Interview by Naomi deLuce Wilding
Images by Austin Irving
Catherine Opie’s work ranges from self-portraiture to landscape photography, often investigating identity through portraits of social groups including the LGBT community, surfers and high school football players. Her work documents and gives voice to social phenomena in America today, registering her subjects’ attitudes and relationships to themselves and others, and the ways in which they occupy the landscape. At the core of her investigations are perplexing questions about relationships to community, which she explores on multiple levels across all her bodies of work.
For years, Opie has been an active member of ACT UP and Queer Nation. She is an Ambassador for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and continues to donate her work to fundraise for HIV and AIDS-related causes.
Naomi deLuce Wilding: Where are you from?
Catherine Opie: I grew up in Sandusky, Ohio until I was thirteen, and then we moved to Poway, California, which is north county San Diego. Ohio was lovely—right on Lake Erie. I liked it.
NW: Do you miss it?
CO: Well, I went back recently and did a whole body of work for the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. I made the four seasons of Lake Erie. I got to spend about a year and half going back and forth to Ohio, staring at the lake during different seasons and photographing it. I came home at one point and said [to my partner], “Hey, Julie! You know how you want to have a horse ranch, more garden space and everything? We can do that in Ohio. I can try to teach at Oberlin.” She was like, “Yeah, we’re not moving to Ohio.” [laughs]
NW: I think that having access to those places is important, whether it’s nostalgic or because it resonates with you, but it’s not always enough. I felt that way going home to Wales recently. I loved being home and away from the grit of the city, but I’m connected to LA for many reasons—community, diversity, the energy of what’s happening here.
CO: It’s a fascinating city, Los Angeles. When I studied undergraduate at the Art Institute in the Bay Area, everybody assumed that I would stay. I came out as a lesbian and was part of a leather community. I had very deep roots in the community during the five years I lived there. So when I finished grad school at CalArts everybody was like, “You’re coming home now, right?” And I said, “No, I’m pretty interested in LA. I actually want to talk about this place.”
“THERE ARE SOME TIMES IN WHICH I HAVE
INCREDIBLE OPTIMISM IN HUMANIST
ACTS AND WHAT DEMOCRACY REALLY IS.”
— CATHERINE OPIE
NW: That was my next question: When and why did you arrive in Los Angeles?
CO: 1985. At CalArts, I spent a good amount of my work looking at ideas of master plan communities and making a very large thesis on white flight from urban areas. What is a master plan community? How is it designed? Who is it designed for? I delved into the suburbia of the eighties, which was really different than the suburbia of the fifties in terms of American ideology and dreams. It was really in relationship to a city becoming a threatening place. So I spent two years digging into that idea and then moved to LA, to MacArthur Park just at the time that the subway was being built. I did a whole body of work of what it means to gentrify the MacArthur Park area, looking at it in relationship to transportation. And so I kept kind of peeling away at Los Angeles for all these years in my work in these different ways.
NW: How could you leave? It’s so embedded in your journey as an artist.
CO: Very much so.
NW: Do you consider your work as a photographer to be a form of activism? Put simply, do you think you are able to educate or improve people’s lives?
CO: It’s curious. I move in and out of it in different ways. There are some times in which I have incredible optimism in humanist acts and what democracy really is as somebody who, through multiple bodies of work, has traversed these conversations of ideas of community and democracy. Within the early portraits I did of my friends, I don’t think that I was attaching any optimism about changing the perception of homosexuality. So activism is tricky—it might not be about the full ability to change people’s perceptions, but making images creates a record. And without a record, or without trying to delve into issues of identity and visibility and providing images, a whole subset of culture would be completely denied.
CO: And so, by going in and doing difficult things, I guess that one could think of me as a bit of an activist at the time. I was definitely an activist with ACT UP and Fair Nation, but that was really out of a sense of loss—very different than activism. In my work, it was about hanging on to this moment in our lives in which all of us were incredibly vulnerable from the decimation of our community through AIDS and experiencing extreme hatred. So when I made it, it was really for my own community and, selfishly, for myself to hang onto people that I was losing.
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