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Catherine Opie’s Human Touch


As we look forward to Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, opening January 24 at the Guggenheim in New York, we thought we’d take a moment to recall another important exhibition that confronted issues of identity and difference in America. Catherine Opie: American Photographer, on view at the Guggenheim in 2008, presented nearly two decades of studio portraiture, landscape photography, and urban street photography from an artist dedicated to the exploration of the human experience. In this video, Opie speaks to the “recognizably human” moments she has captured in images that range from intimate portraits of lesbian families to nearly abstract views of Los Angeles freeways.

Opie also discusses her process in making the series Icehouses (2001) and Surfers (2003)—one showing brightly colored icehouses scattered over frozen lakes, the other depicting surfers waiting for waves in a vast expanse of ocean. Opie says that, after photographing the icehouses, she “conceived of doing the surfers to be [a] companion piece . . . I felt like the conversation wasn’t really quite complete.” The two series act as a challenge to “preconceived notions  . . . in relationship to landscape,” as Opie puts it here. “Most people think that a surfer photograph is . . . of this guy—or woman—riding this great wave, and instead, I’ve flattened it out.”

Inviting viewers to grapple with their own preconceptions is crucial to Opie’s work, but as she makes clear, she also places great importance on conveying a sense of our shared humanity. “I would like people to walk away with . . . the fact that we are all together in this as a species.”

To learn more about Opie’s work, visit the microsite for the 2008-2009 exhibition; and if you’re interested in seeing work from another fascinating contemporary photographer, find out about the upcoming Carrie Mae Weems retrospective.