Posts Tagged ‘Catherine Opie’

Catherine Opie at SFMOMA

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Went to see Catherine Opie last night at SFMOMA. It was delightful — she’s funny and her work is both daunting in quality and diversity.

Here are my rough notes. Opie talks pretty fast, and some of these quotes may be imprecise. I also may not have always put the breaks between which work she was talking about in the correct spot. So, reader beware.

  • Talking about 1999 on, not earlier stuff


  • “The quaint fear of Y2K” – (so, rural America is a proxy apocalypse?)
  • Bought an RV
  • In conversation with Tina Barney and Peter Galassi
  • “The American road trip” — pretty much every photographer has experienced that
  • Sequenced in relation to how Opie feels about the images, not geography
  • Rebecca Solnit on wandering
  • “What is iconic” tends to collapse into cliche
  • Backs of sunflowers is dystopic, fronts is utopic
  • “Poorly attended civil war reenactment”
  • Backs of billboards as disinformation — re: Y2K and feared loss of information
  • Switched from 4×5 to Mamiya 7 for this project
  • Referring to Winogrand and street photogrpahy, came out of “that school”
  • “I don’t live with my photographs in our house.”
  • “I’m interested in photographs that work a little harder than just being pretty.”

In and Around Home, ’04-’05 (Post 9-11, c. George Bush re-election)

  • Opie’s home and neighborhood
  • “This is a blonde news reporter. This is a brunette news reporter.”
  • Re: polaroids in the time of digital photoraphy: “The materiality of a certain type of truth” that isn’t manipulated — Opie pairs that with TV is a form of artificiality
  • Iraqi national appears in the frame relative to the “white hand of democracy.”

American Cities 1996 ->

  • Focused in grad school on master plan communities, New Topographics type stuff, etc.
  • Canham 7×17
  • Done early on Sunday mornings when it’s empty, just the architecture
  • “New York is always photographed in this idea of its verticality.” — So horizontal panorama is a departure
  • Opie talks about photographing places that are later marked by death or disaster (9/11, earthquake, Elizabeth Taylor’s death)

Estate project for AIDS/Ron Athey

  • Moby polaroid camera (giant)
  • Opie often includes a “pause” betwween figures in an installation for those we’ve lost
  • “Art history is never far away from me in terms of grabbing for it.”

Ice Houses

  • Day after a blizzard, “white on white; I couldn’t have blue skies after that.”
  • “You need a blizzard for this level of abstraction.”
  • Ice houses bring together rich people with lakefront property and satellite dishes on their ice houses and the guys who drive in to actually fish. A kind of mixed temporary/nomad community
  • 8×10 camera working on the ice. (That’s crazy.)

Surfers ’03

  • “75% of surfing is waiting.”
  • Only foggy days / matches the white on white ice houses
  • “Got very interested in the idea of waiting” — which connects to the darkroom for Opie
  • Previously had done all her own printing and was a proud printer, but stopped while trying to get pregnant — the waiting aspect of the surfer photos replaced the meditate aspect of the darkroom experience
  • Guggenheim did “dream exhibition” of ice houses and surfers (in a long, narrow space with the horizons matched and facing each other from the two walls)
  • Portraits of surfers were made right as they came out of the water

Children portraits

  • Opie bummed out by unnatural contemporary portraits of children
  • Considered being a kindergarten teacher, but “I couldn’t do the little chairs for the rest of my life.”
  • Didn’t want to impose a sexuality on children, as Opie feels is often done
  • Wanted natural photos that capture the awkwardness of being in the studio

High School Football

  • (?) titled an exhibition “American Photographer” — “American photographer? I’ll be American for you.” So, football photos.
  • Sports photography is normally zoom lens and action; she wanted the moments in between
  • Opie talks about the realization of bearing witness to something, as opposed to identifying previously as a documentary photographer
  • Football as a precursor to military service in many areas
  • First time she’d done model releases — there were some photos she loved but could not use because she didn’t receive a release from the parents
  • In two years she received two letters from parents of boys in the series who had tied in Afghanistan — that was when she realized she was bearing witness
  • “These were the kids in high school who scared the heebie-jeebies out of me.”
  • “One of the hardest things was the incredible homophobia”
  • Used a Hasselblad digital handheld

Alaska, 2007

  • These were going to be theatrical backdrops
  • “I’m really interested in displacement” of people in relation to nature


  • Play on Richard Prince’s Girlfriends — but her ideal is butch dykes
  • “Some of them are girlfriends I actually had, some aren’t, but all are about desire for me.”
  • When she’s preparing an exhibition, she’s very aware of how she wants to place it relative to the history of either photography or painting
  • (She was really cute when geeking out about k.d. lang in the middle of presenting this series)

Hanjin shipping – commissioned – Sunrises and Sunsets

  • Restraint of time; conceptually how do you deal with the cliche of a sunrise or sunset”

Empty and Full

  • Marches, protests, rallies, etc.
  • “How do we gather? Why do we gather?”
  • Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival juxtaposed w/ national Boy Scout Jamboree

Somewhere in the Middle

  • Seasons of Lake Erie — Opie grew up on the lake
  • Displayed in a hospital, past the chapel / a place to gather oneself

New work – Regen Projects

  • “Wanted to talk about a more internal place”
  • The idea of the sublime, 17th c painting, portraits emerging out of black
  • Everybody’s doing abstract photography; what does it mean?
  • Opie describes seeing people drive to an attraction, getting out, snapping a photo with their phone, and getting back in the cars and driving away.
  • So, re: her OOF landscapes “By racking the focus, by abstracting it, I’m hoping to get people to spend more time with it.”
  • The only color here is red — b/c of blood and b/c Opie is menopausal
  • Portraits as oversized cameos
  • Always uses models when preparing exhibitions


  • Q re lack of snark/aggression/sarcasm/mockery of conservative, homophobic, etc. subjects
  • Opie implies that there’s some sarcasm that can be read in a lot of the photos, but “I never approach anything w/malice”

  • Reference to prior observation by (?) of a connection between Opie’s interest in horizons and the idea of equality

  • Q re: upcoming work

  • Elizabeth Taylor — Opie photographed in Taylor’s house for around six months, in the middle of which Taylor died
  • Trying to make a portrait through still life of Taylor’s home/belongings
  • She and Taylor share an accountant
  • Eggleston’s Graceland
  • “The book will not be the experience that I had,” it will be trying to make a portrait of Elizabeth, but also the history of tha tmoment
  • 5,000 images
  • Opie’s partner would say, “You were in the vortex again today” when Opie got back from working on this
  • Q re: diff. btw. students today and in Opie’s time
  • A: Yes. Hards to be an image-maker now. Hard to get students to think about the formal aspect. Trying to educate them about the history of image making and their place in it
  • Built her own dark room when she was 14
  • Curator Corey Keller: “At this point in time, to identify as a photographer is so unfashionable”
  • Right, they’re artists…
  • Q re: other media
  • I have a very secret sculpture practice of making ceramic stumps.”