An Interview with Catherine Opie – M-C MacPhee

photo by Nicole Belle

On November 4, 2008, the date of the United States Election that anticipated the victory of Barack Obama, M-C MacPhee interviewed Catherine Opie. Opie’s mid-life retrospective, Catherine Opie: American Photographer opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on September 26, 2008 and runs until January 7, 2009. For more information about the exhibition see:


M-C MacPhee: I’ll start out by asking you how things are looking in the US today?

Catherine Opie: Well, we’ll see. It was really amazing. I live in a predominantly African American neighbourhood. I’ve been here for 6 years, and I’ve never seen a line at the polls, but today we had to wait an hour and a half to vote. I think that it’s true that we’re going to see an unprecedented number of voters out, and that’s really exciting.

MCM: What’s the feeling around who will win, and is there any fear surrounding this election?

CO: Obama will win.

I think the only fear right now is that we all feel so confident that he will win, and we’ll be highly disappointed if all of a sudden he doesn’t. That exact same thing happened in the first election with Bush and Gore. And to wake up the next morning and see that Bush was elected was a shock, and we’ve been living in that shock for 8 years as a country now. After experiencing that, I feel like we’re in a position of really having the potential for a positive change. We’re all hoping for change.

MCM: Given the current political reality in the US, and given the history of the work you’ve done representing queer communities, raising serious questions about the “American Dream” and such, how does it feel to have this really important show at the Guggenheim right now?

CO: My work is not only political, it’s personal, and there are also highly aesthetic moments in it. Because of some of the content of the show, I was really excited to have it up during this historic political campaign as well as after the election.

I hope the show allows people to think in terms of their own notions of representation, and how they begin to relate to ideas of humanity by looking so humbly at people that they might fear, or at certain positions that they might fear. Do they walk away with an increased sense of homophobia or do they walk away with the hope that maybe the world’s not actually such a weird place?

Even though I’ve always been out in my work, I’ve never really known if that actually provides any possibility of social change in people’s minds, or if it is just really important for me within my own community in terms of visibility and representation.

MCM: Did you play a key role in selecting all of the images for the show?

CO: Oh completely. The only body of work that I did not select were the pieces from American Cities, which were picked by the curator, Jennifer Blessing. Otherwise, I had models that I worked on in my studio for a year and a half, then we printed everything to scale, and then we hung it. So we knew exactly what the show was going to look like going in to it. It’s really important if you have four floors of museum like that for it to be very precise.

MCM: After staring at those models for a year and half, how was it to see the real thing?

CO: Oh it was amazing, just mind-boggling actually. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. To have a museum give over that much space to you when you’re only 47 years old is just phenomenal. Everybody keeps asking me if I have the post-show traumatic syndrome or if I’m depressed, and I’m not at all, I’m still kind of shocked that my work is being viewed by almost 5000 people a day, so there’s no room for being depressed in that.

MCM: Of your entire body of work, do you think there is a particular series or even a specific photo that you’re most well known for?

CO: Probably Self-Portrait (1993) of the cutting on my back. That is definitely the most printed photograph and it’s the most iconic. It’s a stick figure of two girls holding hands which is cut into my back with a scalpel and it’s dripping a little bit of blood. Not a lot blood, but enough for people to want to see it.

MCM: Does the popularity of that image (and of your other work) change in various communities; in the queer community vs. the “mainstream” art world?

CO: I don’t think so. Actually, that’s one thing that has always been surprising about my work. The art world has always gone along with whatever I’m thinking, whether it be issues of queer identity that I bring forward in different years and times, or by studying American culture and how it’s constructed around us, what it looks like, and what it means in relationship to another kind of specificity of identity.

I get dumb questions; I remember in the beginning, everybody would be looking at my portraits and asking “is that a boy or a girl” and I would think, “well, that’s not really the point.” Or with Self Portrait Cutting or Self Portrait Cutting Pervert people would ask, “Did that hurt?” or “Did you get really drunk before you did that?” And I would answer “No, I didn’t get drunk, and yes it hurt, but you transcend through pain.” I was explaining SM 101 to people who would just look at me like “what the fuck?”

MCM: I read that you made a very intentional shift in your work after that series and specifically after that Self-Portrait, why?

CO: Yeah, Self Portrait was in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. It was the largest show that I had ever been in and I was heading into a territory of being only identified as “the leather dyke artist”, and I had spent my whole life working on, and being very interested in other things. Photographing my own community was something that I decided that I had to do, but it wasn’t predominantly what I was interested in. I did it because it was a very political time and it was a very upsetting time. An enormous number of my friends were dying of AIDS or were HIV positive, and there was an incredible political rift in this country; it was before Clinton got elected, so we had gone from Reagan to Bush Senior and they were completely ignoring the health crisis in the gay community, homophobia was rampant, and it was just a really hard time.

I’ve always been an out lesbian, and out as part of the leather community, and I felt that it was time to create something that was historical and familial and that dealt with my own ideas of representation of myself and my community.

Before that, I had made a whole body of work about the gentrification of Macarthur Park in Los Angeles, and prior to that I had done a thesis on the construction of master plan communities, so I’ve always talked about these structures. From American cities to the notion of ice houses and surfers being temporary communities, all of my work definitely surrounds – in a non-linear fashion – ideas of specificity of identity in relation to notions of community. But within that, I don’t think that people necessarily have a singular identity; we move through many different chapters of our lives with many ideas about how we are living our lives, or what’s happening at any given time.

I shifted back to doing freeways right after the Whitney Biennial because I thought, “ok, if I don’t switch it now I’m going to have a really hard time switching it later”.

MCM: How was your work that followed that shift received by your audience?

CO: Really well. It allowed me to continue a long dialogue going back and forth between issues that fascinate me, and that go beyond my own queer identity.

MCM: As someone who came out as a lesbian in the 1980s in San Francisco, can I ask you to talk about some major shifts that you’ve seen in that community in the last 30 years?

CO: The 1980s in San Francisco were an incredible time. The queer community was just coming out of disco, Harvey Milk and the mayor had just been shot, and the Castro was engaged with being completely out and proud. It was also a highly politicized time; there were marches to raise awareness about El Salvador, and when Jesse Jackson came to speak, there was a large march at the Democratic Convention — which of course brought an enormous amount of homophobes out who were all saying “You’re Against Jesus.”

I have black and white photographs of this history because at the time I was a street photographer. I not only photographed the gay community, but also the financial district of San Francisco. Women were, for the first time, really entering the work force and I was looking at the gendered model of dress and what people were wearing; it was the time of the shoulder padded skirt suit and I was really fascinated with those kinds of things.

I couldn’t have asked to move to a better city, but it was hard. We watched the first round of AIDS decimate the community, which resulted in these amazing enlightening moments of feeling an absolutely huge community spirit. In what other city could you – on gay pride at the Folsom Street Fair – walk down the street without your shirt on and have chains wrapped around you? It was so amazing in terms of how you could experiment with your own sexuality in relation to queer identity. But then we watched all the bathhouses get shut down south of Market, and we watched the Castro turn into a place full of mourning.

That really transformed the community in so many ways, and also created a political platform that went beyond the Castro, and those are really important things to remember. Even though Harvey Milk was huge, he didn’t create the same kind of platform of activism as the devastation of AIDS in the community. So a lot of different perspectives were formed in relation to that. It was also a really polarizing time between the gay male community and the lesbian community, which had maintained somewhat of a separatist position from each other up to that point.

Historically, I couldn’t have been at a better place for such an amazing 10-15 years of vast transformation. And since then, and the early 90s I have watched so many of my butch dyke friends become men.

MCM: Do you think that some of these major shifts in the community have affected how your work is viewed?

CO: I would say that my work has shifted because my own personal life has shifted more than my relationship to the community. I am basically married, not legally married because we’re going to see what happens today, and I wasn’t going to go get married and then have it voted against, it’s just too depressing. I know the numbers are really important, but I don’t want to go do something that’s going to be taken away from me, I’ve worked too hard in life to not have that experience, the thought of it makes me kind of sick, so I’m only going to do it if it sticks, if it’s real.

I think that my life is just different now. I have a family; I’m not just a single dyke wondering around with my Australian Shepherd going from relationship to relationship. I’m in my first long term relationship, and I’m monogamous and doing things that I have never really done before. And it’s nice, but it has settled me in way. When you have a full time tenured teaching position at a research university a full time art career on top of that, and you have a family, you don’t have much time for gallivanting around like you once used to. Things just shift and with that, your perceptions shift.

MCM: How do you feel about the fact that some people find your Self Portraits (both Cutting and Nursing) shocking?

CO: That’s a hard question for me to answer. I’ve never thought of them as shocking; they just always were what they were. I was always more shocked by people’s reaction to them. But I think they’re probably hard for some people. A friend was telling me that she took her 20 year old nephew to see the show and he asked “But why, why does a person do that to their body?” and she replied, “That’s exactly the question that this artist is exploring”. And that is the point: why would you go to the extent of creating such a powerful piece in relation to identity, why would a person do that? After explaining that to him, he got it. But I don’t know if that’s true across the board. I don’t know that a homophobe will walk into the Guggenheim and leave no longer a homophobe. But maybe they’ll be thinking more.

MCM: What do you think people’s reactions are to being able to see “Pervert” on your chest while you’re nursing your baby (in Self Portrait Nursing)?

CO: I think a lot of people don’t even notice. I had one really bad comment in Art in America by a critic who put her personal comment in parenthesis. She wrote “the child looks too old to be nursing”. It was taken right after his first birthday and he’s a tall boy, and I just thought, does he look like he’s too old to be nursing because I have “pervert” carved on my chest? What are you really saying here, in parentheses?

I guess a lot of people can’t accept the fact that a self proclaimed pervert can actually be a mother who breast feeds her baby, who has chickens, dogs and a family.

Right, because we’re not supposed to have children, don’t you know that? We’re going to do bad things to our children (laughter), like breast-feed them, and make sure that they’re allowed to wear tutus if they want to wear tutus. Goddammit, don’t you know that he should have a football in his hand!?!

MCM: What have people’s reactions been to seeing the full show at the Guggenheim – seeing all of these images together?

CO: The feedback from most people has been “wow, what a beautiful show”. I haven’t read one scathing review, nor has it been censored. And I thought that there would be a possibility of censorship on this one . It’s always been a very curious thing for me that I’ve never been censored. Chris Ofili can make paintings with dung and they’ll get censored. I can have Ron Athey with pearls coming out of his ass and nobody blinks.

MCM: Why do you think that is?

CO: I think it’s because the viewer is seduced in a certain way. And they also are so referenced (art) historically, that you end up understanding what you are looking at because you know that you’ve been seeing this style of representation since the 16th Century.

None of the work is over the top. Some people might think that carving pervert on your chest is over the top, but it doesn’t push other kinds of buttons. Maybe if I had a nun carving pervert on my chest, that would be the thing: “oh my god, she has a nun…”.

MCM: It’s so great that people can recognize so many aspects of your work.

CO: I think it’s really an interesting territory to belong to. I’m not interested in being sensational, I never have been. Pervert is my hardest piece and it was hard for me as well. I was in a place of incredible sadness in relation to the attempts at trying to normalize the gay and lesbian community that ended up further alienating the leather community. It was shocking to me when that was happening. We’re normal, and for other gays and lesbians to adopt the word normal created a further schism of abnormality.

MCM: I read an interview that you did where you said that SM was often framed in the language of the abnormal and doing that stripped it of its humanity. You’ve also said that your goal is not to normalize. Can you talk a bit about that middle ground, about the reality of trying to live outside of that dichotomy of the abnormal and normal?

CO: It’s a dichotomy of language that I wish that didn’t exist, but how does one exist between those constructed lines of language? It becomes a polarity; yes it’s completely normal to decorate a Christmas tree and to make sure your kid has Easter egg hunts and all of that within in the idea of family, but still, people don’t believe in the ability of homosexuals to raise healthy families, and that puts me in the position of being abnormal.

And I realize that I’m a really low percentile person these days. Meaning that, I’m part of 4% (or 8%) of the population who are homosexuals in America. I’ve succeeded in the art world, where 1% gets to do that with a Masters Degree. I don’t believe in God and there are only 4% of people who actually don’t believe in God, which is so amazing to me. All of these things could make me abnormal, but I just refuse to think that there is anything abnormal about me.

When one is a compassionate human being and is really, truly, interested in ideas of humanity through a true democracy, then there is nothing abnormal about them. But with my positioning, I am often pushed over that line. I don’t want to be perceived as a person who accepts the notion of family values just because I have a family now. Language is a very complicated thing, and that’s one of the reasons why I like making photographs; it’s another way to engage with the idea of language and history.

MCM: There is frequent reference to the importance of honesty in relation to humanity, and to trying to have conversations about how people are living, can you talk about the importance of that. Back to your Portraits again; you constructed your subjects in very royal positions…

CO: Yeah, with integrity. It’s not about body parts. The predominant photography that was being done of the SM community during that period was always about the fractioning of the body, not the whole of the person in relationship to the body.

I really believe in human integrity. I felt that we were more than a sum of our body parts, and that we were worth more than that on a visual level, and I wanted to create a history of my friends. Not only for myself, but because I was a practicing artist, I was hoping that people would show it. I had no idea that it would launch me into a big career. When I was doing it, I thought, oh fuck, I’m never going to get tenure. Nobody is ever going to hire me, this is it, I’m really shoveling a big pile of dirt over me now. And it was amazing how it worked completely opposite. I always tell my students that whatever they’re scared of, or whatever preconceived notions they have in relation to their careers, is everything that they should put aside. In relation to art, you have to make what you’re thinking in your head, no matter what you think of the consequences will be.

And that’s basically what I did with my friends. Instead of making it all about their body parts, or play parties, or our houses where we all had loft beds with whips hanging down, I wanted to throw them on bright colored backgrounds.

I’m really interested in portraiture. I’ve been having a great time photographing these high school football kids. I started this project last year and I probably have one more year to go on it. I’m traveling around the country just looking at these young men. I’m not doing it to make fun of masculinity, but to look at everything that gets loaded on these young kids. A lot of them end up going off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and what we load on to young men is fascinating to me, in terms of identity. You look at some of them and they don’t even fit their uniforms and you know that some of them just don’t want to perform that, while others are completely into what that identity encompasses.

I decided recently that the reason I like to make portraits so much, is – as Julie (my partner) often reminds me – I’m always staring at somebody in public and I realized that my photographs allow me to stare for a really long time without being told “you’re staring!”

MCM: So, why football?

CO: Football is amazing to me, and the high school football field is everywhere you go in this country.

And again, in terms of specificity of identity, I can regionally map out different ideas of identity and of community through high school football, and through the American landscape.

When I’m in South Texas, it’s very specific as compared to Alaska, or Ohio, or here in the predominantly African American high school in my neighborhood. It gives me a snapshot of a male component of youth culture at a given time in history. And I just find it really interesting. I grew up in Ohio where it was football and God, and I was the tomboy who wanted to play with the boys all the time. It’s always been a part of my culture to a certain extent, even though I’m not one of those people who watches football on the weekends. That would just not…well, Julie would kick me out of the house (laughter).

But I think that the temporary moments that happen in these spaces are fascinating. Like with ice fishing, with surfers or on a football field, where a temporary community is created and histories are built out of the creation of those identities.

MCM: When you provide a person, or a community with a reflection of themselves, not only are you documenting them, but you can also be providing them with a history. Do you see your work in that way?

CO: It’s complicated. At the time that I was doing all the portraits of my friends and of the gay and lesbian community, a lot of them didn’t like them. A lot of them found it too intense to live with, that’s what they would say, “It’s really intense Cathy, its such an intense photograph”. I’m really interested in this honest thing that comes out of images, and I can’t really tell you what that means specifically, but there is something that I look for that I just keep finding, and I think a lot of people have a hard time with what they end up seeing.

My nephew was in the high school football series and he loved it – all of them thought that it was incredible – and there was such vulnerability that came through. And in my work, I’m always so interested in what is iconic, that I create another sense of iconic; a surfer portrait is usually of a gorgeous guy, with the hair, who is really athletic on the waves, but what do you get when you have a regular surfer just standing before you? In a way, it’s trying to create more of a realistic history in my mind of how images begin to work.

MCM: Can you tell me a bit about what you’re working on now, I heard recently about a series called “Girlfriends”.

CO: Girlfriends is a fun body of work; it’s a bit of a play on a title of another body of work by the artist Richard Prince who did a series called Girlfriends, but they were all biker chicks, and my girlfriends are all butch dykes. They’re both famous and not famous and include: JD Sampson, KD Lang, Kate from the L-word, I think Sam Ronson is going to pose for me, and then a lot of my friends like Pig Pen and Jenny Shimizu (who we call Chicken). So to take all of these butch dykes and then to title it Girlfriends, raises all of these questions – what is a butch dyke? Is a butch dyke really a girlfriend or a boyfriend? It’s playing with a lot of things and I’m also just enjoying making portraits again.

MCM: That’s another really timely series; in terms of looking at a community and recording a community that some would argue is disappearing…butches seem to be a rare breed these days.

CO: Yeah…and I’m also one of those butch on butch lovers.

MCM: You are?

CO: Yeah. I’m a butch on butch

MCM: Fascinating. You’re also a rare breed.

CO: Again, a low percentile.

MCM: Is this project coming out of that desire?

CO: I’ve always dated butches but also have been butch identified. I just wanted to make this, it’s new so I don’t know how to exactly talk about it yet. They’re not even hanging in the studio I’ve just been shooting; I haven’t even lived with them yet.

MCM: So is that one of several projects you’re working on now?

CO: Yeah, Girlfriends and the high school football series. Then I’m going to go to Italy and photograph in Venice for a month and do a body of work based on Cannelleto Paintings. I might be doing this weird commission for Hanjin Shipping Lines where I get put on a container ship in Korea and ride it all the way to LA (for 11 days) and photograph well, whatever I photograph. There’s always stuff.

M-C MacPhee is a Concordia University graduate who made the obvious transition from women’s studies to carpentry. When she’s not learning about sustainable building, she is a freelance researcher and communications coordinator for various NGOs and consulting groups. M-C is the programmer for Dykes on Mykes Radio in Montreal and is an East Coaster who now floats between Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Catherine Opie lives and works in Los Angeles. She was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1961. She received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1985, and an MFA from CalArts in 1988. In 2000, Opie was appointed Professor of Fine Art at Yale University, and in 2001 she accepted the position of Professor of Photography at UCLA.

Catherine Opie’s photographs include series of portraits and American urban landscapes, ranging in format from large-scale color works to smaller black and white silver gelatin prints. Moving from the territory of the body to the framework of the city, Opie’s various photographic series are linked together by a conceptual framework of cultural portraiture.

Catherine Opie has exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally. A mid-career survey of her work, entitled, “Catherine Opie: American Photographer,” is on view through January 7, 2009 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Recent solo exhibitions have been organized by the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, CT, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, The Saint Louis Art Museum, the Photographers’ Gallery in London, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Opie has also exhibited at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, SITE Santa Fe, the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva, Switzerland and the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by jackie (not verified) on Sun, 09/05/2010 – 19:16.

Great interview. I’m wondering how to approach my first year college students with Cathy’s work and this interview helped. What I’ve always found profound about her portraits is the apparent trusting relationship between sitter and artist. As the viewer, I get to look through the artist’s eyes and experience that trust. It’s a profound connection.