Catherine Opie, celebrated documentary and fine-art photographer, discusses the role of ‘bearing witness’ in democracy, the power of nostalgia, the tendency to burn down what we love, and, of course, the image: now that we’re all photographers, are they more or less powerful?

Opie’s career has spanned more than thirty years, during which her work has been exhibited extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. Her early work, such as ‘Being and Having’ (1991) and ‘Portraits’ (1993–97) were depictions of the gay and lesbian community in L.A., combining traditional portrait photography with less traditional subjects, and gained her critical recognition. Opie’s subjects, however, have been diverse: empty urban landscapes, highschool football players, political rallies. An excellent summary of her career here, via the Guggenheim.

Opie lives and works in Los Angeles. 

This interview was published 16 June 2020.


DM: I wanted to start by asking you about one of the major through lines in your work: the idea of community. It seems incredibly pertinent now, as we’re confronting the politics of division and the effects of holding up the monolithic ideas of different groups that have divided us.  And, a lot of your work aims to subvert those monoliths – whether you’re looking at your own self, where kink and aspirations for monogamy and family aren’t in opposition; or where surfers stand in not for thrill-seeking, but patience; or high school football players are not aggressive, but vulnerable…

CO: I think that’s an interesting thing that comes out of trying to find my own community, and where I fit in. Coming out at the beginning of the ‘80s, I didn’t really even know how to date as a lesbian – it was like, oh, I guess I need to go to a lesbian bar in order to find another lesbian. [Laughs.] And then all of sudden you begin to learn all the different ways communities operate, and the markers of that as well. It’s like “Oh, she has short hair, and her jeans are rolled up that way, and she’s wearing a leather jacket. I’ll give her the head nod.” And, it’s a funny relationship to some stuff I don’t actually believe in, in terms of factionalism.

I’ve always spread my net wide and far and haven’t ever wanted to exist only within my bubble. That made me think about what it means to represent, through photography, this notion of how diverse ‘community’ really is, how complicated it is to be human, and begin to map it out, so to speak. And maybe, through mapping things out photographically, language can follow, and also not have a singularity to it.

DM: You’ve also captured a number of protest movements and rallies – the Women’s March in 2017, Obama’s inauguration, the Black Lives Matter protests, and even Tea Party rallies. What compels you about these gatherings, what are you trying to capture or present?

CO: For me it’s always about a moment in time – and that’s photography as a medium. I’m not interested in them as a photojournalist, but to bear witness – which is really different.

I guess I feel that, as someone who has spent now over thirty years creating an archive of my life, and the things I want to think about and look at, that those protests or gatherings are also incredibly important because of my own politics.

The only thing maybe I haven’t grappled with, on a deeper level, is the relationship to surveillance, and the prevalence of the camera.

DM: What are the differences for you, between photojournalism and documentary photography?

CO: Ah, well, I’m really so impressed with photojournalists right now, during the pandemic. I was so grateful for the images, for those going out and making images, and for helping us understand what was going on in the world.

But photojournalism is really to capture the moment and present it [immediately]. I am more interested in the long form of the moment – one that doesn’t necessarily have a caption to it.

The form that I take [at a march] is that I stand in the middle of the street, as the march begins, and I take consecutive photos as the people pass me. So, it becomes this sequence of images of movement – and I’m interested in that. The ‘movement’ has movement in itself; what does it mean to take to the streets?

In a certain way, I’m just looking it in a different way than trying to capture ‘the picture.’ I mean, I am always interested in making an ‘iconic’ picture, and playing with what iconic is, but when I’m taking photos in the streets it’s about the collective of pictures – because of the collective moment.

DM: This seems in contrast to the idea of the ‘decisive moment’ that’s been so important street photography.  I guess you don’t subscribe to that.

CO: No – I think I did back in the ‘80s with my street photography, because that’s what you’re trained at in the Szarkowski school, you know, in terms of John Szarkowski’s role at MoMA, and in shaping what photography was then.

DM: And now, of course, we’re simply overwhelmed by images. It’s a more visual culture than ever – and everyone carries a camera in their pocket…

CO: Yeah, it’s interesting right?!

DM: Does this make images more or less powerful?  

CO: I think we’ve all gotten to a place where we’re consuming information really quickly. It’s the flicking-past thing, the consumption – it is one of the things I was grappling with in the body of work of ‘Portraits and Landscapes’ [a series of formal portraits and abstract landscapes], to try and go back to a place where a person was not wanting to stop looking at an image.

DM: Right. And, platforms like Instagram seem designed for maximum consumption. That’s how we get our images: deluge. Do you think that raises that value of images that are presented more formally, like in a gallery?

CO: I think so. I think when people are looking at images that are hanging on a wall, that they are spending more time, even if it’s a ‘snapshot.’ And you have contemporary artists, like Wolfgang Tillmans, who have been able to take the everyday image and include it with another abstract image so that you have a lexicon of photography, and what its purpose is, throughout the specificity of ‘an installation.’

So, that’s another way we disseminate images, like ‘Look at this arrangement.’ It’s never ‘arranged’ on your phone, so to speak, it’s always…

DM: … chronological or algorithmic?

CO: Right. So, I’m grateful for images to be on walls, because I certainly still want to look at images in that way.

My show that is still up a Regen Projects, ‘Rhetorical Landscapes,’ is collage – cut out from magazines. Again, it’s all about how we encounter images, disseminate information, make different information out of that– so you have these pristine landscapes of  the Okefenokee swamps of Georgia and Florida, and then you have these weird monitors where the stop-motion animation presents collaged images from a magazine.

[Editor’s note: Rhetorical Landscapes has been referred to by the New York Times as “political collages.” They juxtapose ‘the swamp,’ a term adopted by the present US administration but that Opie reminds us are “very peaceful, amazing ecosystems that you don’t really need to drain,” and politically salient images that representation “climate change, along with gun control, immigration and other themes of global urgency.”]

DM: And does ‘The Modernist’ fit in?

CO: Absolutely.

DM: So, the ‘The Modernist’ – your first venture into film – is told through a series of still images that picture a character who plots to burn down a number of L.A.’s most celebrated mid-century homes and succeeds, and we see them all in flames.

CO: Yes, and constructing fake newspapers [as an element of the visual narrative] – before ‘fake news’ became a thing. But by putting the house next to a fake story about it being burned down, and having the character cut it out and add it to a collage, it was like some bad Law & Ordertrope… It’s a bit cheeky in that way.

DM: Is it about… nostalgia?

CO: Definitely. I’ve always thought about what our relationship is to nostalgia – because photography invokes that right away.

‘The Modernist’ was also a piece specifically in conversation with Chris Marker’s ‘La Jetée’ (1962) – which was about nostalgia and the longing for love in middle of nuclear war, and a future of fear. So, my big question was the relationships between nostalgia and post-World War II America. New industrial materials meant we could imagine building affordable housing en masse, and all these open-platform designs were being made by prominent Europeans who’d escaped over to California after the war – especially with the Case Study Houses, which were supposed to be for everybody. It was a utopian idea that failed.

So in ‘The Modernist’ there is this character [played by Pig Pen] who loves modernist design – I do myself, it is very much built out of my own desire for it – who will never be able to afford one of those homes, because they have all become museum objects to be collected at this point.

I wanted to riff on that, with Pig Pen, and collapse all these different things – I suppose exploring the trappings of nostalgia, and longing. And, in the end they make art out of burning down what they can’t have – because, you destroy what you love.

And, of course, as we’ve seen the last weeks [with the Black Lives Matter protests], destruction comes when power is abused.

DM: Okay, so to back up half a step, maybe: when you tear down the iconographies of different communities, what is your objective?  

CO: It’s a hard question to answer. You just keep making the work that you make, because you’re trying to answer your own questions in your head. That’s what an artist does. I really look at being an artist as creating conversation, creating a dialogue.

I always say, with the earlier work, it’s not that I was going to make someone not homophobic, but you have to make people look in order for them to find their inner humanity, so to speak. And if you can do that with a little bit of an ingredient called ‘beauty,’ and creating things that are kind of sublime in certain way, then you stop people for a moment. And you hopefully get them thinking. Then with looking they being to use their mind to decipher the information that’s before them.

If they go through multiple bodies of work, and they decide to take a journey with you as an artist, because they’re interested in what you’re trying to say, then you get 30 years of conversations that approach ideas of ‘community’ in a vast number of ways.

I don’t like that everything is in opposition all the time – that ‘we are good, because we do this, and you are bad, because you do that.’ I’m really tired of the binaries.

DM: And where is the line between ‘bearing witness’ and activism. I mean, you are creating space, often, for so-called marginalised communities or voices. In creating that space, and asking for people’s attention, is that more than just ‘bearing witness’?  

CO: No, no, I think of myself of an activist. I’m a vocal person who’s fought for change – you know, I was part of ACT UP, Queer Nation… And now, I really needed to be part of the protests even though I am weary of the pandemic; I’m happy people have taken to the streets all over the world. It makes me feel optimistic. It has been horrible living under this presidency – it is one of the most depressing times to be an American. I said that before, under Bush, and before that under Reagan ­– but this is even worse!

DM: You keep out-doing yourselves!

CO: Being an activist is part of how I choose to make different bodies of work. I mean, there’s no need for me to go to a Tea Party rally! But at the same time, I want a Tea Party rally to intermingle with the rallies that I do want to attend, because the people in them are important too. We’re all in this together, so how do we have constructive dialogue that get us to a better and kinder place? I don’t know.

DM: How different is it for you, as an experience, to photograph the Women’s March, versus a Tea Party rally?

CO: Well, Black Lives Matter protest have been going on a long time, and initially I questioned me being a white woman photographing them – like, maybe I’m not allowed to do that? But with the Tea Party, you know, I grew up in the Midwest, in a Republican household. My wife’s family are all Louisiana people, who are predominantly Republican – I’m constantly having to talk across the aisle, in that way. So that felt like a very natural space for me to try to bear witness.

And with Black Lives Matter, what has happened – under the Trump administration specifically – I love how the movement has changed how more white people have been stepping in front of police, because they are less likely to get pepper sprayed or hit. So, then I felt my body was needed, and it gave me permission to bear witness. It can’t just be queers marching for queers, Native Americans trying to protect their lands – if you believe in this, you need to show up.

DM: Now, you’ve also been an educator for decades, and you currently teach at UCLA. So, in that way, you’re quite connected to the ‘next generation’ of photographers. And, these days, your students might have grown up in this era of completely ubiquitous image-making and photography, thanks to the cell phone. So, I’m really curious about what they’re hoping to achieve through a formal study of photography, and perhaps what you’re seeing in their work.

CO: One of the things that has always been important for me with the graduate programme, is my own work, and how I make work, isn’t reflected in who I pick to come into study. We only accept three graduates a year at UCLA, and their work is vastly different.

But I would say in the past five years, there’s been a return to the street – and bearing witness. I’m seeing street photography again, where there was a moment where everyone was playing with the analogue abstraction of chemistry, a reaction to digital. There was an embrace of analogue, and experimentation and also elaborate studio setups.

Right now, I have an amazing student called Ash Garwood, who constructs landscapes through a 3D modelling programme, and they’re all about being placed and displaced, something technology can offer, at a time when landscape is fragile because of climate change.

Or, Sam Richardson, another graduate, who is taking the streets and producing not only really intimate portraits of her friends and community, but really look at what the street is as a place, and how it informs those personal images. And this is different, I’d say, than 10 years ago.

DM: And, the most cliché of questions, but I can’t help it. What are you working on next?

CO: After this week of teaching, I’m on a one-year sabbatical. I’d planned to be on a lot of planes, but I’m feeling the need to do a big American road trip again, coming up on a big election here. The last time I did it was in 1999, because of Y2K, and I feel like it’s time for me to go out and map America again, with my camera. We’ll head out in August and drop our son off at college in New Orleans, and then head up to D.C. Julie, my wife, will probably fly home and then I don’t know, I just spend some time bopping around.

DM: It does seem like a time when people are just focusing on things more local to them, if only because it’s logistically hard not to.

CO: I don’t mind not getting on a plane every three weeks. I think this might be the longest time my family has spent with me!

DM: Well, it’s gone okay, I hope!

CO: It’s been awesome.

DM: I’m glad. Cathy, thank you so much.