Since the late 1980s Catherine Opie has been documenting the people and geographies that make up the United States. On the Road with Catherine Opie functions as a survey of the artist’s career, highlighting the many times she has taken to the road to record transformational historical and political moments. This online presentation accompanies Opie’s exhibition Rhetorical Landscapes, on view at Lehmann Maupin in New York through September 26.
Today, amidst the global pandemic, the nation’s devastating rise in unemployment, the Black Lives Matter movement and public uprisings against police violence, and the lead up to the critical 2020 United States presidential election, Opie has once again embarked on a road trip―this time across the country in a newly purchased RV―to document the people, places, and landmarks that have become the visual markers of the country’s upheaval. Along the way, she is recording a series of videologues, offering an inside look into the preparatory side of her practice as well as a deeply personal account of her experience driving cross-country and bearing witness to this moment in time.
Opie is known for taking photographs that document the social and political makeup of the United States. In 1999, for example, she embarked on one of her first documented road trips to capture America in the months leading up to the new Millenium and amidst the Y2K frenzy. During the mid-2000s, Opie continued to take to the road periodically, photographing Obama’s inauguration and a number of political demonstrations addressing issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights, the Iraq War, and the Tea Party Movement. In each instance, Opie’s images reveal the particular way in which democracy becomes visible during contentious periods in American history.
In Swamps, Opie’s most recent series (selections of which are on view at Lehmann Maupin New York), the artist continues her examination of American identity through exploration of the country’s current physical and political landscape. The photographs in this series feature the Okefenokee swamp found in southern Georgia and northern Florida. These lush depictions of the swampland present an ecological environment that is emblematic of the dire environmental and human vulnerability that faces this region (and many others) as a result of climate change, ecological preservation issues, and the damage to the Environmental Protection Agency enacted by the Trump administration.
These works also bring to mind the common phrase, “drain the swamp,” used by the current administration to refer to the “elimination” of long-standing corruption within the U.S. government. In contrast to this rhetoric, Opie emphasizes that swamps are peaceful ecosystems that do not need to be drained but are themselves at serious risk, along with our democracy, due to the real corruption that has only grown over the last four years.
Opie’s series 1999 documents her epic road trip to capture America leading up to the new Millenium. The landscapes that comprise this series portray often-overlooked parts of the United States, mainly in the rural South, and the images present a stark contrast to the new technological era that many American cities were racing towards.
The Y2K panic that gripped the country during this period is seemingly absent from these photographs. Avoiding major interstates and choosing instead to travel on country roads and local highways, Opie sought to capture American communities which, on the cusp of a new century, seemed perfectly content to continue to be rooted in the past. Opie intentionally leaves each location nameless, as the photographs capture the feeling of this time rather than paying tribute to any particular site.
On January 21, 2017, Opie attended the Los Angeles Women’s March, part of a worldwide protest following the inauguration of President Trump and the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Here, Opie captures masses of people protesting for legislation and policies to protect human rights, women's rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and to advocate for healthcare reform, environmental reform, and racial equality. As someone who has devoted her career to the visibility and equity of the LGBTQ community, Opie did not attend the Los Angeles Women’s March simply to document it. One of the estimated 750,000 attendees at the event, Opie marched in protest as well.
Historic Moments Captured by Opie
Obama Inauguration, 2009
On January 20, 2009, 1.5 million Americans traveled from around the country to the National Mall in Washington D.C. to witness Barack Obama’s swearing in as the 44th—and first African American—president of the United States. The election of President Obama was a sign of hope and a milestone in America’s ongoing quest for civil rights for all its citizens. Shot documentary style, Opie’s photographs are investigatory yet personal―images range from scenes of the D.C. landscape littered with discarded bottles, newspaper articles, event programs and mini flags, to police barricades, jumbotrons with images of Barack and Michelle Obama, crowds of people protesting and celebrating, and close up portraits of attendees wearing their affiliation with pride.
Expressions of First Amendment Rights
Portraits and landscapes are the foundation of Opie’s oeuvre, where she often invites viewers to consider groups of people as a landscape, or conversely, a focused depiction of a landscape (natural or urban) as a portrait by swapping a photoraph’s orientation. Each series in this presentation depicts citizens exercising their first amendment right to assemble in support and protest. Here, people are depicted protesting Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that attempted to overturn the California Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage; at Tea Party Movement rallies―demonstrations in 2009 against new healthcare reform bills and economic recovery plans; at anti-Iraq War protests; and at the Pro-Immigration Rally against the 2010 Arizona Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act that enacted a set of strict new immigration laws. Each of these bodies of work documents both the landscape and people that become significant markers of historic political moments and examines the ideals and norms surrounding our understanding of the American dream and American identity.
Catherine Opie (b. 1961, Sandusky, OH; lives in Los Angeles) is known for her powerfully dynamic photography that examines the ideals and norms surrounding the culturally constructed American dream and American identity. She first gained recognition in the 1990s for her series of studio portraits titled Being and Having, in which she photographed gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals drawn from her circle of friends and artists. Opie has traveled extensively across the country exploring the diversity of America’s communities and landscapes, documenting quintessential American subjects— high school football players and the 2008 presidential inauguration—while also continuing to display America’s subcultures through formal portraits. Using dramatic staging, Opie presents cross-dressers, same-sex couples, and tattooed, scarred, and pierced bodies in intimate photographs that evoke traditional Renaissance portraiture—images of power and respect. In her portraits and landscapes, Opie establishes a level of ambiguity—of identity and place—by exaggerating masculine or feminine characteristics, or by exaggerating the distance of the shot, cropping, or blurring her landscapes.
Click here to read Opie’s full biography.