Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly credited the photo of Catherine Opie to Ann Philbin.
For some, photography is a vocation. For Catherine Opie, it's also a social liability.
"Staring at people's faces is a problem with me," the artist admits. "I mean, my wife is constantly saying, 'You're staring at that person.' And I'm just like, 'I'm really sorry. I'm making a picture.' And I do like to stare."
Opie is a stocky, affable presence with graying brown hair tucked under a black baseball cap. The 54-year-old has made it a lifelong project to document all kinds of American identities and landscapes, but she caught the art world's attention with a 1994 self-portrait that still affects how she's perceived today.
"I mean, I've had so many people tell me, 'Oh my God, I was so afraid to meet you,'" she says, shrugging with disbelief. "Why would you be afraid to meet me? Like, I'm just a nice girl who lived across a cornfield in Ohio."
From those cornfields, Opie moved to San Francisco to join a queer scene that was fighting against AIDS and for gay and lesbian visibility. But mainstream gay politics shunned Opie's community of leather folks and fans of S&M, so she responded with a photograph showing the word "pervert" cut across her bare chest in florid cursive. The self-portrait is disturbing — Opie says it's hard for her to look at, even today. (You can see the image, which contains nudity, here.) Self-Portrait/Pervert showed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1995 and helped launch a career that has included major solo shows in New York, Boston and Chicago. Now, three of Los Angeles' most prominent contemporary art museums have dedicated simultaneous shows to Opie's photography.
"It was really a happy accident," says Connie Butler, curator of the Hammer Museum's Opie show. "She's having a moment."
According to Butler, Opie is admired for a generous and technically brilliant exploration of American communities and citizenship, including Tea Party rallies, President Barack Obama's inauguration, surfers, high school football players and lesbian families across the country. She's also acclaimed for her landscapes, including a series of Los Angles mini-malls shot at dawn in large-format black and white, and the stark architecture of Los Angeles freeways.
Opie has generally avoided commercial photography, so she isn't as famous as Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz. But Connie Butler is convinced that her photos will become era-defining, classic reflections of American identity. She points to an Opie self-portrait from 2004 in which the photographer is shown nursing her baby son. Opie is in her 40s, and she's butch, topless and tattooed. You can still see the faintest outline of that old scar on her chest.
"That's an incredibly powerful picture of what motherhood is and what we now know it is in this contemporary moment," Butler says. "you know, images like that will linger."
Opie sees that photograph as a formal response to the saintly Madonna-and-child images of Western art history — a response that continued in a 2012 portrait of her daughter's boyfriend cradling Opie's grandson.
"I think she is an extraordinary chronicler of America in the late 20th and early 21st century," says Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Molesworth's Opie show opened in January. It's called "700 Nimes Road," after the address of Elizabeth Taylor's Bel Air, Calif., estate.
"Opie was allowed in the house," Molesworth explains. "She was allowed to take whatever photographs she wanted."
Opie never met Taylor, who was then still alive, but she wanted to make a portrait of the star through her things: handbags aligned in color-coordinated rows of pink, yellow, black and red; brocade and sequined coat sleeves sumptuously pressed up against each other; Taylor's famous diamonds and the slightly tattered boxes they're stored in. Molesworth says the shocking intimacy of these photos makes them fit right in with the rest of Opie's work.
"I think Opie is a fetishist," she says. "We know that from the carving of 'pervert' into her chest. Opie is like a small kid running her hand over every texture and every surface in this house, and treating her camera as an extension of her hands."
A more gothic portrait at the Hammer Museum features a pair of sisters known for designing cutting-edge fashion. Kate and Laura Mulleavy founded the Rodarte label and designed the costumes for the movie Black Swan. Opie's portrait shows them in long dresses, embroidering what looks like blood. The photographer says it's an allegory for something almost as culturally scary as S&M: women and aging.
"They're stitching the blood drip that I no longer have, so it's a post-menopausal world for me," Opie observes. "Blood has always been a medium that I personally have really valued, and it's really interesting when blood really leaves your life, even in that way that's on a monthly basis, where it's just like, 'Oh, that substance is gone.' "
The Mulleavy portrait is part of a larger project of photographing artists, writers and other people in Opie's immediate circle — people like the novelist Jonathan Franzen and writer/performer Miranda July. Opie was originally inspired by social documentary photographers like Lewis Hine, but outside of photojournalism, there aren't a lot of contemporary artists looking at the world the way Hine did.
"That photography isn't very popular right now," she says. "There's very few people who look at the world anymore. I mean, they look at the world of what they're eating and they post it on Facebook."
Opie is more interested in how people exist in the world than how they see themselves in it. Her photos are like maps, finding points of empathy.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
People of the future who want to know what we looked like and how we lived might consider the work of Catherine Opie. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited Opie at her LA studio, where the artist admitted her work can also be a social liability.
CATHERINE OPIE: Staring at people's faces is a problem with me. I mean, my wife is constantly saying, you're staring at that person. And I'm just like, I'm really sorry; I'm making a picture. And I do like to stare, and I really like to look.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Catherine Opie is looking at the world today from under a butch black baseball cap. She's stocky with graying brown hair. And she's so friendly, it's easy to see how her subjects connect. But people who know Opie's early work are sometimes scared to meet her.
OPIE: Why would - why would you be afraid to meet me? Like, I'm just a nice girl who lived across a cornfield in Ohio, you know?
ULABY: Don't even. Opie knows perfectly well why. It involves the word pervert.
OPIE: (Laughter) Because I carved pervert on my chest? No (laughter).
ULABY: Back in 1994, this nice girl from Ohio was part of a queer San Francisco scene fighting against AIDS and for gay and lesbian rights. Mainstream gay politics then excluded, even shunned her community of leather folks and fans of S&M. Opie responded with a self-portrait showing the word pervert cut across her bare chest. It's disturbing, and it was Opie's art world breakthrough.
CONNIE BUTLER: I think of Cathy as a quintessentially American artist.
ULABY: Connie Butler curated the Catherine Opie show that just opened at LA's Hammer Museum. She says Opie's photographed Tea Party rallies, Obama's inauguration, surfers and lesbian families across the country. Not lots of magazine work, so she's not famous like Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz. Still, Butler says...
BUTLER: She's having a moment.
ULABY: With simultaneous Opie shows at three prominent LA museums of contemporary art.
BUTLER: It was really a happy accident.
ULABY: That's promoting an artist who reflects American identity now, like a self-portrait took in her 40s while nursing her baby son. She's topless and tattooed.
BUTLER: That's an incredibly powerful picture of what motherhood is and what we now know it is in this contemporary moment. You know, images like that will linger.
ULABY: That self-portrait responds to all those saintly Madonna and child images throughout art history. Opie says the projects continued with a newer portrait in a show opening this month in New York.
OPIE: But it's a beautiful naked black man holding his newborn child.
ULABY: The beautiful man is her daughter's boyfriend. The child is Opie's grandson.
OPIE: It's always about the mother, and I just really wanted it to be about the father in this moment.
HELEN MOLESWORTH: All right. Will you do the same on the side? Don't center it in between...
ULABY: Curator Helen Molesworth of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is installing another Catherine Opie show that just opened at the Pacific Design Center.
MOLESWORTH: I think she is an extraordinary chronicler of America in the late 20th and early 21st century.
ULABY: This show's unusual subject is the inside of Elizabeth Taylor's house. Opie never met Taylor, who was then still alive, but she wanted to take the star's portrait through her things - handbags arranged in rows of pink, black and red, coat sleeves pressed sumptuously together in an enviably large closet, the diamonds, of course, but also the tattered boxes in which they're stored. Molesworth says these photos fit right in with the rest of Opie's work.
MOLESWORTH: Well, I think Opie's a fetishist. Opie is like a small kid running her hand over every texture and every surface in this house and treating her camera as an extension of her hands.
ULABY: So a close-up look at a side table covered with a fusty flowered table cloth and framed photos of Taylor with Michael Jackson.
MOLESWORTH: Here she is, Elizabeth Taylor, one of the biggest stars ever, with Michael Jackson, one of the biggest stars ever. And what's at the foreground? The instructions for the TV remote control.
ULABY: There's vulnerability, even intimacy, says Molesworth, in these images of glamour juxtaposed with Taylor's every day. A more gothic portrait at the Hammer Museum features a pair of sisters, friends of Opie's known for designing cutting-edge fashion, like their costumes for the movie "Black Swan." It shows them kneeling in long dresses, embroidering what looks like blood. Opie says it's an allegory.
OPIE: They're stitching the blood drip that I no longer have, so it's a postmenopausal world for me.
ULABY: In this portrait, Opie's taking on something almost as culturally scary as S&M - women and aging.
OPIE: Blood has always been a medium that I, personally, have really valued. And it's really interesting when blood really leaves your life, even in that way that's on a monthly basis, where it's just like, oh, that substance is gone.
ULABY: Catherine Opie sees herself as a social documentary photographer.
OPIE: That photography isn't really popular right now. There's very few people who look at the world anymore. I mean, they look at the world of what they're eating, and they post it on Facebook.
ULABY: Catherine Opie's interested in using photography as a map to find our points of empathy. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.