From Catherine Opie, a Visual Diary of the Recent Past


The photographer Catherine Opie has always been interested in the subversively domestic. In one of her best-known early works, “Self-Portrait/Cutting” (1993), her naked back is carved with a still-bleeding childlike drawing of a home, two women stick-figures in the foreground. That image, now in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, nods to the queer B.D.S.M. scene in which Opie found community in the ’90s, while capturing the painful longing she felt for a family of her own. Queer domesticity was a radical thing to envision at the time, but three decades later, the pandemic has confined Opie to the Los Angeles home she now shares with her wife, Julie Burleigh, and their 18-year-old son, Oliver. Their daughter, Sara, whom Julie had when she was young, and their 6-year-old grandson, Joaquin, visit often, though for the first few months of quarantine, even that was off-limits. The house has art scattered across the mantles and climbing up to the high ceilings, some of it from famous friends, and some, like the children’s drawings on the fridge, simply a reminder that once it arrives, family grows as unwieldy and resilient as the 90-year-old Aleppo pine tree in the yard.

When T sent Opie an instant Fujifilm camera with which to document this strange spring, she was in the midst of preparing a show, “Rhetorical Landscapes,” now on view at New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery. Opie’s work has often explored genre — from street photography to formal portraiture — and these new photographs of the Okefenokee swamps, which straddle the Georgia-Florida state line, are what she jokingly calls “amateur National Geographic pictures.” They play with the anthropological dimension of certain landscape photography — and the language around swamps in our current political culture — while also calling attention to a disappearing ecosystem. Inside her home, however, as evidenced by the snapshots and captions below, the ecosystem is anything but fragile. When I asked Opie if three months of confinement had changed the dynamics of her family, she replied, “It’s been lovely, actually. Julie and Oliver are used to it just being the two of them often. They were used to me traveling once or twice a month. But I haven’t been able to get on a plane, or go and give lectures, or go off to my studio much to work. I thought they would get very tired of me. But … it turns out that they just love me more. They like having me around.”

“This is the foyer of my house. There’s a James Welling, there’s a Robert Gober, there’s an Eric Fischl, there’s one of my portraits. It’s just like, as soon as you walk in, you understand that this house is about art, and about family and about life. On the left, in the backward cap, is Jessie, my best friend Bonnie Stoll’s niece. I photographed her when she was just a kid, and it’s always been one of my favorite portraits. I just like living with it. I actually rephotographed her as an adult, but not, obviously, without a shirt. I guess I could have, but I don’t usually do that with bodies. She’s kind of like a family member.”

“This was one of our son Oliver’s first ceramic pieces that kind of blew us away. He makes ceramics, and he’s really good at it. He made this when he was around 13 years old, I would guess. It’s funny, I’ve never asked him where the inspiration came from. I have an aunt who’s a sculptor, and she would make pies with women’s bodies coming out of them. We had this sculpture she made specifically for Oliver in our garden when he was little. It was a bronze pterodactyl head coming out of a pie. Oliver has always loved pies — as a young boy, one of his favorite bedtime stories was a pie recipe book. We would literally read recipes to him. When he was 8 years old, he entered the L.A. Times’s pie-baking contest with a homemade Key lime pie. I think he was the youngest contestant ever.”

“Our dog, Sunny, hates having her picture taken. Absolutely hates it. She lives with a photographer, and every time I point a camera at her, she slowly turns her head away. She knows the camera is there — that’s just her defiance in being photographed. She’s unique in that way. Both Julie and Oliver tolerate me photographing them. But I also haven’t abused them by putting them in lots of work.”

“On the ledge is a little timer that was given to me by a friend who said that I was the perfect chore boy, alluding to my butchness. It’s something that I’ve had for 20 years, always by the kitchen sink. I’m actually pretty handy: I’m good at chores. I like tools. That’s another thing that my family teases me about: ‘Do you really need that tool?’ ‘You bought another tool.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, this one is made a little differently and I like the way it looks.’ I took things apart all the time when I was a kid. My grandfather had a really nice 35-millimeter camera, and I just wanted to see how it worked, so I started unscrewing all the screws, sitting at my grandfather’s workbench. And of course, I got in trouble. I didn’t know how to put it back together. I always tell my students: ‘Make your toolbox large.’ Every kind of piece of equipment you learn will give you more options in how you make work.”

“The shell postcard inside the wave is a piece by the artist Siobhan Liddell. And on the right is a black-and-white portrait of me as a kid — I must have been 7 there. My favorite piece on the mantel is the sinking ship in a bottle. I found it in a thrift store in Sandusky, Ohio, my hometown, and thought, ‘How perfect.’ The ‘Happy Fall’ card, on the left, is a tradition of mine. I kind of get annoyed by all the Christmas cards — it’s just so many Christmas cards. I mean, it’s nice that everyone says hi and stuff, but I thought, ‘Well, I love fall.’ Every year since Oliver was born, I’ve taken a portrait of him and sent that out to friends and family in the fall. This year, we’re going to come up to the end of the tradition. He’s 18, and he’s leaving for college. I thought about making a kind of foldout poster of him in his dorm — you know, like a teen idol? — and then when you turn the poster over, on the back it will have all the years of all the happy fall cards. That’s what I want to do for the final one.”

“Julie grew these flowers in her garden. At the height of Covid, when you weren’t able to buy fresh flowers, she would do these beautiful little arrangements of clippings and put them all over the house. I really loved them — they felt happy to me in a time that was full of grief.”

“That’s Oliver in his graduation gown, leaning his hat down. I was trying to figure out how to make a different kind of portrait of him in his graduation outfit. He didn’t even get to wear it. I mean, he wore it in the house, you know. He’s an awesome kid. When he was 12, he was like, ‘Mom, my friends are Googling you, and I don’t know what to say to them.’ I said, ‘Just tell them your mom’s a badass radical dyke artist.’ He responded, ‘I can’t really say that …’ Anyway, we did a little celebration in the backyard with a cake and his godmoms and his dads and Julie and me and Sara and her son, Joaquin. We watched the graduation on Zoom and put a sign in the front yard.”

“Joaquin’s my grandson, and he does really amazing drawings. We always put the latest ones on the fridge, because that’s what good grandmas do. Every once in a while, we’ll take something off the fridge and replace it with a newer drawing, but he likes to know that things he made when he was younger remain on display.”

“Bob Ross the Chia Pet was a joke Christmas present given to Julie by our daughter, Sara. And finally, during Covid, Joaquin was over for the day, and Julie said, ‘Let’s smear the seeds on Bob Ross and watch it grow.’ I thought it was the perfect thing to take a picture of right now. We love Bob Ross. He’s kind of a joyful pop icon of ours. A year ago, I was teaching at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. All the artists that stay in the artist-residence apartment there sign their name to the wall. And what name was I looking at but Bob Ross? Bob Ross just follows us around.”

“This Aleppo pine is why we bought the house. It’s so tall and magnificent and canopies the entire backyard. I go out and just look up at that tree, and it’s a whole world. I think about everything it holds — baby squirrel life and birds. It’s got a big, round trunk and these big roots that go down into the ground and bubble back up. People have put patios around it, but then the tree would absorb part of the concrete. One day, somebody put a chain around the tree and that got absorbed, too. It’s just this tree that has seen a lot, and that didn’t get cut down, even though it’s a messy tree. When we saw it we just said, ‘Oh my God, we need to live with you. You’re an amazing tree.’”

“There was a requirement for this story that said there had to be some self-portraits. The focus was so funky on this camera — I kept trying to take good or interesting self-portraits and it never really worked. And I wasn’t going to have somebody in the family take a picture of me, because I wanted all the pictures to be taken by me. So I thought, ‘Maybe it will look good if I’m just looking through the door like I’m just surprised to see you and I say, ‘Hi there.’”

“I thought paint by numbers would be a fun thing to do during Covid. But you’re not really painting with this set, you’re just making little teeny gestures of dots of paint. You need a magnifying glass to see these numbers. It is the most obnoxious paint by numbers I’ve ever done in my entire life. I’m trying to finish it, but it’s a little brutal.”

“That’s Oliver’s trainer, Michele. We got him a trainer to work out three days a week, and he’s doing tennis lessons two days a week, just because he’s an 18-year-old young man. Of course he has a lesbian trainer. Michele was looking all groovy and tomboyish by the hot tub, so I took a picture.”

“Julie and I went to my studio on a Sunday — I had to finish editing some other thing — and so she started making this sign with a ruler and a pencil. She’s really good at lettering, and then we filled it in together. We take it out of our front yard and with us when we go to protests. I had no idea we could slip back as far as we have under this current administration. I didn’t think that it was possible to see this kind of hate again. But I’m always optimistic, I always have hope, I always have — the things I’ve seen in my lifetime, including having the right to legally marry Julie, are things that I didn’t think I’d see.”

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