Describing herself as a ‘kind of twisted social documentary photographer’, American photographer Catherine Opie has an affection for subcultures. Inspired by the photographs of Lewis Hine, the Ohio-born Opie picked up the camera at age nine and immediately began photographing friends and her community. Her early series Being and Having (1991) and Portraits (1993—1997) mixed traditional portrait photography with less traditional subjects, depicting her friends in the lesbian and gay community in Los Angeles, transgender women and men, drag queens, and members of the tatted, pierced, leather, queer and S&M community of San Francisco. If to photograph is to accord importance to a subject, then Opie accords her subjects beauty, dignity, and visibility – bringing them into art galleries and museums – and opens up discourse around the queer community and fetish culture.
Alongside these works Opie produced self-portraits that were controversial and later proved to be iconic and career-defining. She made Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) a photo of her shirtless back carved with stick figures of two women and a house, expressing her personal domestic longing. One year later Opie made Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994). In it Opie is seated topless before a black and gold brocade drape, hands folded gently on her lap. She is hooded in a black leather gimp mask, the word ‘pervert’ cut in ornate script across her chest, and her arms woven with hypodermic needles– play piercing associated with the S&M scene of which she was a participant. Later, after Opie had given birth to her first child, she made Self Portrait/Nursing (2004) in which she sits against a background of red drapery, cradling her cherubic golden-haired infant to her naked breast. Her exposed arm decorated with tattoos and her chest bearing the faint scar spelling ‘pervert’, this is an image of butch motherhood that defiantly rejects the traditional notions of normative femininity. Opie challenges social norms by exploring sexual and cultural identity in images that plays with the classical trope of art-historical imagery– in this case Madonna-with-child. These portraits evoke a classical composition and sensibility of old master portraits, with the formality of portraiture to draw viewers in, inviting them to look carefully at something they may otherwise not take time to see.
Opie doesn’t discriminate in a subject’s value or importance. Her three-decade long body of work can be confounding in its diversity of subject matter, from photos exploring the gender fluidity of pierced and tattooed friends; LA freeways; surfers; the personal effects of Elizabeth Taylor; malls; high school football; or tree stumps. Hers is a democratic and inclusive view of America. What her photo series all share however is an affection for the subject matter and curiosity. And for all their documentary-ness– and its implied conceptual limitations – Opie’s work is very reflective, at times challenging, but always engaging. Hers is a conceptually and intellectually laden artistic output, suggesting an alternative to the way we look at and present photographs.
In her recent Hong Kong exhibition, ‘So Long as they are wild’, 11 photographs from Opie’s 2015 series of Yosemite National Park– initially created as a commission for the new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles– and a cluster of nine small ceramic tree stump sculptures are presented across the two rooms of the Lehmann Maupin Gallery. The sculptures, grouped together on a hexagonal pedestal in the middle of the gallery’s smaller room and set against a background of three photographs, are intended as a ‘tactical representation of the nature’ in her photographs formed by directly imprinting the clay onto the bark.
Unlike the photos that have earned her initial acclaim, the photographs in Opie’s current solo exhibition at Lehman Maupin Hong Kong are quieter, more toned down, but the same radical and iconoclastic thread of her previous work runs through them. These photos of landscapes–some out of focus, others close-ups of a cascading waterfall, reflections of a waterfall in a lake, or a stretch of cobalt blue sky over the jagged ridge of mountain peak– have just as strong an impact. Opie’s images push the boundaries of depiction– her landscapes are barely recognisable as such in some of the images. These works require a committed engagement from the viewer, a slowing down, and reflection on both what is shown and what isn’t. The blurriness and unusual cropping of the images reveals the photographer’s ‘hand’, drawing the viewer into dialogue with the work, where the intention of the photographer becomes scrutinised and analysed.
Opie, who spent a long time visiting wilderness sites across the United States, chose to focus on Yosemite National Park due to the site’s strong connection to iconic American landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, whose name is synonymous with the American landscape. Adams released his Yosemite series in 1927, displaying images of the monolithic granite cliff face of Half Dome, as well as panoramic views of the park. The photographs emphasised the indomitability, awe-inspiring beauty, authority and majesty of the landscape. They were sharp, clear, black-and-white photographs of a strong, hard, and overwhelming landscape, of a frontier open to exploration and conquering. Opie rejects the rugged, masculine representation of the classical landscape genre, opening it up for examination through a feminist lens. In her series she explores the relationship of the natural landscape to the human body, humorously creating visual parallels, as well as deconstructing the way we look at a photograph.
The photos on view all depict the wilderness, fragmented, in close-up, blurred, cropped at surprising angles, so that there is no notion of scale, let alone a recognition of the iconic geographical site. There is a soft, dreamy, sensual, and intimate quality to many of the works. In Untitled #4 (Yosemite Valley), 2015, and Untitled #2 (Yosemite Valley), 2015, the landscape is so blurred in that the images take on a painterly abstract quality. The out of focus photographs seem to imply memory, nostalgia, and a passing of time. A couple of sharp focus photographs of a waterfall (Yosemite Falls #4, 2015; Yosemite Falls #2, 2015) are suggestive–deliberately so–of female genitalia, of crevices and wetness. Those that are blurrier (Untitled #3 (Yosemite Valley), 2015) take on almost a censorious appearance, a negation of the female sex which highlights society’s obsession with censoring the female body.
The exhibition title is taken from a quote by Scottish American naturalist, John Muir, the ‘father of national parks’, who in 1890 pushed Congress to pass a bill to protect National Monuments and Parks and establish Yosemite National Park. ‘None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild,’ he wrote. It is an acknowledgement of the importance of Muir’s preservation work, but it also reveals Opie’s reverence for the great untouched natural landscape, and the need to protect it, while also perfectly encapsulating Opie’s affection for the wild and untamed as exemplified in her earlier works.
Underlying this documentation of the landscape is a sense of anxiety over the destruction of our wilderness– a need to remember and to preserve in image something which may well disappear. These photographs are not just a representation of a captured visual experience, but also captured consciousness. ‘The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,’ wrote feminist theorist Susan Sontag. Opie discloses much about herself, the viewer, and society in relation to the subject matter depicted.