Catherine Sue Opie (born 1961)[1] is an American fine-art photographer and educator. She lives and works in West Adams, Los Angeles,[2] as a professor of photography at University of California at Los Angeles.[3][4]

Opie studies the connections between mainstream and infrequent society. By specializing in portraiture, studio and landscape photography, she is able to create pieces relating to sexual identity. Through photography, Opie, documents the relationship between the individual and the space inhabited.

She is known for her portraits exploring the Los Angeles leather-dyke community. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art[5] and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.[6]


Opie was born in Sandusky, Ohio. She spent her early childhood in Ohio,[7] and was influenced heavily by photographer Lewis Hine.[8] At the age of nine she received a Kodak Instamatic camera, and immediately began taking photographs of her family and community.[9] She evolved as an artist at age 14 when she created her own darkroom.[10] Her family moved from Ohio to California in 1975.[11]

She later received a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1988. Prior to arriving at CalArts, she was a strictly black-and-white photographer. Opie's thesis project entitled Master Plan (1988) examined a wide variety of topics. The project looked deeper into construction sites, advertisement schemes, homeowner regulations, and the interior layout of their homes within the community of Valencia, California.

In 1988 Opie moved to Los Angeles, California and began working as an artist. She supported herself by accepting a job as a lab technician at the University of California, Irvine.[12] Opie and her partner, painter Julie Burleigh,[13] constructed working studios in the backyard of their home in South Central Los Angeles.[14]

In 2001, Opie gave birth to a boy named Oliver though intrauterine insemination.[15]

At the Hammer Museum, Opie was on the first Artist Council (a series of sessions with curators and museum administrators) and served on the board of overseers.[16] Along with fellow artists John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha, Opie served as member on the board for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 2012, she and the others resigned; however, they joined the museum's 14-member search committee for a new director after Jeffrey Deitch's resignation in 2013.[17] Opie returned in support of the museum's new director, Philippe Vergne, in 2014.[18] She was also on the board of the Andy Warhol Foundation.[4]

Along with Richard Hawkins, Opie curated a selection of work by the late artist, Tony Greene, at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, in New York.[19]



Dusty by Opie, 2007

Opie's work is characterized by a combination of formal concerns, a variety of printing technologies, references to art history, and social/political commentary. It demonstrates a mix between traditional photography and unconventional subjects.[9] For example, she explores abstraction in the landscape vis-a-vis the placement of the horizon line in the Icehouses (2001)[20] and Surfers (2003) series.[21] She has printed photographs using chromochrome, iris prints, Polaroids, and silver photogravure. Examples of art history references include the use of bright color backgrounds in portraits which reference the work of Hans Holbein[14] and the full body frontal portraits that reference August Sander. Opie also depicts herself with her son in the traditional pose of Madonna and child in Self Portrait/Nursing (2004).[22]

Opie's work from the 1990s could be related to the traditions of Renaissance and Baroque art: placing her subjects central to the composition, utilizing stark, dramatic light source, allowing her subjects to fall in front of rich backgrounds; Opie's images relay a more aggressive undertone. Certain art historical attributes throughout her images, themes and/or icons that have been referenced throughout art history.

Opie first came to be known with Being and Having (1991) and Portraits (1993–1997), which portray queer communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Being and Having looks at the outward portrayal of masculinity and is a reference to 17th-century Old Master portraiture.[23] It conveyed strong ideals and perceptions based among persons of the LGBT community, referencing gender, age, race and identity; all constructed surrounding identity. This body of work similarly plays with performative aspects and play. These works read as iconography, themselves.

Use of certain symbols in her works have allowed these portraits to sit separately from any of her previous works. The portraits, for instance, Self Portrait/Pervert (1994) uses blood.[24] The symbolism used in this work is recognized as a reoccurring statement for Opie, personally and allegorically. These images convey symbolic references to the celebration, embracing and remembrance of the shift and personal relationship with one's body.

Opie's use of blood is also seen in another work, entitled, Self-portrait/Cutting (1993).[25] This particular piece is a photograph of an etching carved into her back. The blood etching is an image of two stick figure women holding hands. Behind them is a house, with birds flying through a partially sunny sky. It is very clearly a child's drawing. Opie is positioned in front of a baroque type wallpaper. It is emerald green, and coated in many symbolistic items. The items with the most symbolic value are the fruits. Fruits are known to symbolize fertility and abundance. It is important in this piece to recognize the significance of the fruit. These two women are not biologically able to produce a child, yet they stand in front of a house representing family. The overall placement of this etching suggests that she is proud to be a part of the LGBT community, yet she still feels the need to cover up her identity in certain situations. She may feel as though she always has to look over her shoulder to feel safe.

Opie grounds her work in communities, identity politics, and her relationship with her own sexuality.[11] The performative aspect of this work differs from previous work Opie has produced.

Opie's earlier work relies more heavily on documentary photography as opposed to allegorical, yet still provides a stark relationship to her investigation and use of powerful iconography throughout the years.[26]

A common social/political theme in her work is the concept of community. Opie has investigated aspects of community, making portraits of many groups including LGBT community; surfers; and most recently high school football players. Opie is interested in how identities are shaped by our surrounding architecture. Her work is informed by her identity as an out lesbian.[27] Her works balance personal and political. Her assertive portraits bring queers to a forefront that is normally silenced by societal norms. Her work also explores how the idea of family varies between straight and LGBTQ communities. Opie highlights that LGBTQ households often base their families in close friendships and community while straight families focus on their individual family.[28]

Opie has referenced problems of visibility; where the reference to Renaissance paintings in her images declare the individuals as saints or characters. Opie's portraits document, celebrate and protect the community and individuals in which she photographs.[29] In Portraits (1993–1997) she presents a variety of identities among the queer community such as drag kings, cross dressers, and F-to-M transexuals.[30][23] During her time in Los Angeles, Opie focused heavily on her surrounding environment for her works Houses, Freeways, and Mini-malls. Houses (1995–1996) shifted towards domestic architecture through portraits of Beverly Hills and Bel Air mansions. Freeways (1994–1995) depicts the Los Angeles highway system in black and white, which was unique to her usual style. Mini-malls (1997–1998) concluded her works on iconic images of Los Angeles culture by depicting billboards as well as identifying various ethnic groups in shopping centers.

This Los Angeles-focused series sparked her ongoing project American Cities (1997–present) which is a collection of panoramic black-and-white photographs of quintessential American cities. This series is similar to an earlier work of hers, Domestic (1995–1998) which documented her 2-month RV road trip, portraying lesbian families engaging in everyday house-hold activities across the country.[31]

Drawing inspiration from transgressive photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, and sex radicals, who provided a space for liberals and feminists, Opie has also explored controversial topics and imagery in her work. In her O folio—6 photogravures from 1999—Opie photographed S-M porn images she took earlier for On Our Backs, but as extreme close-ups.

In 2011 Opie photographed the home of the actress Elizabeth Taylor in Bel Air, Los Angeles. Taylor died during the project, and never met Opie. Opie took 3,000 images for the project; 129 comprised the completed study.[32] The resultant images were published as 700 Nimes Road.[33] Collector Daily noted the "relentless femininity of Taylor's taste" in the images contrasted with Opie's self declared "identity as a butch woman" in Opie's forward to 700 Nimes Road and Opie's "status as an ordinary mortal" in comparison to Taylor's stardom.[34]

Opie's first film The Modernist (2017) is a tribute to French filmmaker Chris Marker's 1962 classic La Jetée.[35] Composed of 800 still images, the film features Pig Pen (aka Stosh Fila)—a genderqueer performance artist—as the protagonist. The Modernist has been described as an ode to the city in which it takes place, Los Angeles, but it is also seen as questioning the legacy of modernism in America.[36] The twenty-two-minute film, in summary, is about an aggravated artist who just wants his own homes as he has fallen in love with the architecture of Los Angeles. Being unable to purchase a place to live, the performance artist goes around burning down lovely architecture of LA.[37]


Opie's teaching career began in 2001 at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 2019, UCLA announced Opie as the university’s inaugural endowed chair in the art department, a position underwritten by a $2-million gift from philanthropists Lynda and Stewart Resnick.[38]



Solo exhibitions

Group exhibitions

  • Kiss My Genders. Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, 2019. Opie's work is featured alongside photographic, video, and installation works by Holly Falconer, Peter Hujar, and Del LaGrace Volcano.[45][46]


Opie's work is held in the following permanent collections:


In popular culture

Her name appears in the lyrics of the Le Tigre song "Hot Topic."[56]


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  3. ^ "Catherine Opie – Professor, Photography". UCLA Official website. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
  4. ^ a b Levy, Ariel (March 13, 2017). "Secret Selves". The New Yorker. p. 58.
  5. ^ a b "Catherine Opie". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  6. ^ a b "The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation". The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  7. ^ Liesl Bradner (August 21, 2010), Football and art collide at LACMA Los Angeles Times.
  8. ^ Reilly, Maura (2001). "The Drive to Describe: An Interview with Catherine Opie". Art Journal. 60 (2): 82–95. doi:10.2307/778066. ISSN 0004-3249. JSTOR 778066.
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  11. ^ a b Lebovici, Elisabetth (2000). "Destabilising Gender". MAKE Magazine. 89 (September): 18–19 – via EBSCOhost.
  12. ^ Catherine Opie: American Photographer, September 26, 2008 – January 7, 2009 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  13. ^ Lisa Boone (April 12, 2013), Garden is her canvas, flowers and edibles (and chickens) her paint Los Angeles Times.
  14. ^ a b Hilarie M. Sheets (January 27, 2013), Home Views, Bound by Ice or Leather The New York Times.
  15. ^ Levy, Ariel (March 6, 2017). "Catherine Opie, All-American Subversive". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved December 11, 2019.
  16. ^ Susan Emerling (April 19, 2009), The Hammer Museum gets together with artists, outside the box Los Angeles Times.
  17. ^ Mike Boehm (September 24, 2013), MOCA adds artists who resigned from board to its director search team Los Angeles Times.
  18. ^ Mike Boehm and Deborah Vankin (March 19, 2014), Artists return to MOCA board Los Angeles Times.
  19. ^ David Ng (November 15, 2013), "Whitney Biennial 2014 to include L.A. artists, David Foster Wallace". Los Angeles Times.
  20. ^ Minneapolis Institute of Art. "Untitled #14 (Icehouses)". Minneapolis Institute of Art. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  21. ^ "Icehouses and Surfers". Guggenheim. September 1, 2010. Retrieved March 22, 2019.
  22. ^ Heath, Joanne (2013). Chernick, Myrel; Klein, Jennie; Buller, Rachel Epp (eds.). "Negotiating the Maternal: Motherhood, Feminism, and Art". Art Journal. 72 (4): 84–86. doi:10.1080/00043249.2013.10792867. ISSN 0004-3249. JSTOR 43188637. S2CID 143550487.
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  33. ^ Alyssa Bird (October 16, 2015). "Go Inside Elizabeth Taylor's Closets". Architectural Digest. Archived from the original on March 29, 2020. Retrieved March 23, 2020.
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  54. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation". Retrieved April 11, 2019.
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  56. ^ Oler, Tammy (October 31, 2019). "57 Champions of Queer Feminism, All Name-Dropped in One Impossibly Catchy Song". Slate Magazine.

External links

Links to Works

External link

Media related to Catherine Opie at Wikimedia Commons