Concluding our series of photographer-led tours of New Topographics, we are honored to have leading American artist Catherine Opie join us this Sunday. Cathy’s epic documentation of the American landscape highlights the inherent political nature of land use, including the forces of marginalization that come to bear upon its less conventional inhabitants. With insight into the social forces that shape both American terrain and community, Cathy has created iconic, individual portraits of social community as well as provided a major survey of our nation’s landscape. She recognizes as a photographic subject “the landscape as portraiture,” the ongoing site of collective and contested identity writ large. New Topographics has proven a fruitful inspiration to her practice.
Cathy’s earliest association with New Topographics was made while studying at the San Francisco Art Institute with participating photographer Henry Wessel. Although she was initially drawn to the more expressively inflected work of photographers like Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank (promulgated by curator John Szarkowski at MoMA), Cathy later turned her attentions toward New Topographics with the encouragement of her MFA tutor at Cal Arts, photographer Allen Sekula, known for his visual critiques of the social and geographic landscape. While living in Valencia at Cal Arts without a car, Cathy began her series Master Plan, detailing the rapid residential development taking place in the surrounding area. Her critical view of the exclusionary practices of development—seen in model home sales and aesthetic regulations of homeowners’ association—come to the fore in her study of the meaning of “home.” Subsequent series like Being and Having and Portraits focus on elements of such excluded communities. Her iconic series Portraits depicts the leather community of San Francisco, raising attendant issues about open gay identity, physical manipulation in S&M, and the role of the transgendered. Cathy’s investigation of the built landscape continues with such Los Angeles-based series as Mini-malls, Freeways, and Houses. Her recent series High School Football investigates still further the relationship of the football field’s highly contested terrain to formation of gendered individual and national identity.
I recently sat down with Cathy to discuss the early lessons she drew from New Topographics and which she now imparts as professor of fine art at UCLA. Here is a glimpse of her insights into the exhibition’s continued importance to viewers today:
Edward Robinson, Associate Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department