Design Matters: Catherine Opie

At 8 years old, Catherine Opie realized “that history is made within an image culture”—and here, she discusses her incredible life as a photographer driven by culture.


Debbie Millman:

Catherine Opie is one of the most preeminent artists of her generation and has made some of the most indelible images of our time. Her intimate photographic portraits of queer communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco put her on the map in the early 1990s. She also works in landscapes, both natural and urban. Her black and white photos of empty freeways and strip malls hold up a haunting mirror of contemporary America. And once you see some of her self portraits, I guarantee they will stay with you forever.

Debbie Millman:

Her work has been featured in hundreds of major museums, gallery exhibitions and public collections all around the world. For the first time, the body of her work has been published in a stunning new monograph published by Phaidon. It includes over 300 images as well as essays written by the likes of the New Yorkers, Hilton Als. She joins me today to talk about the evolution of her extraordinary career. Catherine Opie, welcome to Design Matters.

Catherine Opie:

Thank you so much, Debbie and design does matter. So I’m happy to be here.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, good. Thank you. Thank you. Catherine, I understand that you still have a Garfield stuffed animal and a third place bowling trophy from the 1970s on display in your studio.

Catherine Opie:

Well, I actually think it’s 11th place, which even makes it a more humorous in my mind.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Okay. Why do you still have these objects and why on display?

Catherine Opie:

Well, you can see me. I have a shelf behind me of people who are on Zoom, they would be able to see a shelf behind me that had numerous books and little things. And recently my mom was cleaning out her house and were about ready to move her to another place that is for a living at ’85 in a really beautiful way. And she brought me this trunk of objects and when I opened it, it was just, I had these shelves and I thought, “Oh, well, I’ll just have this weird Garfield stuffed animal and one can’t throw out their 11th place plaque of bowling from Sandusky, Ohio.”

Debbie Millman:

No, I agree. I have to confess, I have a little trophy from sixth grade coming in third place in the three-legged race. And that is also important [crosstalk 00:02:31].

Catherine Opie:

So you did a little bit better than me.

Debbie Millman:

Well, yeah. Just the only evidence of my athletic prowess I will ever have in my life. So yeah. Catherine, you were born in Sandusky, Ohio. Your mother was a gym teacher until she had children. Your dad ran his family’s art supply company. Is it true he also had one of the country’s preeminent collections of Republican political memorabilia?

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. Both and Democratic actually.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, both. Okay.

Catherine Opie:

It was a large overview of political paraphernalia, including all the Lincoln karyotypes. So it was quite an extensive, fairly important collection actually.

Debbie Millman:

What has happened to the collection?

Catherine Opie:

He sold it upon us leaving Ohio. And I think that that person donated it all to the Smithsonian. In my father’s obituary had said that he donated it to the Smithsonian, but my father was a frugal businessman and I think he sold it to somebody who then donated it.

Debbie Millman:

And I understand he gave you an embroidered commemorative ribbon made after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Is that true?

Catherine Opie:

Yes, that is true. I have that upstairs here in the studio in this special little box that is actually a family business box, Opie craft. And it’s kind of his treasure chest that he sent to me before he passed away so that I would have these different little moments including, he always carried an Ohio buckeye in his pocket for lock. So it’s just this little treasure chest of things that included the Lincoln ribbon because Lincoln happened to be assassinated, unfortunately, on what is my birthday, April 14th.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, wow. Now was your father a Republican?

Catherine Opie:

My father was a Republican up until Obama ran. And when Obama ran, my father’s switched to being a democratic voter for the reasons that the Republican Party was no longer the Republican Party that he believed in. And he did not like the conservatism and he believed that women had a right to choose. And he believed having a lesbian daughter that I had rights and so forth. And so the Republican Party that he grew up with was no longer an affiliation that he wanted to have.

Debbie Millman:

He must’ve been extraordinarily proud to know that your work was hanging in the Obama White House.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. No, he was. I mean, he was very proud of me. One of my biggest nervous moments was both him and my stepmother coming to the 1995 Whitney Biennial opening because it was the first time I was ever in a major museum show. And obviously my queerness was very much on display there, but he just rode along with it in a very good way and surprisingly so.

Debbie Millman:

Well, I want to talk about the exhibit in a little bit, but I want to start first with your first experiences with photography. I understand at eight years old, while in the fourth grade you wrote a book report on the photography of Lewis Hine. Why Lewis Hine and how did you first find out about him?

Catherine Opie:

Well, it was actually not on Lewis Hine, it was on the photograph of the girl from the Carolina Mills. And it was in my social studies book and I was reading about child labor and I was supposed to be writing a report about child labor and the history of that in the US, but I spoke about the photograph and what the photograph told me. And it made me realize that also, probably growing up with all this political memorabilia around me that history is made within an image culture. And so I had that awareness apparently and asked for a camera on my ninth birthday so I could be a documentary photographer.

Debbie Millman:

So you always knew what you wanted to do and to be?

Catherine Opie:

In a way, I guess. I mean, I guess so. It seems now that it’s hard to believe that that was really what I was going to decide to be, but at that moment it was important to me and the camera was bought for me for my birthday. And I used it throughout my life to document my life. And that is including, even when we moved to California, I used my babysitting money to build a dark room in our house where I ruined the family tiles of the bathroom with chemistry. Design does matter. Your mother gets mad at you if you get fixer and developer all over bathroom tiles.

Debbie Millman:

Well, it was a spare bathroom.

Catherine Opie:

It was my bathroom attached to my room. So it was a perfect way to make a dark room. I spent a lot of hours in there.

Debbie Millman:

I understand that you went about making friends when you moved to San Diego or outside of San Diego by taking photos. And I believe this is also when you had your first crush, is that correct?

Catherine Opie:

I did. I had my first crush on a very beautiful, a woman who was a profoundly amazing actor by the name of Surrey Monet Flack. And she lives in England at this point, but she was my first major crush where I was still trying to figure out certain things, but just couldn’t not be around Surrey. And I grew roses and I would bring her a rose every day. And so it was pretty crushworthy actually. Although, Surrey didn’t realize that I had a crush on her. I met up with her later in England and said, “I was completely in love with you in high school.” And she was like, “You were? I thought you were just my best friend.” I was like, “Oh, well.”

Debbie Millman:

You knew from a young age that you were gay, but have said that the lack of role models around you made coming out a difficult process. And you and I are the same exact age, both born in 1961. And so I didn’t come out till much, much later in life. And so I fully understand that difficulty. What was the most aspect for you?

Catherine Opie:

I think then, until I moved to San Francisco, again, I didn’t have it surrounding me. I was called names in high school. I was called a dyke. I was harassed in that way. Being homosexual scared me. I thought that I wouldn’t be accepted in society. I carried that fear and internal homophobia within me. And it didn’t happen legitimately until I moved to San Francisco and I was sitting on a curb with my best friend, Dean, at that moment in time, Dean Moser, who I had met at a residence club that I was working for my room and board while I went to San Francisco Art Institute.

Catherine Opie:

And Dean thought I had a crush on him. And so Dean said, “Cathy, there’s something I have to tell you. I’m gay.” And I was like, “Oh, well, I am too.” And that was the first time that it was actually spoken. And then there was no hesitation after speaking it.

Debbie Millman:

What’s so interesting to me in terms of looking at your body of work is despite the difficulty that you might’ve experienced and the inner homophobia, you did seem right from the very beginning in your body of work to, embrace isn’t even the right word, but celebrate your sexuality and your gayness.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, no. I think that I did, but it wasn’t right away actually. It took some time. I mean, there was the side person, Cathy Opie who then everybody, who is a friend calls me Cathy. Cathy Opie published in On Our Backs magazine, not Catherine Opie. So I took on these different kinds of personas I suppose, to again, create a different compartments of my life. And then I guess that’s in some ways having multiple closets in one’s house. And I think that really beyond being Cathy Opie and On Our Backs and celebrating that through queer culture, it wasn’t until becoming a part of ACT UP and Queer Nation that I decided to make my work publicly about my queerness.

Catherine Opie:

But I would have to say that a good portion of my work was trying to be a very serious street photographer in San Francisco. And then my queerness within my work at CalArts was actually the dissemination and observation of master plan communities in Southern California, which I kind of grew up in from moving from Sandusky to Rancho Bernardo, Poway, California and watched that turn into master-plan community. So I think the queerness was always also involved in relationship to how do we fit in this world? And if there’s this kind of separation in relationship to idea of community, then how do I portray my community? And I think it was a quandary for quite some time.

Debbie Millman:

The quandary, also, I think began even before you committed to photography as a profession. At one point after you graduated high school you considered becoming a kindergarten teacher and even went to Virginia Intermont College to study early childhood education. I mean, in thinking about the pathways of a life you were on that pathway.

Catherine Opie:

No, yeah, I was. I profoundly loved children. I really, really love children. And I suppose that’s even the other aspect of queerness is how was I going to become a mom? Because that was always what I wanted to be even as a child, I would tell my mom that I was going to have 12 children for some reason.

Debbie Millman:

Wow.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, that would have been too many. So kindergarten, I was a camp counselor for a long time and I really liked kids. So I just imagined that I would be a pretty fun kindergarten teacher.

Debbie Millman:

A year into your studies to become a teacher you called your mom and said, “I’m an artist and I need to go to art school.” How did she respond? I mean, both your parents really encouraged you to be this kindergarten teacher. How did they respond to you wanting to be an artist?

Catherine Opie:

Well, my mom was the one who was supporting my ability to go to college. My father was, he was financially capable, but chose to not financially support my endeavor of receiving a college degree. He kind of believed that when you turned 18, you were on your own kind of guy.

Debbie Millman:

How generous of him.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. Right? So my mom, that was hard for her. She actually took a loan off of her car that she owned out right for me to go ahead and move to San Francisco. And I picked San Francisco Art Institute. And I wasn’t thinking about San Francisco as being a very gay city. It was just in California and a really good notable art school that had Ansel Adams and Minor white and Dorothy [Allain 00:14:22] and the legacy of that program in terms of photography is actually why I chose it. And mom supported it. She said, “Okay, but I’m only going to be able to pay the tuition, Cathy. This is a really big tuition.” And just so you know, in 1981, it was about $7,000 a year.

Catherine Opie:

And she was able to get me all the way through paying the tuition. And I did get some scholarship money and then grad school was, again up to me. So if I was going to go to graduate school, then I had to do it on my own.

Debbie Millman:

You left San Francisco to pursue your MFA at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. You said that that transition sucked.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. It really did.

Debbie Millman:

In what way did it suck?

Catherine Opie:

Well, I was leaving a community that was profoundly also becoming decimated from AIDS. And I all of a sudden moved back into a very hot Southern California environment in the middle of a master-plan community that I had exited when I was basically 19 years old from living with, at-home in Poway. And to be all of a sudden going from the Bay Area of this incredible city and it’s the first time I had ever lived in a city back to the suburbs where it was really hot and I couldn’t wear my leather jacket year round, like I could in San Francisco and being newly possessed of my queerness, my being a dyke. It wasn’t even queerness. I don’t even think we used the word in 1985, but my being a dyke and what that meant for me.

Catherine Opie:

Even though I had Catherine Lord and Millie Wilson and amazing people around me at CalArts who celebrated that and definitely added on to my ability to understand theory and feminism and had Douglas Crimp come through the school enormous amount of people at that time period, it still wasn’t San Francisco.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. As a way to cope, you started photographing a planned community that was being built across the road from your apartment which ultimately became part of your thesis portfolio. And this work included photographs of, “Matching model homes, plots of land and billboards advertising in the United States where the children are apple-cheeked and tow-headed and the parents are as straight as Ken and Barbie.” What provoked this particular direction of your work?

Catherine Opie:

Well, at first I didn’t have a car because I was moving from San Francisco and my car had been totaled and I just decided to walk with my camera. And so I was also trained as more or less a street photographer in San Francisco. So in Southern California, there’s very little street. And so you just start wandering, and I’m a big proponent of wandering. I talk about wandering quite a bit. And I recognized what was being built was actually what I watched being built in my teen years and decided that it was something that I could try to talk about.

Debbie Millman:

In the meantime, you began to contribute photographs to lesbian magazines, you mentioned On Our Backs, whose name was a response to the anti-pornography feminist journal, Off Our Backs. How did you first discover the magazine?

Catherine Opie:

Well, living in San Francisco, you’re basically embedded in, at that point, Valencia Street in San Francisco was the kind of lesbian area. The Castro was for the boys. Valencia Street was for the women. We had Artemis Cafe, we had Osento Bath House, we had Amelia’s, which was the seven day a week lesbian bar. So you had all of this happening all at once. And I’ll tell you the women who would go to Amelia’s were also the women who were being photographed by wonderful photographers like Jill Posner and Susie Bright and all of the sex positive in terms of starting On Our Backs was right there at that time.

Catherine Opie:

And so I just decided, “Well, I want a picture on On Our Backs. I’m a photographer. I’m a lesbian. Why shouldn’t I try to actually do that as well.”

Debbie Millman:

Those magazines introduced me to my own private realization that I was gay at the time, although it was another 25 years before I publicly came out. But other magazines that I have in my collection that I thought you’d enjoy, I’m sure you know this one, [crosstalk 00:19:18].

Catherine Opie:

[crosstalk 00:19:18].

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. And then Caught Looking which was-

Catherine Opie:

Oh, Caught Looking.

Debbie Millman:

… just extraordinary publication. At the time, you also joined a woman’s S&M society called the Outcasts. It’s co-founded by the activist and academic Gayle Rubin. But you’ve said that S&M was never sexual for you and have described it as the scariest, most violent secret impulses that could be followed and validated and made almost cozy in an atmosphere where you could always say no. And you go on to say that you needed to push yourself to get over the enormous amount of fear you had around your body. Where do you think that fear came from? What was that fear about?

Catherine Opie:

Well, it’s personal and it’s not on the record in terms of personal, but there was some childhood trauma on my part. And I think that there was an enormous amount of healing that this community brought to me in relationship to trauma. And you’ve never read this in an interview. So I’m saying it right now for the first time. And it’s been very hard in a certain way to be quiet about this during the #MeToo movement, but there’s reasons. And the reasons are, is when you make self-portraits that I made, people easily equate that to, “Oh, well, that’s why she made that she was traumatized as a child.”

Catherine Opie:

And I try to very hard, again, that kind of compartments that I put things in. In this society, we’re very easily to connote things and to take things and blow them out of proportion in a way that’s not authentic to one’s own experience. So my authenticity to my own experience into my childhood was definitely worked out on an emotional level very much so through the leather community, but at the same time, the publicness of that is not necessarily something that I feel I need to have completely spelled out in the world.

Debbie Millman:

I completely understand. For years, I was in the closet and also would not disclose my own early childhood trauma with sexual abuse. Primarily because I never wanted anybody to say that anything I did was because of that or that I was damaged in some way because of it or that I would be judged because of my own inner homophobia in those decades. But I know that the Kin Community essentially saved the life of my wife, Roxane Gay. She’s very public about the fact that if it weren’t for the Kin Community, she wouldn’t be alive today.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. No, and I feel very much the same without having to lay out all the details of my past, but that what an amazing place to be able to work out so much.

Debbie Millman:

Thank you for feeling that you could trust me with this. That sense of community that both you talk about that that Roxane has experienced, that seems to be the most important aspect of being involved in the BDSM scene and that it was also political. It was as political as much as it was sexual, as much as it was community. And I read that you often talked philosophy in the dungeons.

Catherine Opie:

Well, Gayle Rubin is great to talk to. I mean, I remember at one point asking Gayle for coffee and just wanting to talk about the amazing experiences of the transition of so many butch dykes transitioning to male. And I wanted to have like a real philosophical conversation with her in relationship to AIDS and the kind of work that she did in relationship to the Gay Male Leather called sex clubs, South of Market. And so when you have actual role models and brilliant people that were surrounded me at that time period and very sex positive people. There was really interesting deep discourse in relationship to what we were doing and what we were holding and also consensuality. I mean, I wish everybody had that education in some ways.

Debbie Millman:

Yes. Yes. Some of your early work for On Our Backs included photos of your sex toy and leather collection is a beautiful image of a woman standing while urinating. And in 1987 you created a self-portrait titled Cathy, which is a black and white image of yourself wearing a strap on dressed in a negligee, a stride, a bed. And at that time you vowed you’d never be a voyeur within your own community. But I’m wondering, did you ever feel shy about sharing this part of yourself in such a public way?

Catherine Opie:

Not anymore.

Debbie Millman:

Did you at that point or?

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, I think that I did. I think that I was still protecting my parents and my family. I think that it takes a long time to figure out how you should be as a person and what is okay to be out in the world in relationship to also this weird protective bubble one puts around their biological family. And then at a certain point, I just realized that my family is my chosen family. That even though I have a profound sense of love for my parents, that I was also not going to remain in the closet. And that that was not a healthy position for me.

Catherine Opie:

And so I just decided to go for it, but I didn’t put that image out actually until the 2000s. I mean, that’s the thing is I went back into the archive. And I also probably thought that some of the black and white work from Girlfriends that I did, it was maybe too close to Maplethorpe. And I needed to create my own identity within the leather community as a woman that was separate from Maplethorpe because we both also have similar aesthetics. We really like to highly aestheticize our material in a visual kind of classical way. And so that work in the 2000 was fine to pull out where in the ’80s, when [Roberton 00:26:05] passed away from AIDS until 1989, it was too close.

Debbie Millman:

Is that why you stayed away from using a square format?

Catherine Opie:

Well, I used a square format a lot and all that private work. I mean, it was all shot [inaudible 00:26:17]. Yeah, no. And the archive has that because it’s a camera that I really enjoyed using. Including in the new Phaidon book, you’ll see an image of me with my grandfather’s Rolleiflex as a self-portrait at one on the beginning pages where it was 1983 or ’84 and I’m in New York City and it’s a self-portrait with my grandfather’s fedora with a big overcoat holding a twin reflex. So that work existed and it was going on and I was making it. But when I decided to make work of my own community, I felt that I needed to create a different way of thinking about documentary.

Catherine Opie:

And so with Being and Having which was the first studio photographs of mine with women with fake mustaches, my friends with fake mustaches and looking straight into the camera, by using that yellow background consistently with the consistent framing, created a conceptual positioning to portraiture that I felt was a way to shift from on necessarily a comparison to Maplethorpe.

Debbie Millman:

That work, Being and Having really shot you to fame. What made you decide to shoot them all on a golden yellow background?

Catherine Opie:

Well, it was in my living room in Silver Lake. I lived on Sanborn Ave. How I made all my early portraits was in my living room. I didn’t have a studio. Yellow is a hard color in relationship to skin tone, but the other thing is, is in terms of the diversity of skin tone of my friends in relationship to inclusion, yellow was the best to make it pop. And I would often have all my friends get their mustaches and we would make the portraits because I was shooting with a four by five camera and we’d make the portraits and then we’d just hang out afterwards.

Catherine Opie:

So it was also, in a small living room and Silver Lake, I didn’t have the ability to change over all different colors of seamless, nor was I thinking about seamless in that way at that point. It wasn’t until I started making the portraits the year after, which began first as a collaboration with my good friend from CalArts, Richard Hawkins, who’s a fellow artist where we started making portraits of our mutual friends at that point. And then he realized that it was my body of work. And he just said, “This is yours. Go with it.” But he introduced me, really thinking about Holbein and what nobility is and what that is within our community. And we had amazing extensive conversations about that.

Catherine Opie:

And Richard is a very brilliant person who I felt just helped lead a pathway for me in terms of continuing to photograph the community after I made Being and Having.

Debbie Millman:

I understand that the title of the show Being and Having was a play on psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s idea that men have the phallus, while women as the embodiment of erotic desire and art are the phallus. And when I was reading this, I’m like, “Was this dude serious?”

Catherine Opie:

So this is serious. And I have to tell you that the title came from the woman with her arms crossed over her chest peeing in On Our Backs. So she is an amazing philosopher from Toronto, Canada by the name of Anne Marie Smith. And she was one of the head political philosophers and teachers at Cornell, but she was my lover at the time. And met her in Canada at a bar and she had been making postcards with a friend that were really awesome erotic postcards from this collective in Canada. And I’m sorry, I don’t remember the collective’s name anymore, but I was in the bar going, “Hey, do you know who made these?” And then the woman I was talking to said, “Yeah. Myself and my next door neighbor did.”

Catherine Opie:

And then it started a very long friendship and love affair with Anne Marie Smith, including the portrait that’s on the bed, the self-portrait’s on our bed. When she came to visit me in California while I was in grad school, that was a student’s installation in their studio. And they let us have it as a little private palace so to speak during her visit.

Debbie Millman:

Wow. Wow.

Catherine Opie:

So it all gets wrapped together. That’s the beautiful thing about community. Is you meet people and you’re in this kind of, in the ’80s, you’re going through so much as a community, especially in relationship to politics and AIDS and visibility. And just all of these inner weavings are really also a part of my ability to think and begin to figure out how to make work.

Debbie Millman:

20 years after you took the Being and Having photos, several were used to accompany the opening credits of the L Word, the original version of the L Word. What did you think when you were asked about their using your photos of women in drag for the titles?

Catherine Opie:

It’s funny because, there’s another photograph that you probably know because you’ve really researched me and you know my work, but for our listeners, is a photograph from the series, Domestic, of two women in a swimming pool, Miggi and Ilene. Ilene was the producer of the L Word.

Debbie Millman:

Ilene Chaiken

Catherine Opie:

Ilene Chaiken. So for my first show at Regen Projects, her and Miggi hosted my opening dinner party at their house. And so when she approached me, we had already forged a friendship in the art world and I just thought, “Yeah, go for it. You’re making a show. Let’s use lesbians with mustaches in the title.” And I think that that is also a different kind of radicality of Los Angeles because of the kind of lipstick lesbian positioning of Los Angeles as a city that I thought it was actually pretty brave that she wanted to do that and it connoted also another part of the community in LA that might not be actually represented within the series.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I love those opening credits. What do you think of the reboot? Have you been watching it?

Catherine Opie:

I haven’t yet. I have to get on that. I haven’t watched the reboot and it’s just because there is so much to stream. And then during the pandemic, there was a lot to stream and I’m just not caught up on the L Word yet, but I will. It’s in my queue. It’s in my queue.

Debbie Millman:

[crosstalk 00:33:25]. Yeah. I’m loving it. I’m absolutely loving it. And just seeing Bette and Tina together, not as a couple, but just seeing them in the same room on the same sofa makes me happy. Catherine, you created three portraits in less than a decade, three self-portraits and less than a decade that propelled you to even greater awareness and fame in the art world and beyond. And I’d like to talk to you about all three, if that’s okay.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

The first is titled Self Portrait/Cutting. You created this piece in 1993 and it’s a photograph of you from behind facing away from the camera. You’re shirtless. There’s a drawing carved into the skin of your back featuring two stick figure women smiling and holding hands. And behind them as a house with some birds flying and it looks like it could be a child’s drawing. And you’re standing in front of what looks like a baroque-type wallpaper. What did this photograph represent at the time?

Catherine Opie:

Well, at the time was something that I actually, it was a photograph out of morning. My first domestic relationship and the only one I had ever had before being with my current partner and wife, Julie Burleigh, was with a woman, Pam Gregg. And I was utterly in love and we built a house and we got two puppies and we were living the domestic dream. I imagined in my mind that it would go on for a long period of time. That the two puppies would potentially turn into children. And all of that, which was still hard in 1993 to imagine, very difficult in 1993 to imagine.

Catherine Opie:

And then blood as a substance is the substance that was feared. And one of the things that I did say in that quote that SM was never sexual wasn’t actually completely true because Pam and I met in a leather context and ended up being lovers. And I’ve had other lovers within the leather community in that context. So there is a bit of kind of pleasure in terms of sexuality mixed into it in terms of my history of relationships. But Pam broke up with me and I was devastated. And for a year I spent doodling on a pad. And I would doodle these stick figure girls with the house with the sun coming out of the clouds as a sense of optimism that I will find love again.

Catherine Opie:

And then I decided to go ahead and make it a cutting and make it a portrait. And I was in the process of making the other portraits at that time. And that it was just a profound sense of loss and longing, not just for me personally in losing my first domestic relationship, but the notion of loss overall, in terms of the AIDS epidemic and watching it decimate all of these couples and community. So even though there’s two stick figure girls with skirts, I wanted to make a very complicated universal piece that went beyond my own personal sadness of the loss of my domestic relationship. And that is what I came up with.

Debbie Millman:

Can you talk about how the artist, Judy Bamber carved the illustration into your back? What was that like for her?

Catherine Opie:

I think she was really nervous. I mean, it’s actually on videotape. We have both cuttings documented on video tape. We don’t have Self-Portrait/Nursing, but we have the cutting on my backend pervert documented. Self-Portrait/Cutting happened in Los Angeles in my new living room in what we called Casa de Estrogen which was predominantly a lesbian apartment building in Koreatown on Catalina Street. And so there was an amazing history there, Jenny Schmutz who lived above me. And it was just an incredible group of dykes and their motorcycles that all lived together in this apartment building.

Catherine Opie:

And then my good friends, Mike and Sky who I had photographed were there to support Judy. And my other good friend who was the photographer, Connie Samaras took the dark sides out of the camera and operated the four by five camera because there wasn’t, it’s a self-portrait, but it couldn’t be done on a tripod with a cable release because it was four by five. So Judy practiced on chicken thighs before she practiced on my body.

Debbie Millman:

I hope there are photos documenting that series.

Catherine Opie:

And what’s amazing is Judy is one of the most precise painters ever. I mean, her work is unbelievable. If you don’t know her work, look up her work. And we’re born on the same day in the same year. So we both share April 14th, 1961. And she was one of my best friends. And I wanted an apprehension in the cutting. I wanted it to not be done by somebody like Mike or Sky who would have been able to do it perfectly. I wanted the blood to kind of, almost as if the surface of the skin was scratched, but at moments the scalpel would actually make a mark that was more definitive. And it was never meant to be a permanent cutting. I guess it became obviously a pretty iconic portrait.

Debbie Millman:

And then in 1994, you created Self-Portrait/Pervert. This time you’re sitting in front of a black and gold brocade. Your hands are folded in your lap. You’re facing the camera. Your head is completely covered in a black leather gimp mask. You’re wearing leather chaps. And the word pervert is carved in bloody, kind of oozing, very ornate letters across your chest and the body modifier, Raelyn Gallina, cut the word into your skin. And then two of your friends from a piercing shop lined your arms 46 times from the shoulder down to the wrist with two inch needles.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, I think they were 12 gauge needles. But I remember we wanted the gauge to be big enough that it would create appearance of body armor in a certain way. And that I wanted the cutting and the needles to be completely precise because I was thinking about a whole binds kind of Henry VIII portrait in a certain way. And I was thinking about what the word pervert meant in 1994 in my community, especially when there was a beginning of a divide within our own community. And this is very specific, it’s not just for what pervert means from Jesse Helms, the holding of Mapplethorpe photographs on the Senate floor, but it also came from internal homophobia of our own community of, again, the sex workers, the people who practice S&M were also perverts and that there are portions of the gay and lesbian community that are, “Normal.”

Catherine Opie:

And I didn’t like the notion of normal. I’ve never liked the binaries of normal or abnormal. I’m more interested in the complexity of sexuality and desire. And so it was that moment where in the same way my friend’s, Steak tattooed dyke on the back of her neck that I was going to have Raelyn do this cutting. And that was done in San Francisco in a studio while I was making the portrait series. It was attended by an enormous amount of my friends, including the incredible trans historian Susan Stryker was there. And the needles were done first and then I sat in the chair and Raelyn did the cutting. And then I put the hood on and we made some without the hood and some with the hood. But I really didn’t want my face because I wanted the notion of visibility to be placed on language.

Catherine Opie:

So what does the word pervert mean? How do we deal with language? Is this enough of a pervert for you? And it’s also really beautiful and then you actually have to deal with the beauty of it as well? Because it’s not dripping blood. It’s done in such a way that it just looks like almost a red tattoo, but it is blood coming to the surface.

Debbie Millman:

Well, there is a real elegance to the photo with the way it’s constructed. Had you been very involved in body modification at that time as well? How hard was it for you to have 46, 2 gauge needles put through your skin?

Catherine Opie:

Not that difficult actually, because I think that when you prepare yourself it’s totally different. If I’m walking through the house and I stub my toe on a furniture, I sit there and I weep. I’m really angry. I can’t believe I’ve hurt myself. But when you’ve already been in the leather community and you are doing this and the dungeons on your own, you know what you’re doing. And so your mindset is different. I mean, if somebody goes to the doctor and gets a shot, the only thing that is hurting is actually the fear of getting the shot.

Catherine Opie:

So our kind of relationship to fear is so complicated as human beings. And I was never afraid because I knew that my friends were professionals. And Raelyn was a professional and that they had done this time and time again. And I had done a lot of play piercing and a lot of cutting in a private setting. And so I was very definitive in knowing what I wanted to do and had the mindset to go through it.

Debbie Millman:

Did you experience any of the euphoria that sometimes occurs during body modification?

Catherine Opie:

Oh, absolutely. No, your endorphins are going off the rockers. And it was funny because if you watch the video tape, there’s one moment where I have the group Dead Can Dance playing in the background because I love that kind of meditative music. And you’re breathing and you’re going through it and then Raelyn decided to stop for a moment and try to pop a pimple on my chest that was driving her crazy. And at that moment I lost my focus and then I started moaning a little bit more once she went back into the cutting. The cutting is much harder than the needles to go through. Needles are fairly quick, but definitely cuttings take enormous amount of concentration. And that’s partly why I didn’t want my face in the picture is because the endorphins are going off. With my glasses off my eyes are slightly crossed. And the first thing that people look at in portraits is people’s faces usually. And it, again, it had to remain on the body and about the body.

Debbie Millman:

The image was first shown to the public in 1995 at the Whitney Biennial. And you’ve said that since then you’ve struggled to look at that photo now, how come?

Catherine Opie:

Well, it’s not necessarily a struggle. I haven’t said a struggle. It’s a photograph that I don’t need to live with. It’s a photograph that I made and that I’m proud of and that represented that moment in time. I had several collectors at different moments say how powerful that piece is to live with and that it’s in their bedroom and they wake up to it every morning. And I guess I started thinking, could I wake up to that every morning? But one of the things that I love about photography, it defines the sense of time.

Catherine Opie:

And within the defined sense of time of that, going back to that geeky kind of [inaudible 00:45:44] notion of the decisive moment, pervert is a decisive moment on my part, but that doesn’t necessarily define me as a 60-year-old woman now. So the frozenness of my time in my community, I’m so profoundly honored that my friends and I, myself chose to use ourselves in relationship to community to make and work on a body of work that created a certain history and a certain idea of visibility. But that doesn’t mean that we’re held in that time in the same way that we’re held in the time in terms of the making of the work.

Debbie Millman:

Before I ask you about the third self-portrait, Self-Portrait/Nursing, I want to ask you about your thoughts on domesticity in your work. And you’ve said that Self-Portrait/Cutting was about the relationship between queerness and domesticity. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit more about what that notion between queerness and domesticity is or was?

Catherine Opie:

Well, throughout history people fall in love. And throughout history and relationship to homophobia, especially after say the roaring 20s, so to speak. And when the puritanical notion of homosexuality ended up entering the religious indoctrination of not being acceptable and so forth. And the Bible misinterpreted and so forth. When you fall in love, you often want to live with the person that you fall in love with. And so domesticity was always literally a part of the notion of having a relationship and being in love and opening up one’s home of cohabitation.

Catherine Opie:

And to then be denied that both on legal fronts as well as just rhetorically within our society is incredibly fraught. And so this notion of coming out of the closet always made me laugh because a closet is a domestic space. A closet is where one another’s clothes co-mingle if you don’t have your own walking closet, which I don’t. But a closet is where a co-mingling of the every day happens. And so domesticity has always been a part of love and relationship and trying to build a life and a home with another person.

Debbie Millman:

After Cutting and Pervert, you drove across the US in your RV photographing lesbian families, women who had children, who lived in groups, couples engaging in everyday household activities across the country. And you titled the portfolio Domestic. Were you looking for something specific in that body of work?

Catherine Opie:

Well, that body of work also was, I had been in a relationship then for three to four years with another amazing queer photographer, important lesbian artist on a historical level who should be, she’s in books like Stolen Glances. Her name is Kaucyila Brooke. And we were about ready to buy a house together. We were going to do it. We had been in a three-year relationship where she ironically was living on Sanborn Ave where I ironically lived with Pam, my first domestic relationship. And I was still in Casa de Estrogen down in Koreatown.

Catherine Opie:

And I just decided to go ahead and celebrate the notion of domesticity while getting an RV and going around the country and making these photographs. But they were also in conversation with [Glassy 00:49:46] and MoMA in terms of pleasure and terror and domestic comfort. They were also a way for me to create a different kind of conversation around family. That it’s not just couples, that it’s also lesbian households. That the body of work reflected a different notion of family within my own lesbian community. And Kaucyila broke up with me while I was on the road making this.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, heartbreak.

Catherine Opie:

More Cathy, I’ll be pulling out a violin and more heartbreak, right?

Debbie Millman:

Oh no, I’ve been dumped. So I feel it. I get it.

Catherine Opie:

So that happened. And then I was left printing all of this work as my next body of work. And once again, my attempt at having domesticity was a failed attempt just as the cutting on my back. And I basically picked up my life at that point because I didn’t get a full-time job at UCLA that I was up for, for teaching. And I was dating a woman in New York, Daphne Fitzpatrick, another artist that we had met in Australia and started a mad Australian road trip in romance with each other. And there was a job opening at Yale and I thought, “Well, let me apply to Yale.” And I ended up getting the job and moving from LA because of absolute heartbreak with my relationship. And that was that. And another chapter began.

Debbie Millman:

Prior to teaching at Yale, I know that you were awarded a fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri which is where you met your current partner, Julie Burleigh.

Catherine Opie:

Yes. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Who is also an artist. So I think you moved back to LA in an effort to be closer to her, is that correct?

Catherine Opie:

No, no.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, okay. So tell us how that happened.

Catherine Opie:

The story goes on. The love story goes on. The love life of Cathy Opie.

Debbie Millman:

Some of these intimate moments were harder to find.

Catherine Opie:

Oh, exactly. So I had met Julie at WashU when I was teaching there on the foreign fellow and she became a friend, but I thought that she was really amazing and she blew my mind. Julie was straight and I was dating Daphne Fitzpatrick in New York. And my whole life was just super discombobulated in a way. And so it was funny because I remember Daphne going, “God, you talk about Julie a lot. You really do.” And I’m like, “Yeah, she’s this really awesome woman. She’s my new friend.” Basically Daphne broke up with me as soon as I moved to New York, which she was very wary. She was like, “I hope you’re not moving to New York for me.” She was very clear that I shouldn’t be moving to New York for her.

Catherine Opie:

And that was fine. I just really liked her. And I liked her. All of us are still all best friends today. They’re my posse in New York. Incredible group of lesbian artists that are now at this point where have over a 20-year friendship with one another. And so then I kept talking to Julie Burleigh when I lived in New York. And Julie ended up being my date to my show at the MCA in Chicago that Elizabeth Smith curated. And she kind of knew being my date that we were going to share the same hotel room. And Julie, we fell in love. And I said, “By the way, I’m in the process of trying to get pregnant.” And she was like, “Oh, okay.”

Catherine Opie:

And she had already raised a daughter. She was a single mom from the age of 18. And this was the first time in her life that she was being independent and living away from Sarah. And so it was kind of incredible statement to say that I’m trying to get pregnant. And she was like, “Okay.” And then we ended up, she moved into LA when Oliver was three months old. So I got headhunted. I was asked if I was happy at Yale by UCLA by Jim Welling. And I said, “Why?” And he goes, “Well, I’m going to open a position. And I would like you to apply for it.” And UCLA was always a dream of mine. And I thought about, “Okay, I live in Brooklyn, I want to have a baby. I’m going to have to move to New Haven. I can’t be two hours away from a newborn.”

Catherine Opie:

So all the stars aligned again for me so to speak. And I got pregnant in New York and moved back when I was eight months pregnant. Julie and I bought a house over a three-day period of time in West Adams. We had three days to buy a house and we did. And then I moved into that house. And then she moved in when she finished her teaching position and Oliver was about three months old.

Debbie Millman:

And you’ve been together ever since.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. It’ll be 21 years this November.

Debbie Millman:

Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Well, the birth of your son, Oliver, and the part he plays in your third self-portrait, I want to talk to you about is the piece, Self-Portrait/Nursing. But before I ask you about it, there was one thing that I read that I thought was so interesting when you were trying to have a child, a number of your butch friends were shocked that you were trying to get pregnant and have a baby. And you said this at the time, “Why can’t I be butch and have a baby? Why can’t I acknowledge the fact that I’m a biological woman and I have a vagina that can do shit.”

Catherine Opie:

Pretty much so.

Debbie Millman:

And so I’m wondering if you have any perspective on why it’s so hard for people to accept the fluidness and expandability of gender and orientation.

Catherine Opie:

Society, quite honestly. Roles are presented to us. I mean, you were born the same year that I was born, 1961. We had to learn how to read from Dick and Jane.

Debbie Millman:

Yep, we have.

Catherine Opie:

It’s a construct. It’s a construct that you have to break. And a lot of people have a hard time understanding what it is to actually break a construct so to speak, of what is dictated to us through this notion of normality in society.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. It’s taken me this long, it’s taken me 50 plus years to even feel like I have the beginnings of some answers. And as I approach 60, I’m still struggling with truth and authenticity. What it means to be fully out in the world in every way.

Catherine Opie:

Well, and it got slammed back at us in a completely different way in relationship to the last administration that we all just had to live under. I mean, talk about Draconian measures again, to go from an enlightenment of the White House being lit in rainbow, colors from the Obama administration to what we just had to go through and are continuing to feel the ramifications from it in relationship to hate and homophobia within our society. Progress has been made, but that doesn’t mean that it’s still not frightening times to live in.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, absolutely. I’m doing a lot of work right now with Lambda Legal and there’s real concern that there might be cases that come to the Supreme Court challenging marriage equality which seems just inconceivable.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. And I say there’s an enormous amount of us who are actually have been able to financially do fairly well in life. And I’m always a proponent of starting a different church for all of us queer folks. And that if they want our tax money, that it goes to that church. And then when they acknowledge us as actual part of citizenship and equality, that they can have their tax money, but I’m all for no taxation without representation at this point. I’m over it.

Debbie Millman:

Sign me up, Catherine. Sign me up. Sign me up.

Catherine Opie:

I just have to figure out a name for my non-church church.

Debbie Millman:

I can help you with that. Self-Portrait/Nursing, it’s the third portrait, correct?

Catherine Opie:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

I wanted to talk to you about. You are shirtless in this picture as well, but for the first time you are showing your face to the camera. You’re holding your son, Oliver, in your wonderfully tattooed arm. You are looking into his eyes as he’s nursing. You’re both sumptuous and tender. And it’s been described as a butch-dyke Madonna and Child. And I’m wondering was that your intention?

Catherine Opie:

Well, I’m butch. I mean, I have short hair, but the history of the body is very important terms of this portrait in the classical sense. I mean, because design matters. I’m in a [inaudible 00:58:59] chair. It’s actually called the chieftain chair. It is a chair that in the house that I usually sat in to nurse Oliver. So it was important to bring it back to the studio and then the red, just again, using that fabric with the gold threading. And it is funny because I finally just had my first trip to Rome. I mean, it’s kind of crazy that I had borrowed so much culturally from a certain history of power in the Roman Empire, especially in relationship to imagery.

Catherine Opie:

But when I walked through the gallery [inaudible 00:59:37] from the Cardinal [inaudible 00:59:39] house and all of these other things and saw the wallpaper which I was using fabric backgrounds, it was funny because I knew that obviously through art history that those were tropes that I was using. But until you’re actually in front of something, until you’re actually bearing witness, you don’t realize the influences. And it was Madonna and Child. And I saw an enormous amount of Madonna and Child while I was in Rome. The Catholic church and the representation of Madonna and Child is one of the best marketing campaigns ever.

Debbie Millman:

Tell me more. Tell me more.

Catherine Opie:

And then all of a sudden to have the queer body be able to have a baby, to be able to be butch, to be able to live in their identity, for the scar of pervert to still be existing on the body, ends up allowing you to begin to articulate, and again, look at that great marketing campaign of Madonna and Child in a very, again, different way. So how do we make something iconic that ends up culturally being able to engage in the construct of culture in itself through history. And those are things that I’ve always been interested in terms of making work. It’s fascinating to me.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, absolutely. Did you realize at the time that pervert could still be seen? Was that intentional?

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. It’s a scar. It’s there. It’s slightly raised.

Debbie Millman:

Still?

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Awesome. In 2011, several months before she died, you were commissioned by the actress, Elizabeth Taylor to photograph her home Bel-Air Los Angeles. How did that project first come about?

Catherine Opie:

Well, she actually didn’t commission me. We shared the same accountant who’s still my accountant to this day, Derek Lee. And Derek for years kept saying, “Elizabeth Taylor is my client. If you ever want to do anything. I could propose something to her.” And I kind of looked at him and I said, “Well, I don’t really do so celebrity.” And then I had done the body of work inauguration of going to DC for three days and making a body of work in a book and a portfolio out of the first ever elected African American president in the United States.

Catherine Opie:

And I was thinking a lot about what is a portrait? How do we begin to think about a portrait? And I also had photographed quite a bit for Dwell Magazine, which were portraits of people’s incredibly interesting homes. But inauguration is in conversation, and I love having conversations with other artists. It’s in conversation with Eggleston’s Election Eve, where he went around Georgia and photographed just the landscape as Carter was becoming president of the United States. And then also Eggelston photographed Graceland after Elvis passed.

Catherine Opie:

And I was thinking about, “Okay, those are two different kinds of portraits. Those are really interesting ideas. And I’ve often used landscape in relationship to portraiture too. It’s something that I’m profoundly interested in.” And so I went back to Derek and I said, “Yeah, I want to make a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor through her home, through her belongings. And would that be something that you could propose and I could get access to?” And so I met with her personal assistant, Tim, who I became very close with through the process because during the process Elizabeth passed away while I was still photographing the house. And it was a profoundly amazing experience.

Catherine Opie:

I never met at her, but I feel like in a weird way, I was granted kind of the last portrait of Elizabeth Taylor. And it didn’t have to be done with her before camera, but it became much more intimate and much more tactile in relationship to her home. And the home was immediately dismantled and sold upon her passing.

Debbie Millman:

You photographed 3000 images of her possessions and her private spaces, her vanity table set with loose sight containers of carefully organized eyeshadow in her sitting room, her blue velvet sofas, which I assume were supposed to be mimicking her eyes, her Christmas decorations, which she specifically asked that you do, shoes and boots and more shoes, her lavish clothes. What was that like for you? How did feel doing that?

Catherine Opie:

It was really quiet and I really appreciate quietness. I would go in, the house was so soft, lush. I lived in West Adams. And I lived on a rowdy, rowdy block that was pretty much run by the gang, the bloods. And it was car racing and squealing tires and music. And it was a lively, lively neighborhood. And all of a sudden, a gate would open and I would go into this driveway and go through this front door of a house that was lushly carpeted. And you used such great descriptive terms, but it became this place that I could slowly watch the light unravel in each room. I had time.

Catherine Opie:

It was close to UCLA. So I would often go after I was done teaching and spend the afternoon. They always offered me lunch. The staff was incredible. Her whole entire office was in her home. I really loved her cat, Fang. Fang and I became really good friends. It was a reprieve from a lot of chaos in my life that I could slowly unravel through a six month period in making a portrait. And one doesn’t normally make a portrait in six months, they make a portrait within 40 minutes of somebody visiting the studio.

Debbie Millman:

How would you describe Elizabeth Taylor through getting to know the objects in her life?

Catherine Opie:

That she was passionate as a human being, that her objects held memories for her, that they also were about her love of shiny sparkly things, but that it was also a stuffed animal that somebody would bring over to her would hold as much importance. She was a generous person in my mind. And the generosity that she and her team displayed to me was obvious in everything that was cared for. She was also really independent and savvy and understanding of a woman of her generation. And when she was born that she could hold power. And that also she could hold power with her voice as an activist. And she was an activist at a period of time that we really needed.

Debbie Millman:

Yes.

Catherine Opie:

And if she was the person who was actually able to get Ronald Reagan to say AIDS, to say what was happening. And that was her who did it as well as starting the early fundraising. That within all the softness and the lushness, there was utter power and a position of humanity that I just have an enormous amount of respect for.

Debbie Millman:

In one photo of Elizabeth Taylor’s vanity, there seems to be a line written in lipstick on the mirror.

Catherine Opie:

Oh yeah. Colin Farrell.

Debbie Millman:

And I think it reads, the quest for Japanese beef. What is that about? Where is that line from?

Catherine Opie:

Well, Colin Farrell became very close with Elizabeth and would visit Elizabeth a lot. And he went in her bedroom, and in her bathroom merely after visiting her and wrote in her lipstick that he was going to take her out for Japanese beef. And so that remained on the mirror because actually there wasn’t any expectation of, I mean, I was getting ready for them to bring all the luggage out into the foyer because she was going a big trip to New York. And I was going to have the opportunity to photograph what it looked like when she packed her bags for a big trip, which according to her assistant, Tim, was a lot of luggage because she always wanted to have the choices around her.

Catherine Opie:

And then the next thing I heard was she was hospitalized. And then we rapidly tried to get the blue room together, which is represented as one of the last moments in the book of this blue room that almost looks like angel wallpaper because she was going to move back downstairs. She wasn’t able to go up the stairs any longer. And she would come home from the hospital to this room and it was described to what she wanted the room to look like. And so we were racing around getting that done, and I was still in the house photographing as all of this was happening. And then she passed.

Catherine Opie:

And so the blue room never got to be realized with Elizabeth in it. And so that’s one of the reasons why it’s photographed in that way, as well as the jewelry abstracted was the day that Christie’s came to take the jewelry, Tim and everybody called me and said, “This is the last day that the jewelry’s going to be in the house. Do you want to come by?” And so in the morning we came by with her son, just gorgeous, and we took a couch pillow out and we laid some of the jewelry on a couch pillow for it to sparkle back to Elizabeth. And I made these abstract photographs that feel almost also like an homage to her passing.

Debbie Millman:

Feel extraordinary.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. It was one of those extraordinary experiences of somebody who was obviously one of the biggest famed Hollywood movie stars, but who also led an extraordinary life helping others.

Debbie Millman:

The last project that I want to talk to you about today is your 2018 film, your first film, The Modernist. A 22-minute movie containing 800 photographs about a frustrated artist who unable to buy their own home, starts burning down beautiful houses. And I believe that this is also, this film is also in conversation with another film that preceded it that was also created with still photographs. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Catherine Opie:

That would be Chris Marker’s film, La Jetée which was made pretty much after you and I were both born. It was made in 1962. And the biggest fear in 1962 was nuclear obliteration in relationship to the Cold War. You have to think about the Cuban Missile Crisis and other things that were happening historically at that moment in time in which Chris Marker made La Jetée which is about love and longing and memory. And it’s kind of a pseudo sci-fi film made out of stills. But it’s an incredible political poem to that time.

Catherine Opie:

And I wanted to do a conversation in terms of that, maybe at this point in time the notion of nostalgia and modernism as a utopic dream has also failed us. So using my good friend who I photographed for years, Pig Pen, whose real name is Stosh Fila. Piggy and I have a very, very close relationship. And I asked Pig Pen to star as the protagonist of this film. And it was also the last piece that I made in my West Adams studio behind my house because I had moved finally, I was going to move to a bigger studio.

Catherine Opie:

And so it is about the fact that I will never be able to afford a case study house or any kind of house which was supposed to be affordable at this point in time in which they were made. It also mirrors the time period of when La Jetée was made. And so it’s a quandary. It’s a quandary to where we are at this point in time, but it also is a trans body. It’s a queer body. And we all know in terms of economics that one of the hardest economical groups is lesbians actually in order to be able to own property or prosper in any way, because we still do not have wage equality in this country. So it was trying to put in all these ideas of a lot of other bodies of work that I’ve mapped out all into one piece.

Debbie Millman:

Pig Pen is one of the two most photographed people in your body of work. Can you talk a little bit about why you keep coming back to photograph them?

Catherine Opie:

Pig Pen is just one of the people that I’ve just really, really loved in my life as a friend. I mean, I have gone through so much with Pig Pen. We have gone through losing so much in our community to performing together with [inaudible 01:13:39] to just our bodies are entwined on a very emotional friend way. I would do anything for Pig Pen and Pig Pen would do anything for me. And I think it’s really, really important to also say, because it has been brought up in a number of interviews about Pig Pen being one of the most photographed people as well as one of my best friends [inaudible 01:14:06] is that I think that a lot of people view this as a potential muse. And I don’t view my friendships as muses or who I photograph over and over as muse.

Catherine Opie:

I might really in enjoy looking at them, but by no means are they muses, there are friends that I honor in relationship to kind of image making. I have a harder time with this notion of muse.

Debbie Millman:

That’s so interesting. It would never have occurred to me that that Pig Pen was your muse. If I had to pick anything or anyone that was a muse to you, I would say it would be culture.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, exactly. Thank you for saying that.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, yeah. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me. Was it different directing, so to speak a film versus taking a photograph because it is a film made of photographs? I’m just wondering about that relationship.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, no. I think that it wasn’t. And it was interesting because I have a long time assistant, Heather Rasmussen, who’s just amazing and does everything for me. And it was harder for her than it was for me, because she would say, “Do we need to storyboard this? How are you going to do this?” And I said, “It lives my head. What am I going to do? Draw stick figures, because that’s about all I can draw anyway?” And I said, “No, this piece lives in my head.” And I knew that I wanted to create a sense of multiple cameras. I knew that within the stills I wanted it to, I wanted to rack focus and then bring things into focus. I knew that I wanted to use the newspaper as a platform of what comes in our lives and how we deal with it.

Debbie Millman:

Really well done by the way. As a designer I can say [crosstalk 01:15:58].

Catherine Opie:

And I knew that this was I knew that the protagonist was an artist who lived in their studio and that’s all that they could afford. And through this, they were making a piece. And their piece extended with the incredible amount of fires that always happened in California too. So fire in itself is one of the most feared elements in California. We have major wildfires burning right now, but what it is in also in terms of notions of loss, in ideas around what we all have lost through not being able afford to buy a house, to live on the fringe of one’s ability in society. What modernism was supposed to apply. Then you have stores like design within reach, which is, we all know in our joke of our community, it’s designed without reach.

Debbie Millman:

Whole Foods is whole paycheck.

Catherine Opie:

Right. Whole Foods is whole paycheck. So this idea that we could live this utopic notion of what modernism was going to give us and this was also formed in relationship to devastation, culturally, in terms of World War II. It’s like when you think of who moved here and who was designing houses from Shindler on, it was really even abrupt writing for Hollywood films. That is so interesting to me, also, as a place of a Los Angeles and what is iconic about the idea of a better health here in LA is no longer affordable to live in this city. We have over 50,000 people unhoused right now in this city.

Debbie Millman:

It’s really quite astonishing to see what’s happening in the parks and on the sides of highways in Los Angeles. It’s just completely inconceivable that as a culture and a community, we could allow this.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. It’s devastating. And I needed to speak about that and I didn’t. We all assumed that Hillary would get elected. But I actually didn’t have those assumptions. I actually saw of the percolation of what we went through in the last four years. And I felt an incredible need to talk about the times that we are living in.

Debbie Millman:

You were recently appointed the departmental chair of the UCLA Department of Art.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Congratulations.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. Thank you.

Debbie Millman:

And this comes after your appointment as the university’s inaugural endowed chair in the art department, a position that was underwritten by a $2 million gift from the philanthropist, Lynda and Stewart Resnick. And I was really struck by the goals that you’ve outlined as department chair, which include raising scholarship funds to ensure an arts education is actually accessible to all students, which seems like the real center piece of what you hope to be able to do. Can you talk a little bit about what changes you’re hoping to make to create more accessible education for students in the arts?

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. No, absolutely. I mean, one of the greatest things about UCLA is it’s a historically amazing art department. We are a public university. Being a public university, we do not have the same kind of funding opportunities in relationship to getting students. And it’s getting harder and harder to get our top choices because we have places like Yale who also then, not only do full scholarships, but then they actually do a stipend to live upon as well. I think that those who can afford an education should actually pay for an education, but I am completely opposed to going into debt for education.

Catherine Opie:

So I was very careful about my words in my interview in the LA Times where I laid out my goals, because my goal is that art students are able to leave with a degree debt-free. And in order to do that, I need to raise money for scholarship to create a larger endowment so that we can accomplish that for both undergraduate and graduate students. We need to further endow more positions in the art department, and that is specifically for adjunct. It is also unsustainable for adjuncts to be living in the way that they live now. And I was adjunct for a long time.

Debbie Millman:

Me too.

Catherine Opie:

It is not sustainable not to have medical insurance and it is not sustainable for somebody to potentially live on $20,000 a year here in Los Angeles. That’s not sustainable. So I’m really interested in sustainability in terms of also how much the adjunct community brings to the overall amazing education opportunity for both our graduate and undergraduate students. And we need to celebrate that versus make it a detriment for them.

Catherine Opie:

And so by endowing more positions, we can create an ability to potentially give two to three-year contracts that include medical insurance. And then we’re allowing a pool of really amazing young artists to be able to have their first opportunities to teach at a university like UCLA and then hopefully be able to gain employment in other places. So it’s a two-tiered thing in relationship to students leaving in debt, but that also, that we are kinder and more responsible to those who give us so much within the department.

Debbie Millman:

How do you manage your pathological life with your art and life as an artist?

Catherine Opie:

There are those closets again, right? The compartments. I mean, at this point, it all seems like it just flows together. It really does. And I think I’m pretty good at time management. I have a really good assistant who really helps me extraordinarily. And at this point, the experience of making the work and the knowledge and relationship to what I want to make and the experiences that I try to put forth to figure out what I’m making all feel incredibly fluid. They’re not fraught. I think that I would say that in the ’90s and in my 30s I had more anxiety. And at this point I am beyond mid-career artists because I’m 60 and I’ve been making work in the art world for now 30 years.

Catherine Opie:

And I think that I’m really just excited about the continuation of being able to talk about what I see around me during my lifetime and live out my life with the love of my beautiful family and friends. And I’m really hokey and going to cry about that right now because it is, I’ve worked really, really hard. And that is the hard thing about having multiple closets so to speak and sometimes there were too many clothes. And I feel that I’ve been able to pivot and move and be aware and continue to feel that I’m tied into the things that are interesting for me. And I have the incredible support of being able to have the longevity that I’ve had in relationship to being an artist. And I wish that everybody had those kinds of experiences.

Debbie Millman:

Catherine, I have one last question for you. It’s not particularly profound, but it is one that I’m highly curious.

Catherine Opie:

I like curiosity.

Debbie Millman:

Is it true that you’ve been watching the soap opera, Days of Our Lives since you were seven years old?

Catherine Opie:

You got that right when I was taking a sip of water.

Debbie Millman:

Sorry.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, yeah. I could tell you everything that’s happening right now up to date with Days of Our Lives, but it’s-

Debbie Millman:

Oh my goodness.

Catherine Opie:

I have. I literally have. I could tell you about all the characters, all the history of the characters. I’m a walking encyclopedia of Days of Our Lives.

Debbie Millman:

Why? What is it about Days of Our Lives?

Catherine Opie:

It’s something that I watch with my mom. I guess that they, I don’t know, they became my another place of a dysfunctional family for me, all the drama. If that drama was the drama, then, do I have to think about my own drama, so to speak. And then you just get tied up in it in a really dumb hokey way. And it’s something that I could talk about with my mom. Yesterday, I called her with this, literally a conversation I had yesterday. “Mom?” “What?” It’s like, “Okay. If Lani is really the daughter of this character and Abe is the father, does that mean that they had sex when Abe was going out with the sister?”

Catherine Opie:

That’s literally a conversation I will have with my mom. And she’s like, “I don’t know. We’ll just have to see. It’ll have to unravel.” So it gives a little touching point for mom and I in this shared history of these characters in the life of Salem. And then I’ve run into the characters in LA. And I even had one of the characters come to my studio for a studio visit. And I’ve always wanted to make still lives. I’m putting it out there on Design Matters, maybe you can help me make it happen.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, I would love that.

Catherine Opie:

I want to make still lives of the set of Days of Our Lives.

Debbie Millman:

Okay. This is going to happen. You heard it here first listeners.

Catherine Opie:

Do you watch the soap-

Debbie Millman:

Isn’t that with the one with the-

Catherine Opie:

Hourglass.

Debbie Millman:

Hourglass? Yes, [crosstalk 01:26:29].

Catherine Opie:

Yeah. It’s the hourglass. And so are the days of our lives.

Debbie Millman:

Catherine Opie, thank you. Thank you, thank you for creating such important, extraordinary work. And thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters. It’s just been an honor, an absolute honor.

Catherine Opie:

Well, thank you. It was a fantastic interview and really appreciate it.

Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Thank you. You can see a survey of Catherine Opie’s work and her extraordinary new monograph simply titled Catherine Opie published by Phaidon. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking to you again soon.