Catherine Opie’s entire artistic career can be seen as one long photographic road trip across this continent in search not of the American dream but rather a dream of an idea of community. Her works—whether the extremely formal, color-saturated portraits of friends in the lesbian and gay leather community of Los Angeles that brought her to the art world’s attention in 1993 or those documenting that city’s ubiquitous concrete highway overpasses, mini-malls, and architectural facades—are each animated by a single question: How does one create a portrait of a community?
This question provides the motivating impetus behind Opie’s Domestic series. These portraits of lesbian couples, families, and friends in their households, taken in 1998 as the artist embarked on a three-month odyssey in an RV to nine different cities across the country, were an attempt to “document the lesbian dream.”1 The catalyst for this series could be found in an earlier work, Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), a color photograph of the artist isolated against a lush green backdrop with her bare back turned toward the viewer. This was, however, a self-portrait with a difference, as Opie’s back became a surface for a naïve, childlike line drawing—cut into her skin with a razor—depicting two women holding hands in front of a house. It is paradoxically a heartbreakingly sweet image, notable for its ability to transform what might seem like a violent act into a beautiful one. As she suggests, this image is “about an idealistic view of what domesticity is, and what I want from it.”2 This desire became the basis for her Domestic series, which expands our understanding of how families can be constructed by presenting its lesbian subjects in a powerful and dignified manner in the realm of a profoundly recognizable American domesticity.
Communities can also be portrayed in terms of the architectural spaces they inhabit, as the artist demonstrated in 2001 when she began a yearlong residency project at the Walker Art Center. The resulting body of work was a series of fourteen large-scale color photographs of icehouses—indigenous, ad hoc architectural structures that populate the winter landscape of Minnesota. Like one of Italo Calvino’s “invisible cities,” these recreational fishing outposts manifest themselves organically on the frozen lakes, creating temporary, seasonal communities that cut across social distinctions. In the spring, these ice villages disappear as quickly as they had appeared, their citizens dispersing to their other lives. Under Opie’s meticulous lens, the colorful shacks respirate from foreground to background along a horizon line that from image to image never wavers. Devoid of human presence, these almost abstract, minimal structures become anthropomorphic markers of their inhabitants, who use them to fish, socialize, and while away the winter hours. Taken together, the two bodies of work present divergent, if complementary, methods for documenting their respective communities and can take their place in the documentary tradition in American photography dating back to the work of Robert Frank and Walker Evans, who both took their own road trips in search of America. Opie has adapted those formal techniques and social thematics to her own subjects, enlisting the genres of architectural and portrait photography in order to trace the diverse, shifting contours of the conceptual horizon line of the American community.
Quoted in Russell Ferguson, “How I Think: An Interview with Catherine Opie,” in Kate Bush, ed., Catherine Opie, exh. cat. (London: The Photographer’s Gallery, 2000), 48. ↩
Quoted in Rachel Allen, “Lesbian Domesticity: An Interview with Catherine Opie,” Los Angeles Forum for Architecture & Urban Design Newsletter, Spring 1998, 2. ↩