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Jesse (1995)Courtesy of Phaidon

How Catherine Opie transformed the image of contemporary America

The subversive American photographer discusses her 40-year career capturing our shared humanity in the U.S’s most marginalised communities and the purpose of political fine art today

At 60 years old, Catherine Opie speaks with grace and strength that comes from a lifetime of forging her own path through art and connecting with people from all walks of life, whether standing behind the camera and in front of the classroom. As one of the leading photographers of her generation, Opie has chronicled the people, places, and politics of a United States deeply grounded in the intersection between home and identity, creating an intimate portrait of contemporary American life.

In the retrospective monograph, Catherine Opie (Phaidon), the artist brings together over 200 images made over the past 40 years from a wide array of series that reveal the innate humanity we all share. Whether photographing lesbians or high school football players across the US, surfers in California, or ice fishers in Minnesota, Opie is attuned to the subtle frequencies of the individual and the communities they populate.

Throughout her life, photography has served as a bridge, helping Opie to navigate her way through different groups. It is a practice she picked up in her youth, one born out of a very real need to reach across the divide. At the age of 13, Opie moved from Ohio to California, and entered high school as the “new girl”, fairly shy and unsure how to connect with kids who grew up together. “I wasn’t great at figuring out how to make friends,” Opie tells Dazed.

Then inspiration struck. Opie, who had been experimenting in photography since age nine, built a darkroom and began photographing her friends in school plays. “I would go home, print the photographs at night, and then give them prints,” Opie recalls of her formative experience forging bonds with new groups. Things fell into place as Opie found her role: the engaged observer who could move seamlessly between different groups. Wherever the path may take her, Opie can embed herself within the fabric of a community without disrupting it.

After moving to San Francisco in the 1980s to study photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, Opie put this skill set to work. “I would go to Red Doors Lady Coffee Shop, meet people, and ask them to sit for a portrait,” she says. “That extended my community. Photography has always given me the ability to reach out of my discomfort and shyness, which I no longer have after teaching all these years. But I had that in me for a long time, even in grad school. I wasn’t the talkative one. I was the one who hung back and listened.”

She was trained in the boy’s club mentality that idealised the aesthetics of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, but Opie truly came into her own when she began pursuing her MFA at CalArts. Caught between the modern tradition of street photography and the emerging postmodern Pictures Generation that used imagery to deconstruct itself, Opie took on the notion of place to explore the ways in which our environment shapes our identity.

“I think about landscape as ever shifting its own vulnerability – like the human body” – Catherine Opie

For Master Plan (1988), her thesis project, Opie explored the impact of suburban real estate developments in southern California. “I remember different faculty members who identified as queer saying, ‘Cathy we don’t understand why you aren’t making queer work’,” Opie says. “But I think that master planned communities are making queer work. We have to look at the whole of society to understand our identities.”

Coming of age between the advent of two communities of photography practice, Opie was anything but a careerist seeking validation from the establishment. “I wasn’t thinking about the art world in the 90s,” she says. “We thought we were photographers, and there was still a divide between the two. We certainly smashed that and I got to figure out my own position within my medium and what I wanted to talk about while making images.”

With everyone carrying the camera and using it to mediate the lived experience, Opie considers the way in which place becomes another product of consumption to be used and discarded at will. “In the same way that I want people to sit with my portraits and be with people, I’m also asking the same of landscape,” she says.

As Catherine Opie reveals, the photographer has been engaging in dialogues throughout her career that are only now reaching the mainstream. In part it is due to shifting trends in the art world, with documentary photography and figurative painting going “out of fashion” until recent years – a testament to institutional politics. 

“There was a moment when fine art photography stopped its necessarily appointed political messaging of documentary photography, and I’m happy that people are back out bearing witness and actually looking“ – Catherine Opie

“There was a moment when fine art photography stopped its necessarily appointed political messaging of documentary photography, and I’m happy that people are back out bearing witness and actually looking. Photography is about representation again, and people want to be part of the dialogue about their own communities and be able to create representations, because we’ve been through a political shit show. I don’t usually use words like that, but it’s true,” Opie says.

“As artists we need to be voicing our opinions and dialogue with coming to equality and equity. Read the histories, really dig deep, and read fiction that incorporates all these ideas and adds to your ability to traverse the world and see different opinions. Evaluate and analyse different positions – and don’t lose your curiosity. Put yourself forward in terms of your own beliefs. We need all voices to be front and centre. I’m so impressed by young activists, and I’m grateful for them.”

Catherine Opie is out with Phaidon now