Interview by Naomi deLuce Wilding
Images by Austin Irving
“Activism is tricky—it might not be about the full ability
to change people’s perceptions, but making
images creates a record. And without a record, a whole
subset of culture would be completely denied.”
Born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1961, Catherine Opie is a Los Angeles-based fine art photographer and professor of photography at UCLA. Opie’s work is a mix of personal and political, informed by her identity as a lesbian, and includes extensive documentation of niche communities as well as self portraits. Her work has been collected by museums such as the Guggenheim and the Museum of Contemporary Art (LA). Opie most recently released 700 Nimes Road, a photo book documenting the home and possessions of Elizabeth Taylor.
Born and raised in New York City, Austin Irving is a fine art photographer who graduated with a BFA from New York University. Irving is currently based in Los Angeles and represented by Wilding Cran Gallery, where she recently showed Not An Exit, an exploration of the light and geometry of doors, portals and enclosed spaces.
An acronym for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP is an international direct action group working to attain legislation, medical research, treatment and policies to bring an end to AIDS. Created in 1987 in New York by Larry Kramer, its motto is “Silence = Death.”
Catherine Opie’s work ranges from self-portraiture to landscape photography, often investigating identity through portraits of social groups including the LGBT community, surfers and high school football players. Her work documents and gives voice to social phenomena in America today, registering her subjects’ attitudes and relationships to themselves and others, and the ways in which they occupy the landscape. At the core of her investigations are perplexing questions about relationships to community, which she explores on multiple levels across all her bodies of work.
For years, Opie has been an active member of ACT UP and Queer Nation. She is an Ambassador for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and continues to donate her work to fundraise for HIV and AIDS-related causes.
Naomi deLuce Wilding: Where are you from?
Catherine Opie: I grew up in Sandusky, Ohio until I was thirteen, and then we moved to Poway, California, which is north county San Diego. Ohio was lovely—right on Lake Erie. I liked it.
NW: Do you miss it?
CO: Well, I went back recently and did a whole body of work for the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. I made the four seasons of Lake Erie. I got to spend about a year and half going back and forth to Ohio, staring at the lake during different seasons and photographing it. I came home at one point and said [to my partner], “Hey, Julie! You know how you want to have a horse ranch, more garden space and everything? We can do that in Ohio. I can try to teach at Oberlin.” She was like, “Yeah, we’re not moving to Ohio.” [laughs]
NW: I think that having access to those places is important, whether it’s nostalgic or because it resonates with you, but it’s not always enough. I felt that way going home to Wales recently. I loved being home and away from the grit of the city, but I’m connected to LA for many reasons—community, diversity, the energy of what’s happening here.
CO: It’s a fascinating city, Los Angeles. When I studied undergraduate at the Art Institute in the Bay Area, everybody assumed that I would stay. I came out as a lesbian and was part of a leather community. I had very deep roots in the community during the five years I lived there. So when I finished grad school at CalArts everybody was like, “You’re coming home now, right?” And I said, “No, I’m pretty interested in LA. I actually want to talk about this place.”
“There are some times in which I have
incredible optimism in humanist
acts and what democracy really is.”
— CATHERINE OPIE
NW: That was my next question: When and why did you arrive in Los Angeles?
CO: 1985. At CalArts, I spent a good amount of my work looking at ideas of master plan communities and making a very large thesis on white flight from urban areas. What is a master plan community? How is it designed? Who is it designed for? I delved into the suburbia of the eighties, which was really different than the suburbia of the fifties in terms of American ideology and dreams. It was really in relationship to a city becoming a threatening place. So I spent two years digging into that idea and then moved to LA, to MacArthur Park just at the time that the subway was being built. I did a whole body of work of what it means to gentrify the MacArthur Park area, looking at it in relationship to transportation. And so I kept kind of peeling away at Los Angeles for all these years in my work in these different ways.
NW: How could you leave? It’s so embedded in your journey as an artist.
CO: Very much so.
NW: Do you consider your work as a photographer to be a form of activism? Put simply, do you think you are able to educate or improve people’s lives?
CO: It’s curious. I move in and out of it in different ways. There are some times in which I have incredible optimism in humanist acts and what democracy really is as somebody who, through multiple bodies of work, has traversed these conversations of ideas of community and democracy. Within the early portraits I did of my friends, I don’t think that I was attaching any optimism about changing the perception of homosexuality. So activism is tricky—it might not be about the full ability to change people’s perceptions, but making images creates a record. And without a record, or without trying to delve into issues of identity and visibility and providing images, a whole subset of culture would be completely denied.
CO: And so, by going in and doing difficult things, I guess that one could think of me as a bit of an activist at the time. I was definitely an activist with ACT UP and Fair Nation, but that was really out of a sense of loss—very different than activism. In my work, it was about hanging on to this moment in our lives in which all of us were incredibly vulnerable from the decimation of our community through AIDS and experiencing extreme hatred. So when I made it, it was really for my own community and, selfishly, for myself to hang onto people that I was losing.
NW: Even if you weren’t optimistic about your own work being a catalyst for change, did you have any confidence that things were improving and perhaps this would document the process?
CO: I actually wasn’t confident that we would have equality in my lifetime.
NW: Wow. But it’s always two steps forward and one step back. I think for things to change permanently, there has to be a process. There has to be something tangible, and maybe that’s what photography does—enable us to look back and see the steps along the way.
A singer, songwriter and pianist known as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Nina Simone recorded over 40 albums and played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? retraces her life and rise to success as a musician and activist.
CO: Well, it’s so fascinating. But I’m interested in ideas of memory. You know, recently I watched the Nina Simone documentary, which is just brilliant. I hadn’t known just how tied she was to the Civil Rights Movement and how her voice was kind of left out in recent histories.
NW: Do you think that’s because she was a woman?
CO: I think so.
NW: Sorry, that’s another story.
CO: With what’s been happening in terms of Black Lives Matter in the United States, this incredible police presence that we live under and the inequality that’s happening within the African American community—you look back at those Civil Rights images and realize that things haven’t changed enough.
NW: I think those of us who are affluent, white and living in our liberal bubbles can be easily fooled into thinking we’ve politically evolved. But then you travel outside or listen to the news. You realize that it’s a much slower process, and we need to work much harder.
CO: It’s a very slow process. Looking at those photographs triggers my own childhood memory of watching the nightly news and the Chicago riots and kind of going through that period of time. I was born in ’61. The TV and the nightly news were prevalent in American culture. When I go back and look at images of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, I remember how far we’ve come. Yet we haven’t really even scratched the surface. I think that without people going out and making the work, the potential to remember an idea as it was is no longer there.
I did a body of work in and around West Adams with polaroids of the nightly news. Recently, with the anniversary of Katrina, the image that kept being shown on the news was the kids on the roof holding up “Help Us.” That was one of the polaroids I made, so it’s interesting what gets recycled in that way.
“It was about hanging on to this moment in our
lives in which all of us were incredibly
vulnerable from the decimation of our community
through AIDS and experiencing extreme hatred.”
— CATHERINE OPIE
NW: It’s almost like you’re an archivist or documentarian.
A San Francisco-based writer, editor and publisher, Dave Eggers is known for his best-selling memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers is co-founder of the nonprofit literacy program 826 Valencia, and founder of both ScholarMatch, which helps pay for college, and the publishing house McSweeney’s. His 2013 dystopian novel The Circle raises questions about privacy, democracy, human knowledge and the effects of the internet.
CO: I’m a huge [Dave] Eggers fan. I had my students read Eggers last quarter when I was teaching my undergrad class, “Selfie/Self Portraiture/#WTF.” They had to read his book The Circle about social media. It’s interesting how social media is used in relationship to activism now. So much of what we can talk about and understand about police brutality is because somebody was there with a cellphone. Has that literally replaced the common conception of journalism? Have we become a society in which self-imposed documentarians are taking on the world?
NW: Yes! Tell me about what you did with ACT UP.
CO: Protests. Hit the streets. New York and LA. I started by going to meetings in New York and then continued to be a part of ACT UP, but primarily Queer Nation in LA until it all folded. I did some needle exchange work.
NW: Are there any organizations you’re still involved with?
CO: Not really. Mainly my philanthropy is giving to AIDS organizations. In terms of an activist role, no.
NW: Would you like to be more involved on that level again?
CO: If I had the time. But you know, that was when I was alone. It’s harder when you’re a full-time professor, parent, on boards and a full-time artist. It’s harder to kind of just get up and go to meetings like you did. But I don’t think that there’s the same kind of activism in the country today.
NW: I think that my generation and younger lacks a sense that we can make an impact and are very apathetic. It’s dangerous. Do you try to inspire your students to have that same sense of energy to elicit change in whatever way they can?
NW: You are still actively involved then, as a teacher.
CO: I totally get involved. Read the news. Watch it. Understand what’s happening in the world. So many people don’t even read the paper.
NW: A photograph that you took as part of the 700 Nimes Road series at Elizabeth Taylor’s home raised $275,000 at The Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit recently. Was it a revelation to you when you first realized you could raise huge amounts of money for worthwhile causes by donating your work?
CO: Not really because I know the value of the work and that people desire it. What’s harder for me is that now everybody’s using art for philanthropy, and we can only donate so much because we also need to make a living. I think everybody coming to you for art all the time is really difficult. It makes you feel really bad having to say no.