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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Catherine Opie, 1996


Russell Ferguson: When you began making portraits, were you consciously setting out to represent a community rather than individual people?
Catherine Opie: Yeah, I thought of it as a community.  My investment in the community is very important to the work.  In fact I probably wouldn’t have done the work if I hadn’t felt that I didn’t like the way my community was being represented in the world.  I’m really interested in the structure of communities.  I grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, and when I was thirteen moved to Rancho Bernardo in California, which is a master-planned community.  I left there at eighteen to go to San Francisco.  The underlying basis of all my work has been about the structure of urban and suburban space, and about how communities begin to form.  I’m curious about the way family begins to be defined within community.  In a suburban community the family is defined by the individual house.  In the gay and lesbian SM community family is defined by those members who get together on holidays, and who are close friends.  My work is always close to home.  It’s always about my surroundings and the way that I wander through the world.

RF: On one level, your standardized portrait formats evoke early twentieth-century photography--social survey photographers like August Sander--but because you don’t have the environmental clues in the background, it’s a much more iconic presentation.  Your portraits all have brightly colored backgrounds, for example.
CO: To photograph the people in their environments would have been too much like documentary for me.  I was thinking about Hans Holbein and the way that he used color behind his subjects.  Formally, it can bring out all these different shapes within the body, to make it pop.  It is a way to take the people out of their environments and isolate them, because the art is really what they’re doing with their bodies.  It’s also to make the focus really on the person.  And then the body of work as a whole brings it back to documentary by the way that it’s kind of narrowed down, and by the repetition within the different formats of the portraits.
Another reason I wanted to do the portraits that way was that I was getting really tired of the various magazines that were coming out about body modification, where nobody cared about the people, and also nobody had any formal concerns.  It was all just to document it in very basic ways, like the nipple with the ring going through it, the penis with whatever, and the representation of it was just all fragmented.  It was all about the body, but I wanted it to be about the person as well.

RF: Do you give your subjects a lot of latitude in how they present themselves in the portraits?  To what extent are they directed by you?
CO: Clothing, a lot of latitude.  They wear whatever.  Unless its a drag queen, and then we talk about the outfit.  Once they are in the studio, though, they are completely manipulated by me.  Even though I don’t believe that there is a true essence of a person, I do believe there is something they they see within themselves that I end up capturing.

RF: Is the usual reaction very positive?
CO: Yeah.  I mean, Mike and Skye, that the Whitney Museum owns their portrait blows them away.  Mike and Sky are like:  “Can we go to the Whitney, and can we ask to see our portrait?”  They were among the first in the community to start taking hormones to become men, and so they’re really important icons.  It means a lot to them that their likeness has been recorded, and that they are in a museum.

RF: That seems to echo your own double interest in formal issues and documentation.  On one hand there’s the formal beauty of the portrait, but at the same time it has a broader representative value in that it’s in this New York museum, representing not just them but a community as well.
CO: Yeah, they think of it as very valuable.  That is something that I think has been a really great thing for the community.  There’s a certain pride that I’m one of the first out leather people to make it into the mainstream art world. But some of my friends can’t live with the portraits I do of them.  They’re too intense.  First of all, they’ve never seen a sixteen by twenty color photograph like that of themselves.  A lot of my friends have never even been into a museum.  I was the one who left the community, too.  I chose not to be a full-time leather dyke like most of them did, so there are a lot of different dialogues that go on.  I’ll go in and make the work that I want to make, but I think that to a certain extent the community is still not part of the dialogue of what happens to the work.  After it’s made it takes on a life of its own, and some of my dyke friends and I have had to have very intensive talks about what it means for a heterosexual man who works for Disney to have their image.  We’ve had a lot of dialogue about that.  And I’ve had to think about it as well.  I think it’s a great thing.  The way that it has opened up is really incredible.  But the community is so self-protective, for obvious reasons.

RF: It’s interesting that some of your portrait subjects are uncomfortable when they see the image.  for people who are very heavily tattooed and pierced, being the subject of other people’s gaze must be an everyday thing.
CO: You’re not only stared at if you stay entirely within that community.  It’s a hard thing to deal with.  I grew my hair back, because being bald and pierced and tattooed, and with the various scars on my body, I found that going to the grocery store in the summer was difficult.  The thing that bothered me the most was children looking at me like I was a serial killer, and screaming and clutching their mothers.  And I got really tired of people just walking up to me and going, “Does it hurt?”  It’s interesting how people feel they have permission to come up and ask you really personal questions.  I always want to ask them like, “Why did you chose that shirt to wear today?  It’s a really bad one.”

RF: How do those issues come up in the photographs?
CO: The photographs stare back, or they stare through you.  They’re very royal.  I say that my friends are like my royal family.

RF: Here’s Holbein again.
CO: Exactly.  I try to present people with an extreme amount of dignity.  I mean, they’re always going to be stared at, but I try and make the portraits stare back.  That’s what the relationship’s all about.  I mean, it’s not like Diane Arbus or anything like that.  some of the portraits look very sad, I think, they have this distant gaze, but they are never pathetic.  They are never without dignity.  And so I think that when people see them they have to question their own relationship to what they’re seeing.  I think that I have changed a lot of people’s minds about this group of people.

RF: And the people themselves, the subjects of the portraits, must have something to do with that as well.
CO: Absolutely.  It’s a complete collaboration.  I wouldn’t be able to do it without this incredible group of people.

RF: I want to ask about the self-portraits, because we’ve been talking about the personal nature of your relationship to the work, but that must be even more direct with your self-portraits.
CO: Well, they’re more intense in terms of what I decide to do to my body.  I wouldn’t ask any of my friends to do what I do to myself.  Except Ron Athey.  I’ve bled for him in his performances, so he can do it for me.  I’ve just done Ron as St. Sebastian.  Anyway, I thought it was important, if I was going to document my community, to document myself within that community.  But I didn’t ever want to just do a portrait of me as Cathy, because it just wasn’t what I was interested in, of just sitting in front of the camera.  The first one was really out of losing a relationship, of breaking up after I finally thought I was going to have a home.  I had really desired that, and that’s where the cutting on my back of the two stick figure girls came from, and also the child-like drawing [Self-Portrait, 1993].  I had kind of a great childhood, but also a really awful childhood.  I drew that cartoon for about a year before I made the photograph.  It says a lot of different things.  One of them is that I have my back to you.  And in Pervert my head is covered.

RF: Why did you wear the hood in that photograph?
CO: Because everything that needed to be said was written on my chest.  And also because of the politics in this country now.  I didn’t think people need to know what my face looked like.

RF: Well, the hood isn’t exactly neutral.
CO: I’m paranoid about having my head covered.  I’m totally scared of it.  My friends had to take me into the shop to try on all these different hoods.  At first I could only keep them on for about thirty seconds.  So that was another thing.  How far could I take my body?  How much could I push it.  And the cut is really large.  And I have twenty-eight eighteen-gauge needles in my arms, which is a lot of needles.  To have all that stuff done, and then to have a hood put on, and then to make the image, was kind of an endurance test.

RF:   You titled the piece Pervert.  How do you feel about being called a pervert, or calling yourself a pervert?
CO: Well I am a big old pervert.  I like things that supposedly aren’t within the norm.  I have developed deviant sexual habits.  So I like it that the word is so elegantly scripted into my chest.  It’s not like some kind of graffiti.  The picture has an elegant gold and black backdrop.  I wanted to push the whole realm of beauty and elegance, but also to make people scared out of their wits.  The other one is sweet.  It’s a child’s drawing.  It’s about idealism in a certain way.  I want to start working on domestic stuff again.  I’m so fascinated with the documentary tradition and expanding its definition.

RF: The new photographs of the front doors of houses are portraits too, in a way.
CO: On one level, they’re portraits.  I mean, they’re not architectural photographs.  They don’t reference architectural photography whatsoever.  And they also don’t reference typology photography.  I use an 8 x 10 camera but I approach it like I’m taking a 35mm snapshot.  The houses and the freeways are just me wandering around looking at how the world is constructed in these strange ways.  I like to think about what is going to be left behind.  I’ve always been interested in being in some way an archeologist or anthropologist.  I think of all of this stuff as artifacts.

RF :  As future ruins?
CO: The freeways are definitely future ruins.  The houses are really personal to me.  Like the carving of the house on my back with the two stick figure women.  I’m always trying to make a home for myself, but I can never quite figure out how to make a home.  I never arrange the furniture quite right.  I can never keep all the camera equipment out of the house.  My knick-knacky things are huge lenses.  There’s a side of me that wants to be domestic, but I just can’t figure it out.

RF: I wonder if some of the same anxiety about making a home is also evident in the houses you’ve been photographing.  A front door that goes up in the air twenty feet higher than necessary seems to turn coming home into a really big production.
CO: The doors were the first thing that struck me.

RF: Also the mansard roofs, which are not really necessary in this warm climate, but which evoke the archetypal roof of a house, rather like the one on your back.
CO: These houses are absurd, but also just so important to the psychology of L.A.  It’s like my group of friends--these have to be photographed.

RF: Do the houses also represent a kind of community?
CO: I think it s a quasi-community, but almost a negative, it’s like not having a community.  The architecture is completely about being individual.

RF: Despite the emphasis on the door, a lot of them also seem quite fortress-like, too.  Once you are home, I imagine the door slamming shut behind you.
CO: The doors are always closed.  And that community is closed to me.  But at the same time it’s available to me.  I might be partly inside those doors too.  I got to a point where I had to stop being so out with my body.  I started to feel vulnerable.

RF: If the houses are about shutting down, what are the freeways about?  They remind me of very early photography, when the long exposures couldn’t record movement.
CO: I’m actually on the freeways all the time.  To go to my job in Irvine I take the 101 to the 5 to the 605 to the 405 to the 73.  I became fascinated by being stopped in traffic and watching other traffic go by on these interchanges.  It became so sculptural and beautiful.  It was like not being in that time, and not having to deal with this traffic jam.  Instead, it was about the shapes that I was beginning to see against the sky.  I don’t like to use language like this--usually--but there was a certain pureness to it.  The myth in L.A. is that the freeways are horrible, and that they’re jammed all the time, which actually is often true.  But on a summer night, with the windows down, they’re romantic in a way.

RF: All these disparate bodies of work seem to come out of an autobiographical impulse on some level.
CO:  I started photographing when I was nine.  I recently reprinted my first two rolls of film, and I realized that nothing has really changed.  I’m still doing portraits, I’m still doing houses, I’m still doing things in the neighborhood.  I did all these diptychs of speed limit signs in the neighborhood.  I documented my whole neighborhood when I was nine.  I think that everything comes form this really personal desire:  not only a love of what can be left, but this incredible desire to keep information.  I’m really dyslexic, and my memory works totally through the visual.  Taking photographs is all I’ve ever wanted to do.  It’s how I think.

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