Por raits of the ar ists

The fine-art pho­tog­ra­pher Cather­ine Opie talks in­spi­ra­tion and celebrity with Caro­line Roux

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CON­TENTS -

Yes­ter­day was the big day,’ says Cather­ine Opie, as we set­tle our­selves on a down­beat sofa in a mod­est pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio just south of Water­loo Sta­tion. ‘We started with Lynette, then Isaac, then Duro. And ended with Celia.’ The Amer­i­can artist, on a quick Lon­don trip, had been mak­ing por­traits of fel­low artists: the 2013 Turner Prize nom­i­nee Lynette Yi­adom-boakye; film-maker Isaac Julien; fash­ion de­signer Duro Olowu; and the ethe­real por­trait painter Celia Paul (who has a child by Lu­cian Freud). The re­sults will soon be on show at Thomas Dane’s gallery in Lon­don.

These are just the lat­est ad­di­tions to Opie’s on­go­ing se­ries of cel­e­brated cre­atives that she be­gan five years ago with Laura and Kate Mul­leavy, the fash­ion-de­signer sis­ters be­hind the Ro­darte la­bel. The writer Jonathan Franzen and the con­cep­tual artist John Baldessari have been sub­ject to what she calls her ‘ex­tended stare’. Af­ter I leave, de­signer Rick Owens will be pass­ing by, and the day be­fore both Anish Kapoor and Gil­lian Wear­ing had been in the chair. ‘Her light­ing brings an amaz­ing painterly qual­ity,’ says Wear­ing. ‘She cap­tures peo­ple in an ex­tra­or­di­nary way.’

Opie oc­cu­pies a place in the top tier of fine art pho­tog­ra­phers, bring­ing the art-his­tor­i­cal lan­guage of painters like Velázquez into the present day. She is not, though, a house­hold name. While the world-fa­mous pho­tog­ra­pher An­nie Lei­bovitz, for ex­am­ple, roams across the fields of art, ed­i­to­rial and ad­ver­tis­ing, Opie has never sought to stray near the com­mer­cial world. In­stead she ded­i­cates her­self to ex­plor­ing par­tic­u­lar groups – am­a­teur foot­ball play­ers, surfers wait­ing in sil­very mists for elu­sive waves. She cap­tures cities when they are empty of peo­ple and mo­tor­ways with no cars. For a ‘por­trait’ of El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, she moved through the movie star’s home as she lay dy­ing, snap­ping her bed­side table, make-up and per­fumes, shoes and jew­els. ‘I couldn’t take her por­trait, her im­age is too big,’ she says. ‘But the things that had her im­print, her DNA – like an emery board – I was re­ally touched by.’

The pic­tures that made peo­ple take no­tice in the early 1990s were of a rather dif­fer­ent group – sit­ters came from San Fran­cisco’s leather­bound gay com­mu­nity, in which she played a lead­ing part. Some sub­jects were in the throes of Aids, oth­ers in the com­pli­cated process of tran­si­tion­ing across gen­ders. There are pierc­ings and sta­ples and tat­toos – in one, the word DYKE is finely inked in gothic script on the back of a neck be­neath closely cropped hair.

In her own self-por­trait, Opie has a bloodied line draw­ing of a house and two fe­male stick fig­ures hold­ing hands scored into her back. ‘It was the life I dreamt of, but wasn’t liv­ing back then,’ she says. Sen­sual, and throb­bing with loss, long­ing or de­sire, as well as defin­ing an era and a po­lit­i­cal sense of choice, they have more than stood the test of time: some were used in the open­ing cred­its of the les­bian tele­vi­sion se­ries The L Word.

The woman who sits here to­day hasn’t so much mel­lowed as moved with the times. She is cheer­ful, solid and grey-haired, dressed down in jeans and T-shirt. Her en­tourage is just one as­sis­tant, Heather Ras­mussen (an artist in her own right), and the pair are stay­ing in a twobed Airbnb not far away at The Oval.

Opie is a key fig­ure in LA’S cul­tural life – she is a pro­fes­sor in the fine art depart­ment at UCLA and a board mem­ber of the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, as well as en­joy­ing her own suc­cess. Her cur­rent com­mu­nity is the artis­tic elite, and her work is highly prized and ex­pen­sive. But Cathy, as ev­ery­one calls her, clearly doesn’t have an ego that needs mas­sag­ing.

Opie de­nies that in this lat­est se­ries she’s doc­u­ment­ing cre­ative celebrity, sim­ply that this is her mi­lieu. ‘It’s hard to be a suc­cess­ful artist, so yes, we’re all in the same bub­ble,’ she laughs. Her sub­jects have in­cluded her friend the artist Matthew Barney (who re­cently separated from Björk). ‘He was dif­fi­cult for me,’ she says. ‘Just be­cause he’s so pretty to look at, when he’s re­ally a very silent and in­ter­nal per­son.’

She has also pho­tographed David Hock­ney. ‘ We’re not close, but we re­spect each other,’ she says of the oc­to­ge­nar­ian, whose own por­traits of bo­hemi­ans such as Ossie Clark helped es­tab­lish his rep­u­ta­tion. In the por­trait, taken in LA in June, Hock­ney seems to emerge al­most im­pe­ri­ously out of Opie’s vis­cous black back­ground, the colour of his bob­bled pur­ple cardi­gan like a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his own off­beat painter’s pal­ette.

‘It ’s im­por­tant to bear wit­ness, to spend some time,’ says Opie of the im­age. ‘I love the paint splat­ters on his trousers and the hear­ing aid. The bulge of the wal­let in the pocket.’ The frailty of the artist John Baldessari that she sum­moned in 2013 pays homage to Rem­brandt’s Old Man with a Beard, and is enough to move you to tears.

Opie has al­ways bal­anced emo­tion and pol­i­tics. Jonathan Franzen she ap­proached be­cause she’d read his books and was in­ter­ested in his place in the his­tory of the great Amer­i­can (white male) novel. ‘He’s in­cred­i­bly gifted with lan­guage,’ she says. ‘But I have a prob­lem, as with many straight male writ­ers, with the over­wrought misog­yny of the work. The fe­male char­ac­ters are an­gry and bit­ter. I won­der if when a man writes about a woman like that, it’s about an as­pect

Top Celia, 2017, of Celia Paul. Above David, Austin, and Bryant, 2009

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