Over several decades, photographer Catherine Opie has examined the personal and the political and spaces in between. Known for her early self-portraits and portraits of her friends and family, Opie's oeuvre is complex and broad, with subjects ranging from queer bodies to bodies of water, the belongings of Elizabeth Taylor to the complexities of Los Angeles' freeway overpasses. She photographs with an ardent dedication to humanity and to the process of image-making. While her early work is already an established part of the canon, she continues to make vital images that ask important questions about the human condition.
Opie is currently one of three master artists-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, a world-renowned arts residency tucked away in New Smyrna Beach. Thursday, she'll present an illustrated lecture on her work as part of the ACA's community outreach.
Orlando Weekly: How is your time thus far at ACA?
Catherine Opie: It's a really special place. I am so happy to be here. The grounds here are incredible ... you walk on these wooden pathways through all of this Spanish moss and vegetation. I saw a possum last night coming in.
I am waiting to see an armadillo. I am waiting for that sighting. But, you know, the fellows are incredible. It's great to have writers, dancers and image-makers all here together. And they take really good care of you, so it's pretty cool.
Absolutely. I was thinking about you teaching at UCLA and now working with associate artists at ACA. I imagine these artists and students are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with you. How do you benefit from this type of exchange with emerging artists?
There's a really wide range of ages in relation to the associates that I am working with and some have also been really prominent teachers and what I think happens is that it just allows – it is not the same as school – it's a three-week intensive where people come together from very different backgrounds and really share their ideas and their work with myself as well as with one another. So, the benefit for me is really just hearing other artists talk about their work and how I can be helpful and useful to them. As well, I get to explore this area for the three weeks with my own camera. I went to Daytona 500.
I went on a Saturday night and I ended up realizing that Daytona 500 was happening, so I bought a ticket on StubHub and I was right there, near enough to see pit crews and things like that. I'm kind of submerging myself really quickly in the landscape as well to work with the associates, but also to make some work on my own.
That's amazing. I can't wait to see that work. That's incredible.
Well, we'll see. I hope it is.
I've had the opportunity to see many different exhibitions featuring your work. One that really stays with me is when you had a solo presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Catherine Opie: Figure and Landscape, 2010] side by side with an exhibition of Thomas Eakins' paintings [Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, 2010].
Yes, Eakins, exactly. One of my favorite artists.
It was amazing to see his wrestlers and your surfers and football players and ponder them together. How do you see your work functioning within a larger trajectory of art?
To be able to physically have the work in close proximity just allows you to understand that part of being human and humanity is looking at the world around us and the relationship of what we make of that in whatever ways we want to talk about humanity and society. These are long human questions; art has been since the beginning of mankind/womankind. It is pretty interesting to be so in love with what you do that you get to be inspired by history.
Are you keeping up with current events and political developments or are you finding that you have to remove yourself a little bit from what's happening?
I can't really remove myself. Here [at ACA] I don't have television [so] I am reading basically The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post. Right now, I am pretty much reading the paper because I don't have my nightly Rachel Maddow history lesson. I so appreciate her history lesson. Although I am reading a really phenomenal book that I think every person should read in this country and it is Jill Lepore's book called These Truths [W.W. Norton & Company, 2018]. She is a phenomenal American history professor at Harvard.
As a curator, I often interact with students and I have found myself in the amazing position of introducing your work to people – "Self-Portrait/Cutting," "Oliver in a Tutu," portraits of Pig Pen, iconic works – for the first time. Do these works function for you differently then they did back then? Is there anything you want younger people, 18 to 22, to know about the earlier work?
I am a little disappointed that my work is still radical. In terms of the younger generation and my son who is 17 now ... I wish the work wasn't so pertinent in terms of continuing the discourse around homophobia in our society.
Enjoy the rest of your time in Florida.
I am photographing swamps; we'll see what happens.
Amy Galpin is the former curator of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College and currently serves as chief curator at the Frost Art Museum of Florida International University.