Catherine Opie speaks

Some excerpts from our interview with photographer Catherine Opie at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art on April 12, 2011, on the occasion of her exhibit “Empty and Full”:

“When you’re younger you’re much more idealistic. Period. You literally think that you might as a singular person be able to profoundly affect other people’s minds. I think that one of the things that I was talking about that I talk about when I give lectures now is with doing so much in relation to queer communities and the importance of me to image them that I felt like, well, maybe there is a moment when I can have somebody rethink their homophobic tendencies. Now I realize that I’m never going to be able to make somebody who’s homophobic not homophobic. And in the same way I’m never going to be able to make a Republican not a Republican. We as humans need to connect to this kind of profound unmovable sense of ideology that we create for ourselves. And within creating that ideology it also creates a specificity of identity for self. I think it’s very hard at this point to change somebody. My father did go from a Republican to a Democrat. I think he did get tired of me saying, ‘But Dad, you realize…” It happened because of abortion actually. He decided that women have absolutely the right to choose and with how radically the Republican party shifted to conservative and religious ideology. That wasn’t why he was a Republican. He was a Republican in relationship to fiscal ideas. He wasn’t a Republican in relationship to religious ideology. He’s an atheist. He got lost by the Republican party because of its connection to the Christian right.”

“In that body of work ‘In and Around Home,’ there’s three pictures within that of faces of crowds. There’s a USC tailgate party. There’s a Martin Luther King parade. And then there’s a demonstration to 31 sex offenders living in the same house in our neighborhood. I realized at that point in going out and doing ‘In and Around’ our neighborhood, and having a camera back in my hand that I had missed street photography. And I didn’t know that I had missed it until I started looking at that. I realized that, okay, everybody’s taking photographs of flowers and other things. It seemed like the art world became apolitical to a certain extent post 9/11. And also street photography was considered dead. But now there’s actually a resurgence and a dialogue of street photography, which I find really curious. But I wanted to go back to the street and back to the people and back to bearing witness to what it means to be this woman in her mid-40s to bear witness. And the Inauguration was just a no-brainer for me to go to. It was like, oh my gosh, this is the first African-American president being elected in this country. And I need to go and bear witness to this and make a body of work.”

“Bearing witness in relation to creating photographs is also creating historical documents. … I’m not thinking these are going to be the great next documents of our time. But I’m also aware of what it means to look at a Lewis Hine photograph, what it means for me to be in conversation with Robert Frank. That there is this incredible history of photography in relationship to its literally capturing being of the moment. And that has been lost so much in contemporary photography. Photojournalism still acts in that way.”

“Why are we only picking a specific identity? I don’t think that anybody would say they’re a singular identity. But the rhetoric that gets placed around the group that we are supposedly aligned with is really strong rhetoric. And I think that I’m asking people to ask that question of themselves. Because they belong to the Tea Party, they might believe in certain ideologies of that, does mean that they have to be homophobic? Does that mean that they have to be anti-abortion? Does that mean they have to cut all social services for people who actually need social services? Same connection in relation to the African-American community. It’s the same kind of questions in a different way. Why generally in relation to the community is there this outrage over homosexuality? There is this very well known homophobia. Even Obama has said that he really had to question his own belief systems and that was part of the reason he backed up the freedom of marriage act because he realized there were people around him in his life who were queer and why can’t they have those same rights. Why not? Of course, they should have the same rights.”

On photographing sunsets and sunrises: “It’s about a journey across the ocean. It is about time and the metaphor of time. It’s about the metaphor of nature. About that you set these certain rules for yourself of doing every sunrise and sunset, but sometimes there’s not a sunrise or a sunset, but it really for me expresses this time and the rigor of being patient and waiting. I think that we often don’t have that as a society as a whole anymore. We want everything so quickly. It’s even fast food. If you got through a drive through and it’s not fast enough you get pissed off. And it’s just like: how can it not be fast enough? Have we gotten to this point where you need it quick.”

Pictured from top to bottom: Catherine Opie, “Untitled #5 (Inauguration Portrait),” 2009; “Untitled #1 (Jan. 20th, 2009)” from the “Inauguration series,” 2009; “Self Portrait / Nursing,” 2004; “Sunrise #1,” 2009; and “Sunset #1,” 2009. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles, CA ©Catherine Opie.

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