From freeways to nipple rings, dinner scenes to dildos, iconoclastic American photographer Catherine Opie describes her thirty-year oeuvre as “twisted social documentary photography” that is unapologetically queer.
“Opie’s work holds a narrative that forces you to stop and look closely,” says Jess Colquhoun, the director behind this episode of Photographers In Focus. “Her images command your attention through their purposeful form and gaze.”
Opie rose to prominence in the early ’90s with an arresting portrait series of friends from Los Angeles’s leather community. Her refined and elegant images of California’s drag queens, queers, leather dykes and transgender people upended traditional notions of sexuality and opened up conversations about identity performance.
As a photographer and member of San Francisco’s BDSM scene during the ’80s, Opie vowed never to be a voyeur within her own community. One of her earliest works is Cathy (bed self-portrait) (1987), which is a brazen black-and-white image she took of herself wearing a strap-on, dressed in negligee astride a bed. This and other photographs from the artist were an affront to social conservatism and cultural censorship, created in the knowledge that representation is crucial to securing recognition and respect.
Opie’s most hard-hitting images are also her most confessional. In Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) her bare back reveals a stick-figure image of two women holding hands in front of a house, etched into her flesh with a blade. Her skin, still raw and glistening with blood, is a statement to her longing for domestic bliss—a dream society continues to deny queer identifying people.
For the last decade Opie’s work has included portraits of Malibu’s surfers, high school footballers, LA’s mini-malls and the mansions of Beverly Hills. What appears to be a deviation from her early career is actually an extension of the photographer’s steadfast commitment to documenting California’s changing physical and cultural landscape.
“Opie’s ambition to continuously reinvent her voice is influential and thought-provoking,” says Colquhoun. “She is always shifting focus and pushes against the idea of creating a single identity as an artist.”