Over the past 20 years, photographer Catherine Opie’s subjects—surfers, football players, San Francisco queers—seem randomly selected and meticulously curated. Exhibited in a 2008 retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York City and further explored in her new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Opie’s various bodies of work depict the ways that singular identities bring us together and isolate us from one another. As her scope broadens, the work begins to resemble an encyclopedia of unexpectedly kindred Americans.
Opie's work has been exhibited extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. Her selected solo exhibitions include shows at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; St. Louis Art Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Photographers' Gallery, London; Thread Waxing Space, New York; Art Pace, San Antonio; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Jay Gorney Modern Art, New York; Stephen Friedman, London; Barbara Gladstone, New York; Galeria Massimo De Carlo, Milan; Foncke Galerie, Ghent; and Ginza Art Space, Tokyo.
All images © Catherine Opie, all rights reserved.
After photographing your friends in the LGBT and BDSM community in the 1990s, Minnesota ice houses, Los Angeles mini-malls, queer families, etc., how did you end up shooting football players?
I know, it’s an odd kind of thing.
Well, it is and it isn’t. I can see a familiar exploration of the connection between community and identity here, but I’m still curious how the photos came to be.
I was going home to my partner’s house in a small town in Louisiana for two weeks in August. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do for two weeks in Louisiana?” I have 25 nieces and nephews. All the nephews play football. I asked the nephews if I could go to their football practices and photograph, just to give myself something to do. I became completely fascinated with it because I realized what a vulnerable group of people they are. We don’t think of football players as vulnerable, but in a time of war I think of them as a very vulnerable group of young men.
I became very emotionally involved in the portraits. In relationship to the game, it was all about the place in American landscape. The work was three years in the making, at this point it’s finally complete. I shot Ohio, Louisiana, Texas, Alaska, Hawaii, California.
When you talk about their vulnerability, is it a contrast between life experiences and the aggression of the game, or something else?
It’s the predominant male sport in America. You’re trained basically to be a good soldier; the kids that don’t make it to college scholarships, the kids that have harder backgrounds, really have fewer choices in life. Often they end up choosing the military.
The portraits are always taken after practice. They’re not taken after the game because how are you going to get a group of 15- to 18-year-olds to stand for a portrait after the game? For three years I traveled in the fall and watched these young kids working their bodies pretty intensely on the football field. It was amazing. If you had asked me if I was going to be a 48-year-old woman watching high school football for three years, I would never have thought—but I have an incredible respect and fascination for it and for what that means on a cultural level and what that means to cultural identity.
Did you read Friday Night Lights?
I read everything. I like the show, I watch the show, I think the characters are really good on the show. It’s well written and well performed. I love that football players can be artists as well. The show goes against the idea that there’s a particular identity.
I have some friends who grew up in small towns and were totally abused by football players and can’t even consider watching the show or the possibility that football players are complex and sympathetic.
A lot of gay men are freaked out by this work. They’re like, “Cathy, what are you doing?” But they came around to it. [My son] Oliver’s father, Rodney, was tortured growing up in Michigan with a football-coach father and being a six-foot-four gay guy. He was like, “Oh, my god, what are you doing?” But then he began to see beyond the football player. He looked at them and really saw portraits in a way, and the history of portraiture and what I intended in the work. At first it was really challenging for him, he was really freaked out by what I was doing.
As you found the cultural identity of these boys, did the connection between this project and past projects seem logical?
Well, I think it became more logical as I got into it. First it was just this curiosity. Often work starts as a curiosity and you become very involved in it and it consumes you in an interesting way. This was long enough and I worked hard enough that it did really touch me in a way that I didn’t expect. It was very emotionally moving for me. Three years down the road, some of those 18-year-olds did go off to war, and I ended up getting two letters from parents telling me how meaningful the portrait I made of their son is because they did end up dying in war. One was in Iraq and one was in Afghanistan. When I got those letters I did actually cry.
I also like that you can tell which kids are doing it because their dads pushed them into it and who really has the identity of the football player.
With the surfing photos, there’s clearly community here as well, but again, the representations aren’t typical.
That’s the same thing as high school football. It’s not about the Sports Illustrated photograph, it’s more about the waiting, the anticipation, the in-between moments. It’s a different iconic way of looking at landscape. Think of football as the perfect touchdown, the catch, and instead I have guys standing around on this field. With surfing, we think of the iconic great wave, and instead they’re sitting on the board waiting. That’s very much a part of the game, and it’s very interesting in relationship to photography. There’s an enormous amount of waiting that I do to get the images I want to get. I think that as a culture we forget to wait, to meditate within the landscape, we lose ourselves just being on our computers, we’re always interfacing, it’s always about action. I think you can kind of find a place of consolation in-between the action that I find very interesting.
You mention that surfers waiting for waves mirrors your own experiences as a photographer. What sort of opportunity does the camera give you that other artistic media—filmmaking or painting, for example—wouldn’t?
I think filmmaking creates a narrative, but in photography you can be in a single moment. It’s not a culmination. A lot of people, even at the opening, came up to me and said, “I love your paintings.” I’ve always had a conversation with the history of painting and ideas of representation, especially from the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s really interesting to be placed with somebody who’s as iconic an American artist as Thomas Eakins. It’s a chance to look at the relationship between painting and photography. In the last 10 years photography has been in flux. Taking a camera and using it to look at the world and things I’m interested in in my life is something that isn’t permissible anymore. It’s regarded as National Geographic, or something like that, but I still find it absolutely fascinating.
But as you’re talking about it and considering how popular digital manipulation is, your process almost starts to sound novel as well as resilient. It’s almost as though there’s a freshness in that approach.
For me there is. I’m not tired yet of looking at the world. I’m not tired of finding what I want to look at in the world without having to create it by making abstract photographs or compositing photographs in Photoshop. Because my core interest in ideas of community holds me in relationship to the different bodies of work that I make.
When you talk about community, you can always find it very readily in your work, but do you feel like over the years your sense of community has evolved?
I think my sense of it is that we are so completely connected and disconnected as human beings at the same time. We’re so in flux. What does it mean that I have 1500 friends on Facebook, but maybe only 10 good friends in my life? How do we extend these ideas? How do we look at the construct of family and neighborhood and issues around our own identity and the intensely political front of either you believe in this or you believe in that?
We’re always looking for this notion of tribe in the sense of belonging. You can say, “I was a football player in high school,” and that means something probably later on when you’re an adult. What does that identity mean? I’ll call myself a dyke, but none of us are a singular identity. We’re multi-faceted people. But I think that singular identity is what we go to in terms of describing someone or something.
I think the complexity in those core issues of identity and community, I haven’t grown tired of trying to work that out or begin to visualize it in different way. In the end, maybe my work will be this bizarre encyclopedic record of things I’ve grappled with—internal, philosophical questions of who we are as a species in terms of the kind of constructs we make around us.