Catherine Opie Exhibit at the Guggenheim

Oliver in a Tutu

Oliver in a Tutu

I spent Sunday afternoon wandering through the Guggenheim, visiting the exhibit of the Catherine Opie retrospective for the second time.

I’m not sure how much of it I can really put into words, which is why I haven’t mentioned it yet, here – I’ve wanted to write up just how powerful it is to see images of queers hanging in a museum gallery. How powerful, but also how strange and revealing, how vulnerable. I stood in the portrait galleries, tears streaming down my face, reaching for my handkercheif, attempting not to notice the way that other galleryviewers were watching me interact with the photographs.

There were moments when I felt like I too was on display, walking by the straight-laced folks who regarded me with their museum gaze as they held their hands behind their backs and clucked their tongues while examining the photograph’s informational card.

There were other moments when I caught the eye of another queer – there seemed to be an extraordinary amount of dykes wandering through the four galleries of Opie’s work – and it was an intimate, knowing look, a bit of reverance, a bit of support, a bit of an acknowledgement of how amazing it was to be in an incredibly fancy museum looking at images of ourselves reflected.

I highly, highly recommend the exhibit if you are able to visit the Guggenheim here in New York City. I’m including a couple of images that I’ve pulled from various places on the web here in this post, but there are many, many more that I didn’t include, her series on cities and series on freeways are both phenomenal and worth seeing in person for the scale and richness of the photos.

Catherine Opie: American Photographer
Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue, New York
September 26, 2008 – January 5, 2009

Since the early 1990s, Catherine Opie has produced a complex body of work, adopting genres such as studio portraiture, landscape photography, and urban street photography to explore notions of communal, sexual, and cultural identity. From her early portraits of queer subcultures to her expansive urban landscapes, Opie has offered insights into the conditions in which communities form and the terms that define them. All the while maintaining a strict formal rigor, working in stark and provocative color as well as richly toned black and white. Influenced by social documentary photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and August Sander, Opie underscores and elevates the poignant yet unsettling veracity of her subjects. [Text from Art Tattler.]

Opie’s Self-Portraits

So stunning. I don’t even know if I can write about these, there is just so much emotion that comes up in me just looking at the images.


Opie’s Portraits series

The Portraits series may be my favorite. You’ve probably seen some of her shots around in queer community events or galleries or homes before, I certainly have. There is especially a lot of exploration of gender celebration. Many folks have made note of how the portraits use portrait painting techniques, and the subjects become nobility in their rich colors and stature.


Opie first came to prominence with her Portraits series (1993-97), which celebrates the queer community in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including practitioners of drag, transgendered people, and performance artists. Set against brilliantly colored backgrounds, these figures confront the viewer with intense gazes, asserting their individuality and destabilizing conventional notions of gender. Opie describes these sitters, all of whom she knew personally, as her “royal family;” by adopting a style inspired by portraitists like 16th-century German painter Hans Holbein, she offers an affirmative and tender portrayal of a subculture rendered invisible by dominant cultural norms. [Text from Art Tattler.]

Icehouses & Surfers

Also particularly stunning was the gallery of Opie’s Icehouses series and Surfers series, set across from each other on opposite walls. They are visually stunning, huge photographs. The surfers especially explore waiting, the moment of solid grey where sea and sky are undifferentiated and there is just infinite patience. Icehouses, in contrast and in similarity, explores temporary communities. I love how the (somewhat absent) line of the horizon mimic each other in seeing both series across from each other.


If you’ve been to the exhibit, what did you think? Do you have other queer photographers you’d recommend? I’m not too terribly familiar with the world of visual art, I’d love the recommendations.