Pin It
Catherine Opie, Cathy, London (2017)
Catherine Opie, Cathy, London (2017), pigment print, 83.8 x 63.5 cm. 33x25in.© Catherine Opie. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Catherine Opie: ‘I believe in dignity not fantasy’

We speak to the revered photographer about Walls, Windows and Blood, her upcoming exhibition that urges us to dissect the hypocrisy of power

“I’m not a person who believes in burning down institutions, but I am a person who believes in critiquing them and creating dialogue and discussion around issues in life,” says Catherine Opie. We are discussing her upcoming exhibition Walls, Windows, and Blood – a study of the Vatican as seen through its architecture and artworks – yet this sentiment could be applied to every single one of the acclaimed Ohio-born photographer’s images.

Since she picked up a Kodak Instamatic at the age of nine – inspired by Lewis Hine’s turn-of-the-century poignant documentary photography of child labourers – Opie’s entire practice has seemed to be galvanised by a desire to elevate our innate humanity. Always challenging the prevailing ideas around women’s bodies, othered communities, family, queerness, gender, and masculinity, her work is as provocative as it is abundantly compassionate, never eschewing an opportunity to create meaningful conversation around the things she holds dear. Put simply, Catherine Opie makes the world better.

From her first show, Being and Having [1991], which immortalised faces from the Los Angeles butch scene, the self-described “badass butch” has amplified the presence of othered groups. One of her most enduring images, “Self-Portrait/Cutting” [1993], continues to illicit shock for its depiction of two girl stick figures holding hands outside their home – a childlike drawing of a happy domestic scene carved into the artist’s own back. Made at a time when blood, in the context of queerness and in the wake of the AIDs epidemic, was even more potent and frightening, the image still continues to provoke vital dialogues around ideas such as family values, queerness, dyke culture, and the leather community.

Despite being known predominantly as an artist whose work is steeped in American life and identity, the photographer’s upcoming exhibition turns its gaze toward Europe and the grandeur of the Catholic church’s locus sanctus. Walls, Windows and Blood contemplates the architectural details of the Vatican and the artworks displayed within. It’s a study of power, propaganda, and perception in which Opie invites us to reconsider three elements that explicate the Catholic church’s monumental stature – the walls that not only prop up the institution but delineate its parameters, keeping people in and, of course, keeping others out; the windows, which offer the illusion of transparency – of seeing in and out – yet always within the pre-ordained limits of a window frame; and the blood – which has throughout history flowed in the name of the Catholic church, and which is depicted across the many artworks adorning the Vatican’s walls.

“I think that belief systems should be critiqued in terms of hypocrisy, just as power should be critiqued,” Opie explains. “I’m not trying to take down the Vatican in any kind of way, or to shape, form or disavow people’s beliefs through making this body of work. But I am questioning what it means for an institution to protect those who are abusing people.” Reflecting on the Pope’s response when a mass grave of Indigenous children killed while under the care of the Catholic church was discovered in Canada in 2021, she continues, “The photograph of no apology, where the Pope is in the window and you can see the columns and the structure of that kind of supposed power. The fact he didn’t apologise for those first bodies of children being found… what does that really say about what they’re trying to teach every day in church?”

Visit the gallery above for a closer look at Walls, Windows and Blood along with a selection of her previous works. Below, we talk with Catherine Opie about her upcoming exhibition in Naples, her philosophy on portraiture, how queer culture has changed since she began taking pictures, and her essential belief in dignity. 

While it’s not the first time that you’ve turned your lens towards the built environment, you’re predominantly known for portraiture and for telling inherently American stories. I’m interested in what drew you to this particular architectural project about the Vatican?

Catherine Opie: One of the things in the last five years I’ve been doing with those bodies of work is looking at systematic relationships of place, power and late-stage capitalism. So when I was offered a chance to go to the American Academy and do a residency, I knew that I wanted to play with the idea of the city within the city.

So, I started out knowing that the Vatican was going to be my site but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. And then it became very clear that I could distil my own kind of Holy Trinity through these three components of walls, windows and blood and begin to, in a certain way, create potentially a larger discourse with the simplicity of these moments within the architecture.

What’s contained within the art of the Vatican is a horrific story of humanity in relationship to blood. And I had never been to Rome, nor had I ever gone to the Vatican before starting this body of work. And so it was through that exploration that I was able to distil it down to those components for myself that I felt would be really universal. Though I’m known so much as an American photographer dealing with American identity, this is the first time I feel that, in Europe, I was able to make a body of work that also deals with a universal relationship of identity, in terms of Catholicism and what that is.

Thinking about the images in the Blood section of the exhibition, in what ways do the various meanings of the paintings you photographed change once they are reconfigured and placed in a grid alongside other photographed fragments of paintings?

Catherine Opie: When go through the Vatican, you always have to go through the Vatican Museum, where they usher you through the building in a very prescriptive way to tell these stories. You go through the maps, you go through the tapestry room, you go through the different various collections. But what is that story really doing?

One of the things that the Catholic church figured out early on is the power of art to be able to create – in the same way as a documentary photographer – the sense of bearing witness to the times. But the story that they’re representing which – in terms of my belief system – there’s a great amount of fiction within. To a certain extent, [the grid allows us to] come to these images differently, they are no longer about the larger story that was told, and which these artists were hired to tell. Because the other thing is, the Catholic church has an enormous amount of money and so they were able to create a history – one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time.

By making a grid, you’re dealing with issues of modernism and structure within itself as it’s reorganised. And through that reorganisation – in the details of it – do we realise the different kinds of atrocities that are being represented in relationship to humanity? Isn’t that hypocrisy as well, in terms of the foundational ideas of what religion is supposed to do for humanity? So it’s a way to critique it, but also a way to bear witness.

By amplifying those small details of larger portraits I feel that you really restore humanity to the anonymous figures in those paintings, by making us really look at them in a different, new way.

Catherine Opie: Thank you for that. I mean, I would hope that at least we question what representation does. They’re putting warning signs before somebody goes into a gallery that has my self-portrait with cutting on my back, but there are no warning labels to the kind of traumatic representation of blood that is about killing. Mine was just a story of two stick figure girls on my back and, I know it might trigger people, but there’s something sweet about the idea of what blood meant in relationship to queerness and AIDS and the time it was made, which is really different seeing a sword going into a child’s head depicted in a tapestry.

What is it about the Vatican that feels like such a charged space for you personally? What does it represent to you?

Catherine Opie: The American Cardinals are hugely ruthless and really conservative. They’re probably the most conservative Cardinals and, ideologically, I think America is quite behind other places to a certain extent. Even though we talk about democracy and freedom and that we’re the greatest, we’re number one, we’re not, you know, nobody is number one. We all need to figure out how we can break down these borders, bring the walls down, and actually talk about the exchange of humanity versus the isolation, which we see so much happening in all political arenas. The church is not apolitical. It is a political body that denies me rights as a queer person.

I’ve heard you describe portraiture as ‘a shared moment in time’. I just wondered if you could elaborate on that idea?

Catherine Opie: I’ve always had a hard time around with the idea that people assume that somehow you can capture the soul of a person in a portrait. I just don’t believe there’s any capturing of any soul. If I take your portrait, I’m going to sit with you, I’m going to talk with you, we’re going to share a quiet moment. And that is the moment I’m getting. Is it representational of you? Certainly. But it’s not the sum of you.

Many of the portraits I encounter of women, they’re presented as prone and passive, like sweeties offered up for our pleasure. But, in the words of my editor, ‘the women in Catherine’s images are fucking coming for you’.

Catherine Opie: [My subjects] all have a powerful position, even when they’re looking away. We all know how easily photography objectifies, so how do we not do that? Even if a person isn’t looking directly at you – because I’ll play with where people are looking all the time with a new portrait – they’re still contained within their own self in their own body. And they might not be, like, commercially beautiful, but they have everything there to be offered up. My early portraits of my queer friends in the leather community were my royal family, it was like bringing that kind of dignity. Dignity is very important to me.

I think photography is a really complicated thing because so much of photography is influenced by advertising. I’ve noticed with my students that they have a very specific idea of what photography is, but I’m like, ‘Well, why? Why does she have to look like that?’ And then they can’t answer. And I’m like, ‘What else would you want to do with this person?’ It’s about embodiment. I believe in embodiment and I believe in dignity. Other people want to create fantasies and I’m not that interested in creating a fantasy.

“I believe in embodiment and I believe in dignity. Other people want to create fantasies and I’m not that interested in creating a fantasy” – Catherine Opie

I heard you say in an interview that you really wish you’d have photographed Joan Didion?

Catherine Opie: I tried for ten years. But Joan is gone. That’ll never happen.

If you had taken her portrait, do you have a sense of how you would have wanted to do it? 

Catherine Opie: It would have been on a black background, or in her home with her belongings. And I would have just been very aware of her hands. They would have been crossed, very much in the foreground.

Why is it that you think gay men take up so much space in the queer discourse?

Catherine Opie: My friend, it’s called patriarchy. Men were able to gain financial independence much earlier than women were. I mean, my ability for my income – being me and who I am – was not a possibility even 40 years ago.

Since you began taking pictures, what changes have you witnessed in queer culture?

Catherine Opie: Queer culture is now part of popular culture. And it wasn’t at the time I was making it. But I always believe that, in order to create the visibility, [we need to] create representation. Without representation, you don’t have visibility, and it’s really great to see everybody shifting that as well. It’s important. So, if I was able to be one of the people who’s shifted that somehow, then that’s pretty great.

Catherine Opie’s Walls, Windows and Blood is running at the Thomas Dane Gallery in Naples from September 19 until November 18, 2023.

Join Dazed Club and be part of our world! You get exclusive access to events, parties, festivals and our editors, as well as a free subscription to Dazed for a year. Join for £5/month today.