Around Leslie Lohman Museum of Art’s exhibition revolving around the work, Catherine Opie discusses Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), as well as her work and life, with Conor Williams.
Photographer Catherine Opie has spent decades making stunningly composed portraits of friends, family, strangers — but it’s a self-portrait that’s come to be one of the defining images of her career. In Self-Portrait/Cutting, made in 1993, Opie put her bare back to the camera, confronting the viewer with another kind of self-portrait—one made from her own blood. The photographer had carved a crude image of a house and family into her skin.
Thirty years later, the power of this image has endured. I remember seeing it for the first time at the Guggenheim Museum — it stopped me in my tracks. It’s shocking, and still so moving. Ahead of Dreaming of Home, a group show at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art inspired by Opie’s photo, I spoke to the iconic queer photographer about her memories, homophobia, and radicality.
So the Leslie-Lohman Museum has put on this show called Dreaming of Home. Its genesis was your photo from 1993, Self-Portrait/Cutting. I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what your life looked like at that time when you made that image.
Well, I was 32 years old. 30 years ago, so I’m 62 now. It was a moment in time in which I wasn’t necessarily showing in the art world, I was showing it a little bit here and there. I was mainly in alternative spaces, a lot of queer spaces, a lot of feminist spaces. I was an activist, part of AIDS, just Queer Nation and ACT UP. I had gone through my first domestic relationship breakup, and that was the impetus for the image. I moved from living with my girlfriend of two years into this amazing all lesbian apartment building that we called Casa de Estrogen. So Jenny Shimizu was upstairs, it was like Crystal Cross, it was just like everybody was learning how to be motorcycle mechanics and we’re all hanging out and we’re all a bunch of queer butches and non butches, and living our life in Koreatown in LA where rent for a one bedroom apartment with a patio outdoors with the avocado tree was only $500 a month.
So it was when LA… you could be an artist and actually afford to live in this city, and it felt like just one of those incredible times in my life, even though there was an enormous amount of loss in relationship to our friends dying of AIDS. But it felt like we were part of everything at that point, and we were empowered, but at the same time really still fighting for all of our dreams and all of our wishes.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about those kinds of spaces and that time that you’re describing, and I talk a lot with my friends about it, we kind of think about the scenes of the eighties and nineties in terms of art and art collectives and things like that, “Was it really better back then, in terms of the conditions for art making?” And I kind of wonder, I don’t think those conditions are really so much available anymore.
I don’t know if it was better, but it was different. There wasn’t the same… I mean, think about it, in 1993, the mega gallery would’ve been thought of as potentially like, Gladstone, and I think Zwirner a little bit, of course Gagosian. But even that kind of marketplace within the art world hadn’t been established yet. We had just gone through an incredible crash, so there was an enormous amount of freedom within art too. Because I think my generation didn’t think about getting represented, I know that I didn’t think about getting represented by a gallery or having that kind of career.
Actually, when I made Self-Portrait/Cutting, I was like, okay, it, I’ve screwed myself. I’m not going to get a teaching job. I’ve come out in all these ways and there’s no way that this blood on my body now isn’t going to also harm me in this same way that homophobia harms me.
And yet you felt it was so important to make that image.
Crucial. Yeah. I decided that after taking portraits of my friends, because at that point I had been taking… I did Being and Having, in 1989, 1990, I had started the portraits of my friends with my best friend from CalArts, Richard Hawkins. And then he kind of said, “This is your body of work, you go with it.” He was the one who introduced me to Holbein and kind of talked to me about the formality, because I was trying to rewrite a documentary position and I didn’t want to be Mapplethorpe and I didn’t want to be Nan Goldin. I didn’t want to be compared to those, so I figured out stylistically how to escape that. And then I realized that in photographing my friends and asking them to be vulnerable for me, that I had to be as vulnerable and put myself within this community, within this picture too, that I also had to be as accountable for my own queerness as I was asking of my friends.
This is kind of a big, somewhat simple, but maybe not so simple question.
I like those.
I have a few of those, so I’ll ask this one. What do you look for in an image?
I would say that I am a bit classical in relation to composition. That one calls my portraits and I call my portraits, my formal portraits, meaning they’re seated, they’re thinking about a history of painting and what seated portraits are, they’re thinking a lot about shape, color, composition. They’re not messy. And I think that one of the ways that I was thinking about photographing my friends and why a difference from documentary photography that one would take in a person’s home, which is what we knew for the most part. Mapplethorpe was studio, but Goldin was home, Peter Hujar was home. And so I think that by using that kind of formality and this more of a language of 14th, 15th century painting, allowed me to portray the community in a way that created potentially a pause within the subject matter and maybe not as much voyeurism. So I was really aware of the idea of what the camera and the lens did in relationship to othering, and I wanted to try to create this different way to enter the work. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I would say that formally I was trying to tighten things up really a lot in relationship to how people engage with images, specifically photography too.
Can you tell me more about that word, “pause”?
I use that word a lot. What it means to engage, what it means to want to look, what it is to look versus stare, but also stare, what it is to be engaged with being looked at versus being somebody who’s positioned looking out. All of that, when you go through the sequencing of how I create installations, there is a moment that you are not confronted. And I think that one of the things about portraiture is the relationship to confrontation and how you use that and how you begin to think about that. So creating space within the spaces creates this relationship to a pause as well.
That’s interesting. Thinking about the show, what was your response when the Leslie-Lohman Museum said they wanted to base a show around an image of yours?
You know what, I don’t even think that I was really aware of the 30th anniversary of that image, that it’s been three decades. I think that now that I’m doing press on this exhibition, now I’m realizing that maybe this is a bigger deal than I thought. I’ve had two huge exhibitions I’ve been making. And when I’m in solo show mode with traveling, I tend to have a very, very narrow focus. And then there’s all the press that I’ve had to do for Walls, Windows and Blood, because that just opened last week in Naples. And so I was in that mode more and now I’m going to be in this mode because I’ll be there soon and I’ll get to see the show. But it’s an honor. I mean, it’s an incredible honor. But it also makes me kind of blush and chuckle.
Well, you’ve said about Self-Portrait/Cutting before that, in a way, it almost feels like it’s overshadowed a little bit some of the rest of your body of work. I mean, what does it mean to you? If you think about how that photo has endured in significance, do you have mixed feelings about it?
No, not at all. I mean, I’ve talked about Pervert being harder for me than Self-Portrait/Cutting on my back. That portrait is really incredible how it was received and that it was received in a way that’s now part of the canon of art history, which is kind of mind boggling for a 62 year old lesbian artist to think that they made a piece 30 years ago that has been written about as much as it’s been written about and exhibited so extensively. It’s humbling, quite honestly. But it was Pervert that was always harder for me because Pervert created assumptions about my personality in the world before people talked to me. And then they would talk to me and they’re like, “But you’re so nice.” And I’d be like, why wouldn’t I be? Or I would say to collectors who collected me in depth in the nineties, I’m a generous person, and I like generosity, I feel that that’s part of my goal for humanity is we all need to be incredibly generous and we are not as important as the next person, period. And so I would say to a collector, why don’t you bring the kids to the studio and I’ll do portraits for you of your kids. “Are you going to cut them?” I’m like, “No, I’m not going to cut your children.” (Laughs) It’s just like, why would you say that? So there’s things that have followed me by making that work that is interesting in terms of how people think I would be as a human being. But that’s the great thing about it, that’s the hypocrisy of the world that we live in, that you can have evil Christian evangelicals trying to destroy our lives. At the same time, we’re all just kind of pretty friendly and having an interesting conversation about our bodies.
Well, I want to talk about the overall theme of the Leslie-Lohman show, which is this idea of queer domesticity. And you mentioned ACT UP and Queer Nation, as a bi man and as a queer kid, I grew up reading about this group Bash Back! And reading about groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation and absorbing the politics of those groups, which at the time were pretty much about anti-heteronormativity and pushing back on these ideas of domesticity of things like gay marriage and the nuclear family. Now, with this fascist homophobia that’s really gained momentum, it feels like those are gains that we really shouldn’t be taking for granted.
Rights are really important to have. Human rights are very important to have. Do I believe in the institution of marriage? Absolutely not. But do I believe in having the right to participate in the institution of marriage as a tax paying citizen in this country? Absolutely. I should have the exact same advantages. And after watching my friends’ families, who were homophobic, come in and destroy their partner after their partner died of AIDS, and they would take all the family belongings, you better believe that I fought for the right for marriage because I watched that time and time and time again as my gay male friends perished and died.
I mean, I’m just going through a divorce right now, and that’s legally very hard for me because now I got the rights and I actually married and now I have what we now have as the right to divorce the same way, which means that half of everything that I’ve made goes bye bye. And so with it comes this, but at the same time, everybody should have the ability for equality in whatever way, that if we talk about America or any country being a democracy, how can you be a democracy without equality?
But do I struggle with that? Do I struggle with ideas of what radicality is now and how we begin to look at radicality? Absolutely. Do I feel like sometimes that I am almost positioned in a place where I’m not viewed as radical any longer? I mean, it’s a good question. Is Self-Portrait/Cutting on the back still radical? I have no idea. I don’t even know how to gauge that. I think it was radical at the time it was made. I think the radicality within it would exist if all of a sudden you put it in Arkansas, in Crystal Bridges. Maybe that’s still radical in terms of the way that the image operates. Is it radical now in New York? I don’t know. I think radicality is really interesting to continue to talk about, especially in relationship to what we’re fighting right now with trans rights and continued homophobia. And we probably might lose the right. We might end up losing the right not to be married anymore. I mean, we have a conservative Supreme Court, that could go away. I watched it go away in LA. We had the right to marry, and then a proposition went on the ballot, and that right was taken away.
Is that Prop 8?
Yep. I did a documentary on it, about kids and how they felt about their family’s marriages being dissolved by the state of California. Yeah, we could be having that happen again. And so my radicality is like, okay, all of us queers should just basically, period, David Geffen and everybody stop paying taxes, that we create our own church, our own entity. Maybe that’s the radicality, we just stop paying taxes.
I mean, you think about in San Francisco in the seventies, the opponents to Harvey Milk, they were saying, “Oh, gay people are a danger to the family.”
Right, well, we’re still a danger to the family.
We’re right there again. It seems like there was kind of this roller coaster of oh, ’08, we’ve reached this liberal progress, and then we’re back where we were decades ago.
Well, you know, the Federalist Society and the evangelical communities of America have done an enormous amount of work, very, very hard work in relationship to changing courts and doing everything on this kind of government political level that we see ourselves back here. And it was partly they were doing all that work as we were protesting on the streets in the eighties and so on. This is just continuation of that work, and it’s trickled down now to fuck us all up again.
These are important things to talk about and I am glad that I am able to talk about them with you. I also want to keep talking about your work because I don’t want to get us too far – too bummed out.
That’s okay. My work is about its politics, it really is. It’s embedded within American cities, it’s embedded throughout every… Even the latest body of work on the Vatican, Walls, Windows and Blood is my own trinity to the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, the structures. What I do as an artist is I look at these structures either through architecture or cities or specificity of identity, and then I try to break them down into a language that’s a visual language. That’s really the pursuit, what I’m trying to achieve in my life.
Is there any conscious split at all between more personal portraiture for you and political work? Or is there no line between the personal and the political for you and the work that you make?
Well, I think one could look at Self-Portrait/Nursing or the photographs that I’ve done representing my son, or Oliver in a pink tutu doing laundry where so many people tell me what a cute girl he was, and then I have to remind them that he is a son and he’s my boy. So even in relationship to something so incredibly personal as having a child and raising a child, he’s 21 now, he’s graduating from college this year, my body is a political site. And so he ended up coming along and being represented in relationship to my own politics.
So there’s lines that I draw to a certain extent about representation within my family and I was very respectful. I mean, there’s only a handful of images of Oliver out there, and I didn’t want to end up having him be thought of as a muse in any way because I actually don’t believe in muses. Another friend asked me, “Is Pig Pen your muse?” And I’m like, “No, Pig Pen is my really good friend. I don’t have muses. I don’t believe in muses.” I hate that idea. But no, I don’t think that there’s that… There’s decisions that are made, but I think that for me, the personal is political and that is just embodied within this queer body for my entire life.
I have a question from a friend of mine, Angelica, they’re a very big admirer of your work. They want to know what advice you have for emerging queer artists navigating their identity and expression within the context of the contemporary art world?
Just be honest with the work that you want to make and put out, and don’t think about the art world in itself. Know your history, understand the relationship of a history of representation, and what are you going to do to tweak that for yourself? Where is your own language within what you’re trying to portray? Because art history is huge, it’s vast…
Opie raises up her wrist to reveal a tattoo that says VAST.
–but at the same time, don’t be intimidated by that because there is nothing original.
I raise my sleeve to reveal a tattoo of David Wojnarowicz’s stencil of a burning house.
I love it. Really, in terms of being an emerging artist, I mean, now I’m not teaching, but I taught for the last 32 years and I just retired from UCLA this past July. And so 32 years of young artists that I mentored, and I think the most important thing is don’t be intimidated by the art world and what you think is going to hit. And also, remember that anything you put out there, you can’t put back in the toothpaste tube. And so be aware of what you can hold within yourself and how you want to represent yourself, because it can go off the rails in a certain way. And unless you have a really strong conviction and ideas around your work, it could really wallop you. And so be aware of it. I have students who portrayed their rape in their work as undergraduates, and I really talked to them about, yeah, this is trauma and this is really important for you to work out, but is this public? What’s the relationship to public and private?
Yeah. It becomes another thing when there’s an audience.
Yeah, it really does. And you need to understand that, you need to know that. Not everybody is a leather dyke sitting and holding your hand as you get “pervert” carved on your chest. Once it goes in the Whitney Museum of American Art, it’s there. So just be aware, really, really be conscious of what you want to say and your ability to do it. And also to a certain extent, make sure that you’re not being also used or othered yourself in relationship to your own voice.
What are the images that you think we need to be making now or that we need to see now?
You never know what you need to see until somebody makes it, that’s the thing. I mean, if I hadn’t made Self-Portrait/Cutting on my back, would we have wanted that image somehow? The thing is, that’s the beauty of art, right? I mean, that’s the beauty of me visiting Gertrude Stein’s portrait made years ago by Picasso when it’s up, is that portrait moves me because Picasso didn’t know what to do with Gertrude Stein as a woman, and it all reads in the body, and it all… So we don’t know how we’re going to read things or what is needed, and it’s about being very, very in touch with the moment that we’re living in. It’s almost, in some ways, I feel like there’s this bizarre timing that I have, and I don’t know why I have the timing, I have no idea why that timing keeps happening.
I photograph Wall Street, 9/11 happens, I photograph Elizabeth Taylor’s house, she dies, it becomes a different historic site. Photography is about history. So we don’t know what our future is, but we have to have a conversation with the time that we’re living in now. So remember what you want to say about why you’re living and what you’re trying to say right now.