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Catherine Opie, “Self-portrait/Cutting” (1993)
Catherine Opie, “Self-portrait/Cutting” (1993)Regen Projects

Catherine Opie on why her work is about more than just her queer identity

The photographer speaks intimately about her seminal career – from her early portraits to the series that went against everyone’s expectations of her

At a recent talk at London’s Barbican, Jonathan D. Katz – the famous queer academic who founded activist group Queer Nation – asked photographer Catherine Opie: How do you identify? 

“I’m a badass butch,” she responded, to cheers from the audience. “And definitely a dyke.” 

Katz was in conversation with Opie to mark the opening of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican’s new show – which asks, what is a man anyway? – and features the work of Opie alongside photos by Peter Hujar, Sunil Gupta, Ana Mendieta, Hal Fischer, and Collier Schorr

The talk isn’t the first time Katz and Opie have come together to discuss queer image-making; Katz has curated several key exhibitions on LGBTQ+ art, including Hide and Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in 2010, which was the first exhibition dedicated to queer arts held at a major Museum at the in the USA and also included Opie’s work. 

Opie, meanwhile, is known best for her portraits of lesbian communities – images that have sometimes seen her turn the camera onto herself. Masculinities includes some of these portraits, in the form of the early series “Being and Having”, her famously up close and personal portraits of LA butches. But while she has become synonymous with documenting dyke culture, her work is far-reaching; Masculinities also includes, for example, images from series of portraits and landscapes of American high school footballers and their fields. 

Below are five takeaways from the talk, offering the context into Opie’s work through time.

“You make the work that you want to see and that you hope becomes part of history” – Catherine Opie


“In my early portraits, I was looking to create a visual discourse with my own community. I was driven by the fact that I didn't really see any work like it out there. You make the work that you want to see and that you hope becomes part of history. 

At the time that I was making these portraits, we were in a crisis in terms of visual culture, because of Jesse Helms and the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d had literally all of our arts funding taken away and conservative senators like Helms were actually holding up Robert Mapplethorpe photographs in court arguing why this type of art shouldn't be funded. On top of that, you had Reagan as President, completely ignoring the Aids epidemic. And so there was an enormous amount of activism that was dreadful to have to do, but what it did to coalesce the queer communities throughout the United States was really important. 

In ‘Being and Having’, I was trying to reframe the idea of portraiture. They're awkward portraits. That bright yellow background was a weird choice of colour for skin tone, where it wouldn't match but it allowed it to pop. Because if you're going to use colour, you might as well really try to use colour. That awkwardness of how the head was squished in was all about identity and the detail of how people were trimming and putting on their various moustaches with their various nicknames like Jake.

One of the first places the pictures showed was the museum in Santa Barbara. Someone came up to me afterwards and was like, ‘I think I know some of these guys’. I was like, ‘you know, they're all lesbians with fake moustaches, right?’ It shows you how quickly people read an image – just the confidence, just the fact that the gaze is coming is out at you, confronts you – to people that automatically becomes masculine.”


“‘Self Portrait / Pervert’ (1994) was a self-portrait I made that had more to do with my own queer community than it did in terms of defiance against the heterosexual community. The March on Washington had just happened, and the push for gay marriage was happening, and all of a sudden, the leather community was Othered in a really big way by queer communities. We weren't ‘normal’. We didn't have family values.

I was shocked after that march that we had found another dividing point after we had come together in relation to the Aids crisis. There was a real division within LGBTQ+ communities. For me, carving ‘Pervert’ on my chest was proudly going back to my leather community in San Francisco, especially as the carving was done by Raelyn Gallina, who was a really well-known body modifier at that point.

The first place that image was ever exhibited was the Whitney Museum of American Art for the Whitney Biennial. It had never been seen before. And quite honestly, that scared the shit out of me. It was really interesting how people approached me and talked to me differently after seeing it. I had people like interviewing me going, ‘Oh, you're actually really nice. I was super scared of you!’”


“I have said in multiple interviews that I'm not a singular identity. You know, I have a brain that functions and I think about other things besides my queer identity. That’s why I moved from the portraits to the photos of freeways. That's literally what happened chronologically. I actually heard at my opening, ‘these aren't Catherine Opie photographs!’ 

It was pretty easy for me because I knew that if I didn't switch it at that point, I was only going to be thought of as the dyke leather photographer. And even though I'm perfectly happy to have that identity, again it's not a singular identity that I was looking for. 

But there is a thread through the bodies of work. It’s the relationship with the specificity of identity. It has to do with notions of community and how they're built. And it's also always trying to get to a place of quality, in terms of the democracy of photography. In the same way that the architecture of piercings and tattoos are about my friends’ bodies in relation to identity, the freeways are really a way to enter a Los Angeles landscape and understand that specificity of identity as well.”


“I started shooting footballers because we were visiting my wife’s family for ten days, and I needed something to keep me busy – I often come upon projects by accident like that. Still, it was sometimes hard to negotiate shooting footballers – I started going to Ohio, Texas, Alaska, Hawaii, to these high schools, and it's like, you opened up my Wikipedia page and the first thing you saw was ‘pervert’! So I actually had a little Wiki war. I was trying to change my own Wikipedia.

Many of the boys in the photos were doing it because their coaches told them to. I wrote to their coaches, told them about my project, that I am an exhibiting artist, that these will go into exhibitions… I described the body of work and why it was important for me to make the body of work. And then, I guess because I am a professor at UCLA, some of them said yes, other times I just showed up.”


“I really studied photography. I mean, I picked up a camera when I was nine. I built my own darkroom by the time I was 14. I got my bachelors and my masters at art schools, I had really good teachers. I worked really, really hard. And so I understood seduction, and the formal qualities of how you construct a photograph, or lock a viewer in. Then you play with that in relation to different bodies of work, and different moments in which you're creating conversations and dialogues with both the history of art and also specifically, a history of photography. It's always kind of skimming those different surfaces. 

I did an interview the other day with Charlotte Cotton and she was like, ‘Okay, who's at the table with you?’ And I'm like, you know, there's a lot of people at the table with me I mean, you can't look at 1999 and In and Around Home without thinking about the history of Robert Frank, Walker Evans...  so there are always those dialogues that are happening when I'm making a body of work.

For example, I shot Ice Houses and I wanted them to be vertical versus horizontal because most people think of landscape in terms of horizontal. The vertical brings back in the idea of portraiture, it's absent of people. It’s a temporary community that exists within the landscape. But because the horizon line is kept utterly in the middle, it becomes a fractured panorama. So there are all these things that happen formally for me. In Ice Houses, there’s a blizzard, so there's this disappearance that happens. It’s like Robert Ryman… I'm thinking about the white on white. I'm automatically thinking about painting to a certain extent. My uncle's a painter, my aunt's a sculptor. I grew up around a lot of original paintings. I'm married to an abstract painter. I really love it. But I really love that photography creates a history that painting can't.

I often am asked in interviews are like, ‘do you feel like there are so many images in the world, Cathy?’ Like, ‘what are we gonna do with all these images?’ And I’m always like, ‘wow, you know, there’s a lot of everything in the world, right, but we still have to parse our way through it and figure out what an image does’. So with that, it’s about going back to a very formal moment of portraiture, a nod to Dutch painting and so forth. And lighting. The biggest question that I was asking about photography at that point was, ‘how can I hold somebody longer than two seconds?’”