That was the 90s, when identity politics were new and exciting and when Catherine Opie was pretty much the official documentary photographer of the lesbian/gay/transgender/BDSM/radical-performance-art community.
One of Catherine Opie’s most famous photographs is Pervert, a self-portrait in which she sits topless, her head encased in a shiny black hood, 46 needles inserted into her skin in neat rows all along her arms, with the word “pervert” freshly carved into her chest in fancy script. That was the 90s, when identity politics were new and exciting and when Opie was pretty much the official documentary photographer of the lesbian/gay/transgender/BDSM/radical-performance-art community.
I bring this photo up only because it’s mentioned a few times in this interview, but as Opie herself points out, it does always seem to be the first thing people talk about when describing her work. It’s kind of hard not to. But of course that’s just a small part of it. In her giant retrospective at the Guggenheim last year, she showed about 200 photos from the past two decades—formal photos of Beverly Hills houses, LA freeways and mini-malls, icehouses in Minnesota, and urban landscapes in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and Minneapolis, along with portraits of surfers and high school football players and, yeah, OK, lots and lots of lesbians. It’s all about communities. Communities and ladies with excellent moustaches.
Vice: Can you tell me about this group of photos?
Catherine Opie: They’re all from my archive. I’m working on this new body of work for an exhibition called “Girlfriends,” where I’m photographing kind of iconic butch lesbians, and I’m also pulling out all these black-and-white square-format photographs I did throughout the 80s and 90s, as these little moments of sexy desire and memory. It’s kind of like an ode to my former life, before domesticity and motherhood. [laughs] I’m not really hanging out in the dungeons anymore or shooting the SM community in the way I used to.
Does looking at these make you nostalgic for those times?
Yeah, it’s really fun to go through the archive. I don’t think I would have dared touch the archive like I’m doing now if it wasn’t for this exhibition that I’m planning. And also coming off of having 20 years of work being up at the Guggenheim, it gives me a different kind of permission to re-enter my work and look at things that are just part of what a voracious documenter I was. Often I decided not to show certain photos for different reasons, like following too closely on the heels of Mapplethorpe or wanting to get tenure as a teacher. [laughs] Kind of conservative reasons. Yet I’ll put Pervert out there, which doesn’t make any sense. That’s the dichotomy of me.
But how would these photos affect getting tenure?
Well, early on that was my fear, and then I realized that my fear wasn’t real. I thought, “Oh, great, they’re never going to give tenure to somebody as out and as radical as me.”
It probably turned out to be the opposite, right?
Yeah, but I didn’t know at the time. I thought, “Oh God, I’m going to shoot myself in the foot here.”
So you had all these cool photos that were sitting there, waiting.
Yeah, I have a ton of them!
They kind of remind me of the deck of cards you once made, with portraits of lesbians on each card.
Oh, Dyke Deck! That was around the same time, it’s true.
I loved that. I remember going through the deck and studying each card so closely. They were all such different, strange types of women.
I know, it was really fun to do that. I did an open call in San Francisco. A good portion of them were friends, but some were people I had never even met. They just came and performed for me, and it was so fun.
So these portraits are of friends of yours?
Yeah, they’re friends or lovers.
Who’s that one person with the crown of thorns?
That’s Pig Pen.
She’s got needles in her noodle.
Yeah, it was for a Ron Athey performance we did in Mexico City. That’s just a backstage photograph I snapped of Piggy.
You’re not involved in the SM scene at all anymore?
I still have a lot of friends involved in it, but between being a full-time professor and an artist and a mom and a partner, it’s not like I get to have that much time to go and explore and play. My partner’s definitely open to knowing that it’s a part of me, and I have carte blanche to go to San Francisco or play here in Los Angeles, but to tell you the truth, I just don’t have any time to be in that space. And also, all of a sudden when you’re taking care of a child, your brain doesn’t easily switch to “Oh, now I’m going to hurt somebody.”
I can see how those two states don’t quite fit in together.
For some people it does. I have other friends who are players, who are parents, and they don’t have a problem with it, but it was never completely a part of my everyday life in LA. It was mainly a San Francisco-based community that I would go visit.
You don’t hear that much about the SM scene anymore. It seems like it was popular in the 90s and then it disappeared again.
Well, it’s not fashionable anymore. There was a little moment when it became very much a part of popular culture. I remember when my friends in LA opened Club Fuck. We were finally making this really cool, alternative gay club for ourselves, where we could do performative pieces in relationship to SM, and all of a sudden all the hipster coolio heterosexuals were coming to it. Then it became this whole other crowd that was just coming to watch the “freaks,” which was what we were trying to get away from.
Do you think you had a hand in the popularization of SM? I think I recall you saying that you wanted to show the SM community in, was it, a “normal” sort of way?
With more humanity. I wanted them to be very humanistic. That’s probably why I haven’t printed the black-and-white work as much as the color portrait work or even the self-portraits. These are a little grittier, I suppose. They’re also very classical and beautiful, but some of them have an edge to them that I didn’t allow to come out before, because I was conscious of what those ideas of representation begin to do.
I don’t look at a lot of porn, but my boss sure does, and he says that SM has become an accepted norm for most straight porn. That’s your doing.
I think it wasn’t just me, it was a bunch of other people as well. What happens is things become mainstream when they become imaged over and over again. Something happens in relationship to ideas of representation that makes it more palatable or digestible. I guess to a certain extent it isn’t as taboo anymore.
And then it’s like, great, what do I do now that my taboo is all boring?
I’ve been thinking about that, and I think it’s just absolute extreme body modification. People are splitting their tongues and doing even more extreme things to their bodies. I think it’s so interesting, that idea of, like, what is transgressive? How can you truly be transgressive at this point within our culture?
Well, I think you going from the SM scene to being a mom, and all your new photos are these blissful domestic scenes—that’s shocking in a way, because people want to keep those kind of separate.
They do want to keep it separate. So basically, becoming homogenized and part of mainstream domesticity is transgressive for somebody like me. Ha. That’s a very funny idea.
It is, right?
I mean, I’m not living in suburbia yet, but there could be a moment. I got rid of the minivan. I did have a minivan for a long time.
From the photos, it seems suburban.
Well, it’s South Central, but we do have a house and a yard and a swing set in the back of our yard.
Three dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five chickens.
I know. It’s all good. I’m not complaining, that’s for sure.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
At nine years old. My first self-portrait was in a summer show at Barbara Gladstone last year—it’s me at nine years old wearing these little flowered pants with the zipper half down and making muscles in front of my house. It’s really cute. I got my camera on my ninth birthday. I asked my parents for a camera because I did a book report on Lewis Hine and then just announced that I was going to be a social-documentary photographer.
What kind of teenager were you? Were you a wild kid?
I was a quiet, rebellious teenager, without them knowing about the rebellion part. I had an older brother who was pretty rebellious and caused a lot of rifts, and I realized that he could take all the attention and I could be doing exactly what he was doing but never bring attention to myself by doing it. [laughs] My parents weren’t very parental either. They weren’t the kind of parents who gave me a curfew or knew what was going on or where we were. At 13, every meal became fix-your-own, and we lived in a totally upper-middle-class suburban environment where they let us run wild, to a certain extent.
I know. I would be out with my friends till 3 AM, and what we’d be doing was just sitting in the car, like, talking. It was pretty safe. Our big idea of fun in the 70s was to get stoned and drive from Poway, which is North County San Diego, up to Los Angeles to look through the trash of stars. I mean, we weren’t very creative in terms of being bad whatsoever.
That sounds pretty fun.
I had a great group of high school friends who took care of each other and watched each other’s back. It was a nice group of people who mainly were interested in theatre and choir.
Were you guys all gay but not out yet?
I turned out to be the only one who ended up being a lesbian, which was interesting. All my friends turned out to be heterosexual. They’re all married with kids now.
Well, so are you, right?
[laughs] Right, but I mean, I remember my good friend Steve ended up being a big money guy after college, and I went and visited him one day and my head was shaved and I was completely pierced and wearing a leather jacket. All his colleagues were like, “That’s your best friend from high school?!” They were all straighter than I ended up being.
But you kept in touch with them?
Yeah, we like each other. They all came to my Guggenheim show, which was really sweet. And friends from my grade school in Ohio came too. I’m definitely one of these people who stays in touch.
Did your own high school experience influence the series of photos you did of high school football players?
It’s an interesting question. Not so much. I did photograph the football team from my old high school, but I think that the catalyst was that I have all these nephews in Louisiana who play football. I went home to my parents’ house for two weeks in this small town, Church Point, Louisiana. It was August, and I was like, “What am I going to do for two weeks in Louisiana?” I asked my nephew if I could go photograph his high school football team and it turned into a larger body of work. Now I’ve traveled to six states and I have three more states to go. For me, the portraits contain this amazing place before they’ve become fully endowed men in society. And a lot of these football players are going off to war. It’s intense to see these young men stand before me, and I get to bear witness to them. And it’s incredible to look at the range of their faces. Some of them are obviously only playing football because their dads are making them, versus the extreme real football player, who completely embodies everything about the sport’s masculinity.
You can tell that about them?
Yeah, you can tell from the pictures who’s hyper into it versus a boy who’s just like, “Yeah, here I am.”
Do you talk to them?
Yeah, but it’s very quick. I don’t have that much time and it’s odd because the portraits don’t reveal this, but when I’m making it, the whole team is lined up after practice and just waiting for their picture to be taken. So they’re all catcalling each other during the process of it. Like, “Hey, you look like a faggot!” and I’m like, “Oh, great. Do I address this or do I just leave it alone?”
What do you do?
I don’t address it. I just go, “Hey, come on, guys, that’s not cool,” or something like that. I don’t say, “By the way, I’m a lesbian and uh…”
I assume they’re not familiar with your work.
No, they don’t know who I am.
Have they shown up to any exhibits?
So far, no. I was a little nervous about that because my Wikipedia page had my self-portrait, Pervert, on there. So I did a little editing, and put a high school football player there instead. And now I have a warning on my Wikipedia page that I’ve changed the content and I’m a bad human being. I had a Wiki war with somebody who kept wanting to change it back to the way it was. Because that’s the thing, it’s the work that everybody goes to right away, but it’s really a very small representation of the work I’ve made.
Yeah, I guess it must get a little annoying to be pigeonholed like that.
It’s always the precursor of how I’m described. I’m like, well, actually, if you look at it, it’s really just a small portion of what I think about, and I’m not a singular identity, nor do I want to be.
You’re like, “What about the icehouses?”
When you had your Guggenheim show, there were a ton of ads in the subway for it. They had the sweet portrait of your son in a tutu and the title “American Photographer.” I kept thinking, man, I bet some Midwestern tourists are going to look at this and think, “Oh, what a cute show about children and America,” and then they’d go to the museum and totally freak out. Did you hear of anybody having any extreme reactions?
Well, it was a really popular show. They told me that probably 5,000 people went through it per day from September to January. There were lines around the block toward the end of the exhibition. I think the museum was kind of thrilled. They don’t usually give all four floors over to photography. So I anticipated, as I often do, a certain amount of letter writing and censorship possibility in relationship to some of the work. And there was none. There was not one negative letter to the museum. No “I can’t believe an American institution like the Guggenheim would show this kind of work,” nothing. And it’s always been interesting to me that I’ve been able to skip the whole censorship thing to a certain extent. I think it’s because the photographs end up being really quiet, that you get to contemplate with them. They’re in your face, but not, like, shoving it down your throat.
Right, I often see the word “regal” used to describe those portraits.
Beauty, I use beauty. Beauty is an easy thing to use. It’s a good thing that it’s there.