a queer story told in pictures

When Catherine Opie was nine, she was given a Kodak Instamatic camera. His impact on her life was transformative. From the suburbs of Sandusky, Ohio, it reframed her view of the world, and when she moved to California as a teenager in 1975, her photography merged with the brutalist architecture of America’s second-largest urban metropolis.

Her photographic work ranges from capturing the queer communities of Los Angeles and San Francisco into collections To be and to Have (1991) and portraits (1993-1997), entered the world of California surf culture surfer (2003). In 2001, Opie photographed Elizabeth Taylor’s home for 700 Nimes Road. another collection, American citiesstarted in 1997 is ongoing.

“When I got the camera I kind of made a decision to be a documentary photographer and… I really thought in my little nine-year-old head that somehow maybe through photography I could do something like that [American war photographer] Lewis Hine did, maybe I could make a difference,” says Opie. Hine primarily photographed life in the steel manufacturing districts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century, which led to changes in America’s child labor laws.

“Did I think I could change the law when I was nine?” Opie asks now. “No, probably not, but I knew I grew up with it Life And The look And National Geographic provided me with information about the world that words could not. I remember spending hours poring over images.”

Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Editing, 1993.

Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Editing, 1993.Credit:© Catherine Opie, courtesy of Regen Projects and Lehmann Maupin

Five decades later, she’s still poring over images for hours, this time for a new exhibition of her work, Catherine Opie: Binding Bondsis now on view at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition focuses on how Opie’s work has challenged our notions of personal and political belonging.

The exhibition, curated by Brooke Babington, includes more than 50 works from Opie’s career. “Since the 1990s, Catherine Opie’s photographs have challenged and illuminated our understanding of notions of personal and political belonging,” says Babington. For Opie, she says, they’re places of community connection — “at the club, after the break, at the demonstration,” where “identities are formed and relationships forged.”

“Ideas of membership and connection remain central to Opie’s recent work, which considers the broad, collective goals of equality and sustainability in the face of unfolding global crises.”

The exhibition lasted a long time; the first talks between Opie and Heide took place before the pandemic. “I really thought, well, now this show isn’t going to happen. But they worked really hard and were really committed to bringing my work back to Australia, so I was really excited about that,” says Opie.

The work translates, she says, although “I was born in America and I’m talking about America. I think that [is] the global nature of ideas, how every country explores ideas around democracy, because through extreme capitalism we have lost the ability to think about what a good society is and how a fair and just society is actually built.

“Every single country and every democracy struggles with these problems,” says Opie. “And every single place is struggling with homophobia, and every single place is actually dealing with the same issues, whether in their own backyard or not.”

One of the most important aspects of Opie’s work is her predominant use of traditional cameras and photographic film. Opie has skin in it; She taught herself to develop film in a backyard darkroom she built when she was 14. “Process shouldn’t be wiped out by technology,” she says.

Catherine Opie, Melissa & Lake, Durham, NC, 1998.

Catherine Opie, Melissa & Lake, Durham, NC, 1998.Credit:© Catherine Opie, courtesy of Regen Projects and Lehmann Maupin

It may be charmingly anachronistic, but it also means Opie maintains a connection to traditional photography reminiscent of the work of filmmakers like JJ Abrams, Christopher Nolan, Sofia Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino, who continued to champion theatrical use of an era of digital filmmaking.

For Opie and I to be talking a week after records first outsold CDs in the US feels kind of ominous. “I just had dinner [British/German visual artist] Tacita Dean and Tacita said something really important [photographic film] is a medium and technology is not a medium,” says Opie. “Why do things have to become obsolete because something was invented? Will AI make authors obsolete? Are you kidding me? This is really bad writing.”

Catherine Opie, Oliver in a Tutu, 2004 (detail).

Catherine Opie, Oliver in a Tutu, 2004 (detail).Credit:© Catherine Opie, courtesy of Regen Projects and Lehmann Maupin

Perhaps for the same reasons, Opie added her voice to the exhibition’s curation, using a miniature replica of the Heide room, complete with tiny reproductions of her work. It doesn’t get any more analog. The model allowed Opie to rearrange the works until she was happy with the way they interacted.

“[The curator and I] had a conversation, it was a really good conversation and I stayed true to the things they wanted to see, but I created a very different experience than what they suggested,” says Opie. “I never think about what a space does, how it can do justice to the work too.

“It’s all about space, and a photograph is also a space in itself, and that’s where art comes up against. The worst exhibitions are always those that don’t appreciate the form and form in which they are installed. These two things go hand in hand. I’m pretty much an architecture geek and I’ve used a lot of ideas related to architecture in my work.”

The miniature replica that Catherine Opie worked on remotely.

The miniature replica that Catherine Opie worked on remotely.Credit:Michael Idato

Creating Heide’s 3D model, as opposed to, say, editing a digital model on her computer, allows her greater freedom in rearranging, says Opie. “It’s so much easier to move things around with small images than trying to click things in,” she says. “I really struggle with the digital space. Most of the time I don’t even know how to open an email,” she adds, laughing.

“This digital space is so intense in a way that I’m really happy to use tape and small images and figure out the workflow [physically] because flow is everything and I can’t do it on a computer screen,” says Opie. “I need the physicality of it. I have to think about walking through that door, walking around and looking at it.”

In many ways, much of Opie’s work is interconnected. Two of her most important early works are the collections To be and to Have (1991) and portraits (1993-1997), covered queer communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

They are relevant today because they emerged at a time when the gay and trans community was shut out of the mainstream. Along with those of German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans and American photographer Jack Pierson, Opie’s works have become important historical documents.

Untitled #4 (Political Collages), 2019 (excerpt).

Untitled #4 (Political Collages), 2019 (excerpt).Credit:© Catherine Opie, courtesy of Regen Projects and Lehmann Maupin


“When I did it, it was in direct conversation with the fact that I felt like my community was being decimated by AIDS and we were making history within a certain invisibility, and well, the only way not to make things invisible is is to actually represent them,” says Opie. “Without representation, you don’t have the distinctiveness to build our own culture.

“Now that some of these photos are 30 years or older, it’s really interesting to think that they still matter,” adds Opie. “I have always believed that human rights should definitely be examined without subcategories. I was a lesbian watching all my friends die and doing work that was important to me. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I was just trying to create representations.”

At the time, Opie says, she had no idea of ​​the work’s later significance. “The historians make it important, the institutions make it important,” she says. “At this time [I had] zero understanding of it. Now as an artist showing and making works that I know will show [the question is] how can I best serve cultural events? So for me it’s all about dialogue and having conversations.”

Catherine Opie: Binding Bonds is at the Heide Museum of Modern Art until July 9th. heide.com.au

Jaclyn Diaz

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