The state of photography is the state I am in,” says Opie. “A lot of people are mucking with it, playing with it. We heard for years that painting is dead, and now we’re in the same place about photography. It’s dead: So what can we do with it?”

For all of the cutting-edge aspects of her work, Opie has an absolutely timeless credo, and gimmick-free sense of mission. “I like the idea of how important an image is, and how important it is to make pictures,” she says. “I argue that there is a place for bearing witness.”

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