Monday, May 14, 2012

Catherine Opie: An American Photographer

Catherine Opie was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1961. She became interested in photography at a young age when she discovered photographer Lewis Hine. Hine focused on the plight of child laborers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Opie wrote a book report on  Hine and his beliefs and then passionately told her parents that she wanted to be a social-documentary photographer. She followed this up by asking for a camera for her ninth birthday and received a Kodak Instamatic from her parents. She started photographing within her community and focused on her family and neighbors. Opie is quoted as saying “basically what I did then, and I still do is wander around with my camera to describe my relationship to the world and where I live” (Guggenheim Museum).

            Opie describes herself as being a “tomboy” in high school who consistently had crushes on girls. She faced the dilemma of telling people this though and believed she could not come out and say she is lesbian. People who influenced her and who she looked up to at the time such as Billie Jean King did not speak openly about being gay and this made it even harder on Opie. She really desired to come out and tell the world she was a lesbian and stated “Another reason that I think it’s really important to be out and do the work that I make is to create examples for younger people” (Sheets). During these teenager years Opie was the top babysitter in her neighborhood and studied childhood education for one year in college. She was then convinced by a family friend that she was an artist and had to move to a bigger city to find success. Opie listened and at the age of 18 took her talents to San Francisco to study photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. She graduated in 1985 and proceeded to enroll in the MFA program at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. After finished up her schooling she moved to Los Angeles in 1989 to start her work as an artist. Opie then worked as a lab technician at the University of California, Irvine until 1994. During that time she had her first solo exhibit in New York in 1991.

            In 1994 Opie took a controversial self-portrait where the word “pervert” was carved into her bare chest along with forty six needles put into her arms. This photograph really put her on the map as she had to clear up misconceptions about it and explain why she did it. Opie stated “I made the piece out of a reaction to all of the sudden gays and lesbians’ bringing on the ‘normal’ dialogue to us” (Sheets). She wanted to do something out there and different from what society believes normal is. She was then chosen by the curator Klaus Kertess for the 1995 Whitney Biennial along with her portraits. This brought a good amount of attention to Opie which she was not accustomed to previously.

            Opie is more than a portraitist though, as she also photographs cityscapes, landscapes, and architecture (Cotter). She enjoys documenting scenes and truly has a wide variety of styles and personalities. Still many of her famous photographs contain leather, piercing, tattoos, and costumes. What this all comes down to though is Opie’s work deals with community as previously stated. She focuses on the things in and around her life and how they all come together to form her community. This idea of photography has led her to pursue many different projects in her artistic career.

            In 1998 Opie had an urge to travel the country in an R.V. for numerous months and search for women in committed lesbian relationships. She yearned to understand and explore what lesbian family life was like and this seemed like a great way to do this. She created a series of photographs titled “Domestics”, where she photographed the women within the settings of their homes. She followed this up with a project titled “American Cities” (Sheets). She continued to road trip around the country and took black and white photographs of the urban scenery. They included such scenes as Chicago architecture at night or Los Angeles mini malls in the early morning, none of which included human activity in them.

Opie’s work started becoming more well-known and this opened up opportunities for her and her career. She took teaching positions and residences at numerous universities and art centers that include St. Louis Museum of Art, The Walker Art Center, and Yale University. She is currently working as a tenured professor at the University of California, Los Angeles where she has been since 2002. More recently in 2010 Opie tried to remove her work from an exhibit in the Smithsonian. The deceased artist David Wojnarowicz had a controversial piece of work that was displayed removed from the exhibit. This annoyed Opie because she is a controversial artist as well and wanted to stand up for this, but the Smithsonian would not remove her work. In this aspect Opie is similar to Adrienne Rich, who refused to accept the National Medal for the Arts. The government did not line up with her beliefs that not just one artist can be honored while “people at large are so dishonored” (Arts of the Possible). This comparison displays just how strong both Opie and Rich’s beliefs are and how both women will try to stand up for what they believe in because they care about this more than individual honors. Catherine Opie resides in South Central Los Angeles with her companion, Julie Burleigh and their son Oliver. Burleigh’s daughter, Sara LaCroix, also resides in the house with them. 

-Xavier M.E. , Blair R. 

Works Cited
·       "Catherine Opie." Catherine Opie. Web. 12 May 2012. <>.
·       Cotter, Holland. "ART REVIEW | CATHERINE OPIE; A Retrospective of Many Artists, All of Them One Woman." The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2008. Web. 12 May 2012. <>.
·       Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.
·       Sheets, Hilarie M. "Catherine Opie." The New York Times. 12 May 2012. Web. 12 May 2012. <>.

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