ASPP’s Michael Masterson invited the Los Angeles Chapter members to “The Anneberg Space for Photography” in Century City, Los Angeles on May 7, 2009.Catherine Opie gave a 90 minute lecture on twenty years of her body of work. For those who are not familiar with her work it is worth checking it out. She has made and is continuing to make an impact with her photography and she does it her way.
My views are as always subjective and I can only speak to how I perceive the work. When first seeing her, Catherine looks like the nice lady next door that is until she turns on the projector. I see her pierced, tattooed, cut, nursing, naked and in S&M gear. I learn that her sexuality has at times been very prominent but there is a desire for domestic bliss deeply routed within her. It appears to me at first that there is conflict but Catherine resolves it through her work. At times I am uncomfortable and twitch in my seat because I am uncertain what the appropriate response should be.
There is absolute silence in her images that I find throughout her work. I am not sure how she manages to pull this off as not all her subjects are silent, but somehow she achieves this quietness. The audience got a big laugh when one person asked about how she interacts with her subjects. Cathy said that friends who know her style understand: “to just shut up and stare.”
That approach, the silence eases my discomfort with some of the darker images depicting parts of a culture that I don’t know anything about. The images are unapologetic and composed, but raw. She is not set out to shock me rather Cathy seeks to start a dialogue with me about what I see and she succeeds with it. She describes how the body of work that is at first is seemingly unrelated becomes connected over time. The connection occurs later in the lecture when we realize she is interested in two things. People and spaces and the discovery of both. Put together in relationship suddenly I get it.
Catherine took us through an ongoing project of portraits of high school football players with imagery so pure that I keep thinking to myself “they are so good.”
Further discussions came with my fellow ASPP member Ellen Herbert afterward over drinks and Hour D’Ouvre sponsored by the ASPP and Jeff Burke and Lorraine Triolo. We were deep into a discussion of the approach a commercial versus fine art photographer takes. Cathy Opie made that point very clearly. She starts with the project in mind that she chooses. Then with the endgoal in mind she goes backward. Depending on how she wants to deliver her message she chooses her tools. Those range from odd formats 7×17, a huge 10×4 feet Polaroid camera to a digital Hasselblad with a resolution usually used for studio photography.
A commercial photographer has a tendency to establish an image pattern, what we call the unique look or style. This style is projected into each piece of work produced. So the approach comes from the other side, how can I take this and make it look like mine. Definitely much food for thought and a fabulous conversation with my friends and colleagues.
All in all I walked away with a better appreciation of street photography, social documentary or art photography, whatever that might be for you. I put aside my preconceived notions of the architecture being not perfect and having seen better portraits. I did see and recognize Catherine Opie as an incredibly conscious artist. Someone who ponders over her message and does what needs to be done for us to understand her vision.
Catherine Opie is currently a Professor at UC Los Angeles. She is widely exhibited and her work is found in the ongoing innagural exhibit in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Space For Photography. The next lecture is about (not with) Julius Shulman on May 14.