Catherine Opie
Photo by Heather Rasmussen

Catherine Opie: “If you don’t make it, it’s not out there”

Short Profile

Name: Catherine Sue Opie
DOB: 14 April 1962
Place of birth: Sandusky, Ohio, United States
Occupation: Photographer

Catherine Opie's new exhibition Walls, Windows, and Blood is on dislpay at Lehmann Maupin New York until 9 March 2024.

Ms. Opie, you’ve photographed people from all walks of life. What is it like bringing them into your studio to make a portrait?

When people come into the studio, they bring with them forms and ideas of what they think a portrait should be — so my process is actually more about getting them to be with me in a shared moment. I’m also of course considering the way the fingers drape in a portrait, or when an arm is out, when a color comes through… But it’s about with how they feel within their bodies, too. We have to combine it together a little bit. I'm not interested in over-photographing somebody where the strobes are just flashing so much that they feel blasted and out of their body. I want it to be a shared quiet moment. I don't like a lot of crazy energy.I have an aesthetic, and I have a desire to make certain ideas come to life in my portraits. But within that, I'm watching how people move and where they're comfortable.

And in terms of your aesthetic, has that changed much over the years, in your opinion?

I think my aesthetic and style evolution happens when I buy a new camera! I'm a gearhead, I like a lot of equipment, so you always reinvent yourself in that way. But I would have to say that it's very hard for me to make a messy photograph, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. The only real messy photographs are from when I documented Obama's inauguration, and that's really street photography. Those are a bit messier, the camera is a bit crooked, which is something I don’t really allow in other bodies of work.

“I always want to take a human portrait. My goal in life is always to enter into everything with great care and with great humanity.”

Is there anyone or any kind of person you wouldn’t photograph?

That’s a really interesting question. In the early days of the New York Times Magazine in the nineties, for example, I photographed some of the most right-wing evangelical families that were all anti-abortion. Spin Magazine sent me to photograph a really horrible man who was obsessed with Hitler. I’ve photographed a really conservative Republican senator who was trying to change queer rights. So no matter what the situation, I always want to take a human portrait. My goal in life is always to enter into everything with great care and with great humanity.

You recently photographed Pope Francis for your series, Walls, Windows, and Blood, right?

Yes, I spent six weeks photographing in the Vatican, going every Sunday and listening to Pope Francis speak, and then I realized that I wanted to really look at the church through its architectural site and create a relationship to certain hypocrisies of the Catholic Church. On the day that I shot my image of Pope Francis through the window, that was the first time he acknowledged the bodies of the Indigenous children that were discovered buried under a Canadian school that was part of the Catholic Church’s residential school system. There was a lot of pressure for the pope to apologize. It was an interesting thing in terms of timing, because he was challenging the Cardinals, while at the same time I was trying to question the velocity of the structure of the Catholic Church.

Your images of every instance of blood in the murals and paintings in the Vatican were particularly striking. They remind me of your self-portraits, Cutting and Pervert. Was that intentional?

There’s a connection, definitely. I mean, why is it that my self-portrait of my back is considered with fear, and people being horrified. This is the kind of hypocrisy I’m talking about: when the blood of Christ is in everything, but yet when I draw a stick figure of girls on my back in blood, I'm labelled a pervert. So the blood in those photos really invites a talk about our relationship to the body and representation. I love when a photograph is embedded within actual interesting philosophical quandaries of what it means to create representations of the time that we're living in.

Apparently you’ve been taking self-portraits since you were only nine years old.

That’s true! I like self-portraits because a self-portrait does a number of things. Of course it’s part of the language of art; the relationship to self-portraiture and the artist embedding their own identity within the work has been going on throughout art history. But then when you're dealing with a photographic self-portrait, you're also challenging the idea of the family photo album, it's not the parent’s photograph of you, it's you deciding at that moment in time, “I'm going to make a self-portrait.” I like that when you look through those self-portraits, you can kind of track me through different moments in my age, different moments in my life.

How do you think your future self-portraits will look or feel when you’re an old woman?

It’s funny, I just had an interview a couple days ago, where they asked, “Now that you're in your sixties, are you going to be photographing your aging body?” And I was like, “Oh, this is a very interesting question!” But I don't know, I mean, I never know what I'm going to make, or when a self-portrait is going to become this thing…

Self-portraits are kind of like the ultimate documentary photograph, no?

Well, I would argue that all my work to a certain extent is documentary, because it's all about the relationship to the specificity of the moment. I never digitally remove things, I'm not adding things. I usually shoot corner to corner in the frame, even the blood images from the Vatican series, they’re not cropped, they’re really framed that way. So I think that the idea of framing the world around you, create that structure, especially when you're an artist, that’s very important to bring the viewer in.

How did that shift when you travelled around the US photographing lesbians in their homes for your series Domestic? How did you go about framing them when you entered their worlds, rather than the other way around?

When I was making that body of work, it was 1997 or 1998, and you had Tina Barney come out with Theater of Manners, you had Sally Mann’s Family Pictures, you had Peter Galassi showing Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort at MoMA. You had all these artists showing their visions of home and family. I wanted to construct the images of lesbians together in their homes because that that needed to be part of the language of what was coming out in the art world. I'm a strong believer that if you don't make it, it's not out there. And so you go ahead, and you make it and you hope that you've landed in the right way.

That’s been your mantra from the very beginning when you decided to take portraits of the queer community around you: make the work you want to see.

That’s right. But these days, I don't know if there's anything even missing from the art world anymore, to tell you the truth. It seems to have an enormous amount of content. I think it's very interesting how art has seeped into fashion and culture in a way that I hadn't imagined it in the eighties or nineties. I think that what's missing in the world is really the understanding of how important art is: we need to support our institutions as a civic kind of duty. It's about culture not necessarily being for just the one percent. Art is a part of the fabric of our society and culture. So I think that I'll just continue to use my work as the political voice of somebody who's a dyke. I've been doing that since I was nine and I'll probably do it until I can’t pick up the camera anymore.