Por raits of the ar ists
The fine-art photographer Catherine Opie talks inspiration and celebrity with Caroline Roux
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