Left: Catherine Opie, Joanne, Betsy & Olivia, Bayside, New York, 1998, chromogenic print, 40 x 50“. Right: Catherine Opie, Untitled #1 (Icehouses), 2001, chromogenic print, 50 x 40”.


Catherine Opie first came to prominence with her “Portraits,” 1993–97, a series of photographs documenting members of queer communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Since then, Opie has worked with a wide range of subjects, photographing everything from Los Angeles freeways to communities of surfers in Malibu and ice fishers in Minneapolis. Her midcareer survey, “Catherine Opie: American Photographer,” is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York September 26, 2008–January 7, 2009.

I MOVED FROM Virginia to San Francisco in 1982, where I came out as a lesbian. I can’t imagine a better time and place to have done so. It was incredible, too, because that was pre-AIDS, and then I watched AIDS happen and became part of ACT-UP and Queer Nation. During our time at CalArts, Richard Hawkins gave me a book on Hans Holbein, and when I began my series “Portraits,” I decided that it was important for me to look at people in the queer community not as segmented bodies but as whole individuals. Holbein brought an enormous amount of dignity to his work (along with rich color and saturation). There was an equality to his paintings—they weren’t demigod portraits, they were just incredibly detailed and real. When I saw that, I realized that I wanted to mirror his work with members of my own community. It seemed like a good conversation to have, especially in relationship to the s/m community, which was thought of—and still is thought of, to an extent—as predatory or perverted. S/m was often framed in the language of the abnormal, which stripped it of its humanity. I wanted people to have a humble moment with my friends.

I’m a multidimensional person—I don’t have a singular identity. I’m not just Cathy Opie the leather-dyke artist. I’m Cathy Opie the person who’s interested in cities, architecture, landscape, my family. People say, “Your work is so diverse,” but it’s actually not that diverse when you take a broad look or when you walk through this installation at the Guggenheim. There’s a strong aesthetic identity and concern with formalism that travels through the different bodies of work. I’m working with diverging layers of what it means to be human in these different contexts. It’s just as interesting for me to look at mini-malls as it is for me to make portraits of my friends—I mean, I like to look at my friends more because they make me cry and they’re sweet and they’re of my memories, but the mini-mall functions in the same way. So do the domestic portraits.

The most recent work in this exhibition is “In and Around Home” [2004–2005]. It’s the most narrative work—there is a beginning and an end—and I think of it as a sort of culmination of many of the projects outlined on the different floors at the Guggenheim. It evokes street photography; it’s about my family, a queer lesbian family in South Central Los Angeles; it’s about the news and mediation of the news in our own home and how that affects us. How do we find truth in these images? That’s why I wanted to use Polaroid when taking photos of images on the television—Polaroid is the unmanipulated image in our day. Now it is the gone image; it’s become extinct.

The Guggenheim exhibition ends with “In and Around Home,” but since then I’ve been working on two other series, “High School Football” and “Alaska.” I’m also having fun with a new body of work called “Girlfriends,” which is something of a play on Richard Prince’s biker girlfriends, except that mine are all butch dykes. It’s an inquiry into my own desire. A lot of them are famous: K. D. Lang; Kate Moennig from The L Word; Sam Ronson [Lindsay Lohan’s girlfriend]; Idexa, who was a subject of my “Portraits”—so even my friends who have become iconic through my own photographs. I shot J. D. Samson this past weekend, another important butch icon. At first my partner, Julie, was like, “Should I be offended by this?” And I was like, “No, honey! You’re my lover, it’s different. This is ‘girlfriends’—it’s the potential of desire.”

— As told to David Velasco