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Catherine Opie

American Photographer

Catherine Opie Photo

Born: 1961 - Sandusky, Ohio

"I have vivid memories of going to the National Portrait Gallery. I was probably eight or nine. So often, we relate much easier to a visual world."

Summary of Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie is a contemporary photographer who came to prominence in the 1990s for her uncompromising portraits of her peers in the lesbian, queer, BDSM and leather communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. As an openly lesbian artist who is part of often denigrated queer subcultures, Opie has spent much of her career documenting underground, subversive, and outsider communities - using extremely stylized, formal conventions of portrait photography to frame unconventional subjects, including herself. These photographs range from intentionally disturbing images of herself wearing a gimp mask with multiple needles protruding from her arms, to touching domestic scenes of lesbian couples in their homes.

Moving away from explicitly portraying queer, gay, and BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) subcultures, Opie began to photograph members of other American communities, such as surfers and footballers, continuing to make portraits towards fostering empathy between sitter and viewer. Opie's most recent work is portrait photographs of contemporary artists of all ages, showing their humanity and bodily fragility.

Key Ideas

Catherine Opie's chief contribution to contemporary photography is her use of classical, formal portrait conventions to portray unconventional subjects, such as butch lesbian mothers and BDSM practitioners, each pictured as important, worthy and individualized subjects for formal portraiture.
As a lesbian herself, Opie has documented and shared varied lesbian experiences more than any other contemporary photographer. Her photographs of lesbian mothers, gimps, girlfriends, and drag kings show the humanity and complexity of lesbian women to a broader population.
Important feminist theorist, Judith Butler, wrote that gender is "performative" and that identity is comprised of layers that appear over time according to the actions an individual performs, not just something we are born with. Opie's photographs play with gender - masculinity and femininity are often both present in the same image, and a subject's gender identity is often ambiguous. This is unusual in conventional portraiture, and helps viewers to think about how our own identity is constructed.
Opie's later photographs provide a thorough and original documentation of important contemporary artists working now. These photographs allow us insight into the real identities of these loved and respected artists, and Opie does not shy away from imperfections on the artists' bodies and clothes, allowing us to see them as real humans, as well as important creators.
Catherine Opie Photo

Catherine Opie was born in Sandusky, Ohio. At eight years old she wrote a school book-report on the photography of Lewis Hine and was moved by his appetite for social reform. "Hine was able to change the law through his images of child labour and I got very attached to the idea of what those pictures could do. I haven't stopped using the camera since," she said.

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