Morten Andenæs on Catherine Opie
Dear Catherine …… is how my partner suggested I start this piece, when I expressed that I would find it difficult to do justice to an exhibition for which my initial reaction was simply, fucking great.
Keeping an Eye on the World at Henie Onstad Art Centre is the first survey exhibition in Europe, of American-born Catherine Opie’s photographic work, and to borrow a phrase from the editors of the New York Times Style Magazine, this text will be a ‘by no means exhaustive list’ of all the avenues of thought the exhibition had me wandering along. The show is accompanied by a very detailed catalogue containing all the works on display and more, texts by Ana María Bresciani and Natalie Hope O’Donnell, and four interviews with the artist conducted over the course of twenty years by Russell Ferguson, but I opted to see the exhibition as separate from this background information in order to experience what Opie’s pictures do. And they do, a lot.
The ‘Dear’ in ‘Dear Catherine’ may seem inappropriate given that I do not know the artist. I could have opted simply for ‘Catherine’, but my partner, without having seen the show, was onto something when she suggested this mode of address. As an overwhelming rule of thumb, when she points the camera at other people, Opie titles her photographs with their names. This acknowledgment, or introduction, is just one of the myriad ways in which her works speak of the difficulty facing the documentary photographer as he or she tries to do justice to their subjects. How do you make the complexity of a subject visible, and how is it possible to do for it (a show, a person, a situation) a fraction of what it does for you?
On confronting any photograph, I often begin by naming. Naming allows me to orient myself; it is a mnemonic device and it functions as a handle, both literally and figuratively. I look and categorise, explain what is before me and try to name that which resists explanation. I look and speak, speak and look; no word without sense, no world without word. In Keeping an Eye on the World, I begin by naming ‘mother and child’, the photograph that is in fact called Self-portrait / Nursing, from 2004, hung above the stairs and overlooking the main exhibition hall.
A looming, topless, female figure holds a child in her arms, while the infant sucks on her breast, their eyes are fixed on one another. This reciprocal gaze, so desperately needed between mother and child- to look up and see our look absorbed and acknowledged- is the single most indispensable part of a person’s later psychic wellbeing. The picture triggers something at the base of the neck. It is instantly recognisable. It is an image ingrained in us, partly due to its ubiquity, but also because it evokes a sense of something inscribed but not clearly recollected, the vague memory that we too, were once like that child, in the comfort of that giant body, nestled in the safety of our mother’s arms, ideally anyway. Opie’s piece is a self-portrait, and though hung by itself here, it must be seen in conjunction with the other self-portraits made a decade earlier. Because of this lapse of time, the self-portrait speaks more to change, memory and the passing of the years (a recurring theme in this exhibition) than it does to the current trend of mothers pouring out their #baby-nursing pics on Instagram or Snapchat. Several blue-black tattoos wind their way around Opie’s upper right arm, the arabesques mirroring the draped background, which puts one in mind of a drawing-room portrait. But then, across her chest, scar tissue reveals the word PERVERT.
Any student of photography will be told that photo-graphis is the business of writing with light, and yet it has also been described, perhaps more tellingly, as ‘etching’ with light. The rays bouncing off the subject of the world out there burns its way like acid into whatever light-sensitive surface we use as the foundation for our image, much like the shadows of the dead in Hiroshima, fixed on the ground by the bright light and devastating heat. This idea of etching, like a scar, puts me in mind of John Berger, who said that photography did not come onto the scene to replace drawing, but memory. The scar is a memory inscribed into the being of a person.
Those of use who have spent any time with children understand that it is experience, rather then a written injunction from another, that is the best teacher of all. The scar, as we know from Self-Portrait/Pervert, which we will see later in the exhibition, was once a painful, bloody mess, an open sore. And growing up in some ways has to do with coming to terms with that sore, of learning how to live with it and the designations we once gave ourselves, the categories we forced ourselves into in order to stand out, sharp and defined, against whatever background we found ourselves wrestling.
The nursing of a child will invariably figure as the template for all its later interactions, but it is also a first step in the most basic process of teaching it about categorisation: an I, a you, and a we. – The same goes for looking at photographs. It is a learned experience. Adults who have never seen a photograph can’t translate the homogenous, two-dimensional surface into an experience of a heterogeneous space. Looking is discerning, creating hierarchies, and looking at pictures is a social process. My daughter and I look at the green apple in the book and mouth the words together. We point to the apples on the table. They are red, yes, but also apples. I reach for one and say ‘My apple’. I hand her one and say ‘Your apple’, and together we negotiate the difficult task of being separate entities living communally.
Being and Having
Entering a shared space demands that we deal with our own, and others’ issues of intimacy. To live with others, particularly in the industrialised West, is to negotiate between the desire to be oneself, and the risk of losing that sense of self within a larger social framework. The title of the series Being and Having (1991) speaks of a similar relationship, another negotiation: the opposition between experiencing oneself as vital and malleable on the one hand, and the wish to leave this inevitable ambivalence behind, and become sharply defined.
Descending the staircase from Self-Portrait / Nursing (2004), the viewer is met by twelve photographs from this series. Much has been said and written about their content, and arguably, any photographer could point a camera at a group marginalised on the basis of its sexual orientation and espouse claims similar to those made by Opie about the complex and heterogeneous nature of that group’s identity. However, what makes this series so powerful, and the professed complexity clearly discernible, is the interplay between the subjects (the ‘what’ of the pictures), and the gesture or execution (the ‘how’). Instead of simply documenting some gender-bending play-acting, rather than just show and tell, this interplay does something. These photographs of women’s faces with obviously fake facial hair, set against a bright, rather unpleasant yellow background and framed in thick black frames with metal nametags, mimic a certain crudeness and lack of artistic elegance that might at first be associated with the term ‘Butch’. On closer inspection, however, and over time, it occurs to me that in fact the disproportionately thick frames and uncomfortable, artless cropping of the subjects’ faces reveals a surprising subtlety. The framing is the message.
The development of the photographic frame and formats, and how these relate to compositional techniques, rests on certain preconceived notions of what makes a ‘good’, i.e. harmonious, picture. These formats, like colour film, are to some extent, culturally coded. What strikes me the most about Being and Having is not what is made visible within the frame, but the way the series throws light on how one behaves within any given frame. Though playing around with guises and stereotypes is what grabs us at first, it is the relationship between these stereotypes and the framework within which they are forced to exist which is the most interesting aspect of the series. It is as if the women are coming up at me from the other side, a little too close to the frame itself. The effect is uncanny: at first glance it’s as if they’re peering out at me, but as I linger, an ambivalence is felt; there is a distance with which they approach, regard and relate to the frame, and the space beyond. They do not plead, do not demand; they are simply there. Opie enables a meeting or an encounter; she offers an introduction, not as an appeal to the viewer’s sympathetic (i.e. privileged) nature, but for a meeting that stages the complexity of the situation. We are, subject and viewer alike, asked to acknowledge the frame. If we could recognise and agree that these frames through which we view one another distort and determine how we see on another, perhaps living side by side wouldn’t be such a potentially threatening idea.
Though this series was made more than twenty-five years ago, it is highly relevant, to say the least, in the current climate. What better time to revisit the notion that to meet someone face to face, to engage in the complexity of another and see how much is in fact shared between diverse groups, and how little of others’ experiences and being in fact conform to the stereotypes about them that we carry around?
In Freeways (1994–5), the frame again figures prominently. The series of forty photographs is shot with a panoramic camera and each photograph is printed, like a contact copy perhaps, approximately 6x17 cm in soft, luscious warm tones of grey. They put me in mind of picture postcards found in great grandmother’s valise in the attic, or, perhaps more to the point, photographs of the miracles of modern engineering from Germany in the 1930’s. And yet, for all these references, my strongest reaction is that there is something so lonely about them, or perhaps, about the one behind the camera. In Opie’s portraits, the photographer recedes in order that the subjects come forth, but in these freeway pictures, the person behind the camera becomes noticeable. Taken from under freeway overpasses, or from the vantage point of the shoulder of the road, the most noticeable aspect is the lack of cars. Added to that is my awareness of how on the side-lines, and thus conspicuous, the presumably walking figure of Opie must have been, in a space that is by no means meant for stopping. The only people who do spend time in these places are those who for various reasons lack shelter and do not belong in any way in the kind of photograph most associated with the American freeway- the one taken from the middle of the road, the eye reaching to the horizon and beyond. This typical shot is absent here. Instead, what we get are diagonal lines reaching across the frame, from side to side, obstructing our view of the sky; roadways weaving in and out of each other like bodies that never touch, recalling the thousands of drivers alone in their respective cars, their angry cries, their sing-alongs to distant voices on the radio, or shouts for help muffled by windshields: they are in the world, but completely cut off from each other.
However bleak that vision is, freeways do promise to connect people more quickly and efficiently, like the way in which a name can sum up a person’s characteristics. Names figure prominently in Opie’s portraiture; names that we viewers surmise were either given to the subjects at birth or were adopted by the subjects themselves in order to carve out a more fitting identity. Frankie. Mitch. Ron Athey. Trash. Bo. Crystal Mason. Daddy Irwin and Mark. Mike and Sky. Alistair Fate. Vaginal Davis. Idexa. James. Justin Bond. Pig Pen. Cathy. Raven. Gabby. Monica. Angela. Cathy. Ian. Julie. Amy. Pervert. Dyke. Mary. Oliver & Mrs. Nibbles. Guillermo & Joaquin. Kara. Ron. Anthony & Michael. Kate & Laura. Lawrence. Conor. Rusty. Collin. J.D. Tyler S. Faifo. Tyler. Daphne. JD. Chicken. Chief. Ingin. J. Jake. Luigi. Oso Bad. Papa Bear.
Names are tricky. Ideally we grow into them, become our names and wear them like a well-fitting sweater, but just as often we fail to live up to them.
In the earliest portraits, where the name of each subject functions as its title, the sitters are photographed in poses ranging from the tender to the self-assured, from cocky or playful to distant, from solitary beings to couples. The subjects are seemingly cut out against the brightly coloured backdrops, and put us in mind of children’s picture books, where a similar relation between figure and ground is pronounced in order to aid identification. Opie seems to challenge the viewer to see these subjects as at once conforming to certain stereotypes, and as individuals that can in no easy way be reduced to those stereotypes.
In the later portraits, those made between 2012 and 2017, where a few of the sitters from the earlier series re-appear, and new ones like her son and his mouse emerge, the artist has left the colourful backgrounds behind in favour of one that is dead black.
This move could be telling of a shift in the artist’s perception of her subject matter, or of her own understanding of the medium and its possibilities. In the transition from the portraits of 1993–97, the series Self-Portraits and Dyke, the Portraits and Landscapes from 2012–17 and High School Football 2007–9, we witness a gradual transformation of Opie’s subjective stance towards the medium, her subjects and herself as artist. Photography can ideally make what was hitherto invisible, visible. But visibility and exposure always stand in danger of becoming overexposure and thus invisibility, in the same way as saying a word over and over again will lead to its loss of meaning. Perhaps what appears in the later portraits as a kind of genre-painting style, complete with softly spot-lit bodies cloaked in black, some printed as ovals rather than rectangles, is a nod to how the photographing of any marginal group at some point suffers from fatigue and becomes yet another genre. Or could we view this turn in Opie’s portraiture as a productive doubt, revealing a certain maturity?
As Jose Saramago points out: ‘inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.’ By posing her subjects in these later portraits against the pitch-black background, an existential dimension, less noticeable or overlooked in her earlier work, becomes visible. Once you begin being, once you recognise it as more vital than having, you are faced with a certain loss of ground, mirrored in this vast blackness. One of the marks of maturity is perhaps to leave behind the illusion that a name, self-designated or otherwise, or belonging to a certain group, will suture the chasm between yourself and others, between the demands of the world and your own needs, or make you complete. I think of the word ‘Dyke’ tattooed across the nape of the neck, that most sensitive part of the body, in the picture Dyke from 1994, and of the repossession of that slur by the lesbian community. The youthful figure with her back turned to us conveys a need to define oneself and take over the meaning of derogatory terms in order to redefine them. This need of empowerment, so often felt in formative years, to brandish oneself, to define and identify with a certain group, recalls Pervert, the self-portrait from 1994 that left a scar visible a decade later. It is a need to show that which cannot be shown, to confront the suffocation of certain terms, of one’s own unruly desires, the straightjackets imposed or self-imposed. A decade or two on, when new relationships and new communities have been forged by a whole set of different circumstances, a child and a family perhaps – relationships born of being rather than having – PERVERT is a scar reminding you that who you were and who you are are two sides of the same coin: you are different but still you.
I look at Opie’s Football Landscape, part of her High School Football series, focusing on this staple of American life and culture, and I think of the artist standing on the side of the football field in the pouring rain. I am reminded of my own three years spent in an American high school in Singapore: the jocks occupying the three first tables in the cafeteria, those football players with names like Josh, John, Justin and Rick, these kids my friends and I so clearly defined ourselves as being in opposition to, whose automatic response to pretty much anything was ‘Dude, that’s so fucking gay’, and I wonder what it’s like to revisit those kinds of places as an adult, seeing similar kids with the distance of a generation. I look at the photographs that Opie has made of these high-school football players – tender, slightly off-kilter photographs mirroring off-kilter bodies and clumsy, wonderfully diverse individuals – and I notice that this idea that the ‘jocks’ are a homogenous group of boys, like in a John Hughes movie from the eighties, has been shattered to bits. And it is precisely this that Opie and her photographs do.
By blending the what of her photographs with the how so subtly that she risks reinforcing the stereotypes she seeks to dispel, Opie challenges us to see beyond our own frames of reference, first impressions, preconceptions and idiosyncratic proclivities. This challenge is a way of doing justice to the beholder, a sign of trust, a reaching out. By setting up these encounters, where we face others who in turn face us in all our complexity and strangeness, Opie forges community, rather than simply talking about it. In increasingly polarised times, when US and THEM again seem to dominate the public discourse, whether we live in the hills of Oslo or Beverly Hills, Opie reminds us that community is not simply a set of practices, styles, ideologies or any of a myriad affinities that might exist between people to make them feel safe. It is rather the sum of our differences, the relations to which these differences give rise, and in the end, how we negotiate all that diversity and find suitable solutions for cohabitation, however impossible that might seem.
- John Berger, Another way of telling, 1982. Copyright John Berger and Jean Mohr. Pantheon Books, New York.
- Jose Saramago. Blindness, 1995, English translation, 1997.