Catherine Opie is an American artist known for her portraits of lesbian families, football fields, freeways, and herself. Some of her images are so iconic, they act as shorthand for “queer art,” quoted on popular TV shows like The L Word and Transparent. Born in Sandusky, Ohio, Opie grew up in San Diego, attended college in San Francisco, and lived in New York, but it’s Los Angeles she’s most associated with. People close to her even call her, “the mayor of Los Angeles.” Opie attributes this to civic mindedness. Wherever she’s lived—and she’s lived, in four on-and-off decades here, all over, from Downtown, Koreatown, and MacArthur Park, to Silver Lake, West Adams, and now, Hancock Park—the artist invests in herself local community, politics, and art. Her mayoral reputation, I noticed upon meeting her, may also come from her manners. In person, Opie sounds grounded, authoritative, and responsible. Her gaze is direct eye-contact. Like a politician, she’s engaging, except there’s no sense that’s she’s lying, since power, in the intersection of art and radicality that she occupies, is cultivated in candor.
For an hour, Catherine Opie and I discussed Los Angeles, civic-minded art, what makes an image iconic, and how she feels when someone else shoots her portrait.
Fiona Duncan: What makes an image iconic?
Catherine Opie: History, I think. I think you can play with the iconic. You can really bump up against it. But in a certain way, even though you’re going out and making it, you don’t have any idea that it’s going to become iconic. It’s about the longevity of your work and what happens with the work. It’s certainly something that I think about in relationship to image-making. But I don’t ever make something, go like, “Wow! That’s going to be iconic!”
Do you feel like it’s something you can recognize in other people’s work?
I think so, because I teach so much. I think I recognize when they’re hitting something that is going to hold. But you know, as society shifts, you don’t ever know really what’s going to hold. And people can talk about [my] self-portrait/cutting as iconic. But a hundred years from now? I have no idea. I just try to make my work, and it’s nice that people have been following it for the last 30 years. But I also didn’t really ever expect to be any kind of successful artist.
Did you have that aspiration?
I think students do now. I think being a photographer in the generation that I grew up in, you didn’t think you were going to be a part of the larger art world. It was all about the painters in the 80’s.
When did you first have a sense that you were becoming successful by your own standards of success?
Probably when Julie [Opie’s wife] and I could afford to buy a house. [Laughs.]
Yeah, nothing realer than real estate. Do you feel like you focused on the art itself, more than courting success? I’ve noticed that with a lot of young artists, my peers, there’s a lot of attention placed on courting success. Maybe before even making the work.
Yeah, I never courted success. I never did that. Other artists would drop their slides at the galleries. They’d go to the right openings. I really didn’t do that. I was really, really fortunate that a critic came by my studio in Koreatown, looked at the recent work I was making, and they called Shawn Regen because she was putting together an invitational show of women artists for a summer exhibition. So, it was Toba Khedoori, myself, Jennifer Pastor, and Frances Stark. We were the four women that were put in this 1993 exhibition summer show. What I tell my students is that the work has to come first. And if the work isn’t doing what the work should be doing, then you’re not going to be able to have a sustainable career. The work has to always be first and you have to be incredibly passionate about it. And at the same time, beyond passion, is perseverance.
What were some of the first iconic images that Los Angeles impressed upon you?
I grew up in North County, San Diego. My geeky theatre friends and I would hop in my Plymouth Valiant and we would head up to Los Angeles. And when we’d get here, we wouldn’t know what to do. We weren’t cool. We just thought, “Oh, let’s go to this big city, Los Angeles.” North County, at that point in time, is like the middle of a John Wayne movie. It’s all chaparral, mountains, big rocks. Very beautiful. Enormous amounts of avocado groves, lime agriculture. Of course, all of that got completely plowed away while I was living in Poway and it became a masterplanned, suburban community, like so much of Southern California. LA was supposedly exciting, but we didn’t know what to do there. We didn’t go to the beach because in San Diego we weren’t interested in the beaches. What we ended up doing was driving around Hollywood and going through the trashcans of the stars on trash day to see if we could find personal stuff.
[Laughs.] How did you know which stars’ homes were which?
Well only because we would look in their trash. I think the only thing we ever kept was something we found in Danny Thomas’s trash. Marlo [his daughter] had written him letters, and they were in the trashcan and we thought that was a really great find. But my first impression of LA was its incredible flatness, and, especially in the 70’s, the amazing sunsets because of the fog.
You photographed MacArthur Park decades ago, right as they were building the first subway line through it. Have you been to the neighborhood recently, since all the art kids moved in? How different is it?
It’s different. I mean, back then, you could literally buy old beautiful Victorians and Craftsmen from the city for a dollar if you could move the house, but you would have to pay to move it. I have all these amazing photographs of big steel beams through these Victorian houses in the 90’s around MacArthur Park; they would actually just pick up the house and move it to try to kind-of preserve that architectural heritage while they were also demolishing it. LA is a really amazing city in that way. I don’t like the fact that a lot of things don’t get preserved, but I do appreciate how malleable it is as a city.
Yeah you can really flow through here and find new things, and it’s ever-shifting. This is the first place I came and I was like, “I could die here because I wouldn’t get tired.”
Yeah you know you can never really get tired of it.
The downside of this malleability is that it can push people out of their homes. I work a little bit at [art spaces] Ooga Booga and 356 S. Mission Road, which are at the epicenter of a gentrification controversy. My job is to work events. But most of the events have been cancelled because of protests. I am sympathetic to the cause, at the same time, I’m stressed about losing work, and I wish there was more of a dialogue.
Yeah, you know I’m completely sympathetic to the cause as well. But at the same time, I don’t think that what 356 and other organizations were doing there was gentrifying the neighborhood.The commercial enterprises that followed that gentrified it.This is the path of gentrification — artists move in, they make something really cool with integrity, and others will follow.
Yeah, and it happens fast.
I think the best thing that’s going to happen in relation to the contentious protesting and relationship to Boyle Heights is that maybe the [art] people are going to rethink community a little bit better. Maybe if you hire people from the community and use it as a source of education and relationship to the arts. There’s such a huge class struggle, especially in Los Angeles, how the real estate prices have gone up — the desperation of people is real. I saw that a lot in West Adams where I would actually write letters to the president of the University of Southern California and say, “Make sure that every kid from that neighborhood has a full scholarship if they qualify to go to USC, and you will systemically within 15 years, change the kind of ingrained poverty of the neighborhood.” They never replied to me. I lived there for probably about fourteen years.
Do you feel responsible in a way?
No, I don’t feel responsible. I don’t think artists know that’s going to happen. I mean artists are going to Detroit by the droves right now because it’s affordable. I think artists seek space that they can afford, and then other things follow because of that. But I don’t think it’s a cause and effect. The economic aspect of being an artist is also really difficult. Like you know sometimes you are doing really well, but it takes you years to do even that, or you might never even get there.
I read that your friends call you the mayor of Los Angeles. Why do you they call you that?
Because I think that people view me as a very civic artist. I’m on a lot of boards.
I’m viewed as being able to spin a lot of plates in the air and maintain my own practice. You know when you fly into LA and the mayor greets you? I made all those photographs when [mayor] Eric Garcetti got elected because I hated the lame photographs at LAX of the mayor with the flags by his side. I was on a committee to help raise money for his campaign, so what I said to Eric was, “Look, if you get elected, the first thing we’re gonna change is we’re gonna put you in the city and I’m gonna photograph you in the city.”
You’re known for your self-portraits. Have other people taken photos of you that you like, and do you recognize yourself in those photos?
Yeah, a lot of people take my photograph. I had a funny sitting in Norway recently because of my show. I walk into the room for the photographer to take my picture, and he has this cutoff Iron Maiden t-shirt for me to wear.
He had a costume for you?
Yeah, he had an Iron Maiden t-shirt for me, wanted to see my tattoos, so he cut the sleeves off. But I was like, “If you knew me, you’d know I’d never listen to Iron Maiden, ever. I grew up listening to The Carpenters and John Denver and stuff like that. It’s interesting that your perception of me is heavy metal.” I like the picture but uh…
Did you wear the shirt?
Yeah I wore the shirt. I always follow directions…
That was his vision. It’s his portrait.
But it’s your, your, your… you.
I know, but it’s his vision of me. I mean, I don’t tell people how to dress when they come and do my portrait. But they certainly don’t get to choose how they’re standing.
When Jason Schmidt came to my studio, he wanted me to take off my shirt so he could see the carving of “Pervert.” And you know, I can’t say that I love my body. I have issues with my body being a big woman, but it was okay because it was his vision; he needed to do that. So I think what’s interesting when other photographers take my photograph, is their idea of how they’re trying to interpret me… not because of my personality, but because of my work. And so the question is: Is my work my personality? Well it’s certainly my thoughts. But it might not necessarily be representative of my personality.
That’s what I always say: I’m not a singular persona.