Catherine Opie,Jake, 1991. Chromogenic print and wood frame with metal plate, 17 x 22inches.

Catherine Opie, Bo, 1991. Chromogenic print and wood framewith metal plate, 17 x 22 inches.

Catherine Opie, Chicken, 1991. Chromogenic print and wood frame with metal plate, 17 x 22 inches.

Catherine Opie (b.1961) is an American artist who describes herself as a “kind of twisted social documentary photographer.” [1] As a matter of fact, Opie’s work often explores issues of sexual identity and community.

Opie grew up in San Diego and knew that she was a lesbian since high school. Inhibited by societal pressure, however, she did not officially come out until she moved to San Francisco in the 1980s. There, she quickly became involved with the queer, leather, and sadomasochist communities (s/m). Initially fearful of not being able to book any assignments, she tailored her work to the heterosexual community. But as she became more comfortable with her sexuality and deepened her ties to the lesbian s/m community, she began to develop works that touched on issues of homosexuality and personal identity, thus partaking in controversial political and moral issues in the 90s.

In her series “Being and Having,” Opie bends the idea of gender identity by portraying her lesbian friends as men. Tightly cropped and extracted from their environment, these women’s faces were photographed against a bright yellow background, wearing exaggerated men’s props like mustaches or beards. To add to the caricatural flair prevalent in these images, they were given gangster pseudonyms such as Oso Bad, Con, Wolfe, Chief, et cetera. These photographs were printed larger than life size, evoking an “in-your-face” quality that contributed to their shock value. Toying with the external characteristics of gender identity, the photographer lambasts the notion of gender as one of stability, unification and naturalness. Opie once explained, “These women are heavily pierced and tattooed lesbians from the alternative club scene who are into challenging the typical image of lesbians… They don’t want to be men or to pass as men all the time. They just want to borrow male fantasies and play with them.” [2] For that reason, Opie’s series was very much consonant with its time and the issues of art, activism and controversy of the 90s.

Allison, Dorothy, Jennifer Blessing, Nat Trotman, and Russell Ferguson. Catherine Opie: American Photographer. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2008. Exhibition Catalog.
Hammon, Harmony. Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History. New York: Rizzoli. 2000McKenna, Kristine. "Welcome to Opie's World." Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1994.
Reilly, Maura. “The Drive to Describe: An Interview with Catherine Opie.” Art Journal 60, no. 2 (2001): 82-95.
  1. ^
    Kristine McKenna, "Welcome to Opie's World," Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1994, 8.
  2. ^
    Harmony Hammon, Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History (New York: Rizzoli, 2000), 150; quoted in Anna Marie Smith, "The Feminine Gaze: Photographer Catherine Opie Documents a Lesbian Daddy/Boy Subculture," Advocate, November 19, 1991, p.82.