Catherine Opie, 2010

A conversation between Ryan McGinley and Catherine Opie, January 27, 2010

Ryan McGinley: Hi, Cathy. How’s your day been?

Catherine Opie: Oh, I’ve been teaching all day and my brain is like noodles. It’s just one of those weeks where it’s really intense. How about you?

RM: This week has been insane for me, too. I’m doing the final edit of these portraits, so I’ve been having 14-hour editing sessions for about ten days now. It takes forever because I shoot between 1,500 to 2,000 photographs of each person.

CO: You’re kidding me. That is so intense.

RM: [laughs] I know. I’m a crazy person. But that’s the only way I can do it.

CO: Well, let me ask you why. I mean, you end up using one or maybe two portraits of each person at the most, so what is it for you in relationship to that kind of volume?

RM: There’s a whole process that I have to go through to get the portrait I’m looking for. I have the person I’m shooting do all kinds of actions, like dancing, running, jumping on a mini-trampoline, walking, talking, sitting, standing, and I use these facial-expression cards, sort of like an acting exercise. Each card has a cartoon face and an emotion written on it that will say, like, “demure” or “jealous” or “surprised.” This girl Brandee—who works with me on these shoots and whose photo is in this book—is my “hype girl,” you know, like the people in rap videos who stand in the back pumping their fists in the air and dancing to get everyone psyched up. So she stands next to me and encourages the models and keeps them engaged so that I can concentrate on taking the photos. I usually spend about two to three hours with each person, and the whole time it’s constant activity. We bombard them with all these elements so that they’re too distracted to be self-conscious.

CO: People often argue that portraiture is about the notion of a person’s essence being projected to an audience. I’m wondering if you’re interested in that at all, or if you’re more interested in getting them out of themselves?

RM: I’m interested in both aspects. When some people are photographed, their personalities really shine through and I don’t really have to do that much, like if a person has a strong personality I just let them do their thing. On the other hand, even someone who’s really shy can be great. Sometimes it feels like you can cut the awkwardness in the air with a knife. But I also want to pull emotions out of people, or offer them activities to get them going, because a lot of the kids come in and they’re scared. In most cases it’s the first time they’ve been photographed nude, so all the movement helps get them comfortable and I can draw these gestures and feelings out of them.

CO: You sound like so much fun to photograph with. I don’t think that I’m that much fun. [laughs] I mean, I’m thinking, “Wow, trampoline bouncing.” I would be horrified to be photographed by you now, but if I were in my 20s, I could see it being really fun.
It’s interesting how different our processes are. When I started out doing portraits of my friends in the early 90s, I was shooting 4×5 and I was pretty much broke. I had a friend in San Francisco loan me a studio and I could only afford ten sheets of film on each person. I always shot two sheets of the same pose, in case one had a little hair on it or something because at that point there was no scanning, you had to print from negatives. I would spend maybe 45 minutes to an hour with each person. We would go through a series of different poses that I was thinking about. I would say, “OK, lift your chin a little bit. Why don’t you turn your head this way a little bit? Look at my finger over here.” Click. It’s very slow and it’s very quiet. I don’t even play music. And the portraits end up looking so intimate.

RM: I think that I find intimate moments by shooting so much. That’s probably one of the reasons why I do it. But I couldn’t imagine shooting somebody without music. That actually happened to us last week. We were shooting some of the final portraits and the receiver broke and I didn’t have music for maybe 20 minutes. It was so weird. It felt kind of sexual to me, actually.

CO: Do you want your photographs to be sexy?

RM: Not really. I mean, to me they’re not sexy because I know the circumstances in which I’m shooting them and the circumstances are never very sexy. But I think that for other people, they can be sexy. I always try to leave the final image open-ended, so that the viewer can look at it and make up their own story about it. Lots of times people will come up to me and say something like, “Oh, I love that photo where there’s been an explosion and they’re running from a car accident,” and I’m just like, “What photo are you talking about?” I love that people make up their own stories about the photos.

CO: I know. Or they assume something about your personality because of the work that you make. That happens to me a lot. People will end up saying to me, “God, you’re so nice.” And I’ll be like, “What would make you think I wouldn’t be nice? Do I have ‘asshole’ tattooed on the front of my head?”

RM: [laughs] No. But you have “pervert” carved on your chest.

CO: I know. I think that’s what a lot of people are worried about, that somehow I would not be nice because I carved “pervert” on my chest.

RM: I have the word “penis” tattooed inside of my mouth.

CO: There you go. [laughs]

RM: I was actually thinking about your “pervert” carving when I got that tattoo. I was definitely inspired by it. Every year on my cross-country trips, my producer gives everyone stick-and-poke tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos—I’ve just never wanted one—but they were like, “We’re all getting them so you have to get one, too.” So I thought about it for a second and immediately said, “OK, tattoo the word ‘penis’ inside my bottom lip really big, so that way I’ll always have a big penis in my mouth forever.” [laughs]

CO: Let’s talk about that statement for a moment, because a lot of people have asked me, “Is Ryan queer?” And it seems that in a certain way, you are making work in relationship to the queer community, but people are still unsure about your sexual orientation. What do you make of that?

RM: Well, I guess I don’t feel like I have to prove anything. I’m lucky, I was raised in such a positive queer environment that it’s just a part of who I am. I had a brother who was gay. He passed away from AIDS in 1995, when I was 17. I was basically raised by him and his friends, who were all drag queens. I would always come into the city and spend weekends with him and his boyfriend at their apartment. And “gay” was never a derogatory term in my house.

CO: Do you find it interesting that people try to pinpoint you as to whether or not you’re a queer artist, and that the title seems to be important to people?

RM: Hmm… I mean, I’m so happy to be gay. It’s probably my favorite thing about myself. But I don’t know how much it translates into the work. I think that my brother dying has affected my work more than being gay does. That was really, really hard for me. He was already sick before AZT became readily available, so it was a really long, drawn-out AIDS death. And I think that, in a way, my work is a response to that, like about really embracing life and going wild and creating photographs in which there’s so much energy and so much life being lived. For me it’s an escape. Like when I’m looking through the viewfinder, I’m in another place.

CO: That does come through in your work. And you can tell that it’s fun, too. What’s your relationship to that idea of creating these parties or this atmosphere of experimentation and fun?

RM: On my road trips I always say that we’re like a traveling circus. We use so many props, like I have a 20-foot-by-20-foot stuntman fall mat that you inflate and then you can jump from 50 feet onto it. So we jump off cliffs and off trees, pretty much off anything interesting that works. And we have a 16-foot trampoline that we can set up and break down in ten minutes. So we’ll be driving and I’ll see something on the side of the road and just say, “Wow, that looks really beautiful. It’s a great sunset and it’s a great location. Let’s set up the trampoline.” We have smoke machines and snow machines, disco balls and all sorts of movie lights that we pack into my trailer, so it really is like a mobile carnival or celebration or something. I do all of this because it’s fun, sure, but also because I’m interested in creating these sort of extreme circumstances to make photographs. It translates back to when I was younger, because all I did was skateboard for probably 15 years of my life, from about five years old till 20 years old. I skated every day—

CO: So movement’s really important to you.

RM: Yeah. It’s all about movement, and it’s about making something out of nothing. I mean, that’s what skateboarding is. You find a handrail, a curb, or a ledge, these places that were meant for something else, and then you use them in a way they weren’t intended to be used to express your creativity. You make them your own. And I think about photography in the same way. It’s about finding these great places to make photographs.

CO: I have to ask you this question just because I’m curious. You could probably have your pick of people to have a conversation with for this book. What was it specifically that made you reach out to me?

RM: Because I love your photos, of course. And especially for this portrait project, I found so much inspiration in your photographs. One thing that I looked at a lot while doing these portraits is your Dyke Deck.

CO: [laughs] Oh yeah, the Dyke Deck. That was actually really fun. Every once in a while, my sense of humor comes out in my work, but very rarely.

RM: I remember when I first got it, I couldn’t stop flipping through the deck. I loved looking at all the different types of characters. You know, I can be kind of obsessive. I used to take Polaroids of everybody who ever came into my apartment. From 1998 to 2003, I think I made over 10,000 Polaroids of people in my apartment, and I would put them all up on my walls. It was an obsession with collecting these pictures of people that goes all the way back to childhood, when I was an avid baseball-card collector.

CO: So in a way, photography for you is not is only about putting the image out in the world, but it’s also an archive, a personal collection.

RM: Exactly. I have always been an obsessive collector. The Polaroids were also about defining and representing this community of my friends. And that’s something else I love about your photos, your sense of community is really beautiful and important.

CO: Oftentimes when people discuss you, they talk about Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, but I actually see your work very differently from theirs. I look at your work as a sense of play, as this almost nostalgia for freedom that comes out of the 60s, like a remembrance of hippieness. You’re making this incredible, permissive work about the notion of freedom within the landscape, post-AIDS. When I look at Nan and Larry’s work and the way that they’re dealing with the body, it seems to be a sadder set of circumstances.

RM: That’s true—we are from different generations. But I’m glad you said that because I feel like if I get compared to Nan Goldin and Larry Clark again, I’m going to buy a gun and start shooting people. [laughs] Of course when I first starting making photographs, I was hugely inspired by them. I was young, running around the city on drugs, photographing my friends doing graffiti on rooftops and hanging out in bars, and I wanted to document my life like they had. But that was so long ago. I still love their work, but I’ve gone off on a very different path over years.

CO: Let’s talk about the new portraits. Let’s talk about the move from the big cross-country journeys and the caves. I feel like that part of your work is steeped in a nostalgia for freedom that even dates back to the 19th century. Like I look at your work sometimes and I think about F. Holland Day. You know, there’s this kind of history within it. But now you’re going into the studio, and you’ve stripped away everything except for the person, the nude. What is it about the body for you in terms of wanting to show it without clothing? In a place like a studio, where the person is already stripped from all context, what is your interest in the body and in representing it?

RM: Well, I want my photos to look timeless. I love making a photograph where you can look at it and you can’t tell if it was made five weeks or 50 years ago. That’s why I always use archetypal landscapes and now the studio. And just in terms of photographing people without clothing on, for me, the best part of my job is that I get to see people naked. [laughs] I love seeing their bodies. I love finding someone who I want to photograph and approaching them and asking them to pose for me. I generally get a good response. And then it’s so exciting to think, “I’m going to photograph that person nude in less than a week.” I don’t know, I just love that. It’s like having x-ray vision.

CO: Do you have a cutoff age of people you photograph?

RM: No, but it tends to be people in my generation or younger. I think the majority are around college age. I love that age because they’re so optimistic. They’re at an age where anything is possible and that sensibility and all their energy gets injected into the work. They’re so excited. I have a girl who casts full-time for me, and her job is to go all over the world to rock festivals and to art schools to find me models. I love to photograph artists and kids who are really into music. I’d say probably 99 percent of the people in my photographs are artists or musicians or involved in something creative. And another thing about the people I choose to photograph is that everyone resembles the way that my brothers and sisters looked when I was a child. That’s a really big part of my work and informs my aesthetic.

CO: So in a certain way, it’s all a self-portrait.

RM: Yeah, in a way it is.

CO: That makes sense in terms of the nostalgic quality in your work. What would you say your relationship is to nostalgia?

RM: Well, I’m the youngest of eight kids. My youngest brother is 11 years older than me, and my oldest brother is 18 years older than me. Basically, my mom had seven kids in seven years, and then she had me 11 years later. According to my mother, I was a surprise from the Baby Jesus. [laughs] My brothers and sisters raised me and I idolized them and their friends. All my best childhood memories revolve around them and the nostalgia I feel for them is definitely present in my work.

CO: I want to ask you about your connection to your photos. One time I had a collector say to me, “Oh, I have Mike and Sky, 1993, hanging over my toilet, so when somebody comes and pees, they’re looking at these two guys who were once women.” And I’m like, “Oh, great.” How do you deal with that? How do you respond to your images after you can’t hold them just for yourself?

RM: Well, since it takes me so long to pick a photograph, I feel like after a certain point I sort of divorce myself from the image, and I realize that it’s going to take on its own life and that it’s not about me or the person in the photo anymore. Like what I was saying before, I love when people project their own fantasies onto my photos. I want the collector or viewer to use their imagination and come to their own conclusion as to who the person is or what they’re doing.

CO: I just remember that I felt a huge responsibility to my community. Maybe because the work was so connected to me personally, unlike some of my later work—like, I’m not too concerned about peoples’ reactions to the portraits of surfers or high school football players. But I guess the assumptions that were placed on the early portraits of myself and my friends were kind of daunting for me to deal with. That’s probably why I shifted to doing freeways and mini-malls and American cities a little bit, because I had to figure out what this all meant to me on a personal level. So I was wondering if you have any of those quandaries because your work is really personal, I think.

RM: Yeah, I can relate to that. I feel that way with my early work, too. The first three years of taking photos were all very personal. A lot of it was documenting my first serious relationship, with my boyfriend, Marc. And sure, it’s strange to hear about someone owning a photo like that, because I’m like, “Wow, you kind of own a piece of my life.” You know? But there was a certain point that I stopped. Probably after my exhibition at the Whitney. That show was really tough for me—I mean, it was incredible, but it was such a whirlwind and all the attention was such a mindfuck that afterward I just needed to get away from it all. That’s when I started to shoot in nature. I just wanted to get away from New York for a little while, and that’s when I started directing and started making things happen and coming up with really concrete ideas instead of just waiting for things to happen and then documenting them. The work from then on is a different kind of personal.

CO: Because you have more control over it?

RM: Well, because I started to separate my work from my life a little bit more. Back then I would always have my camera in hand. I would struggle to try to find a separation between my life and art, you know? I think I’m doing a pretty good job now, like I actually have friends who aren’t in my photographs, and I can go out and do things without bringing my camera. I’m really happy about that. I mean, I don’t want it to sound bad—obviously I’m still extremely connected to my work, but it’s just not pictures of me and my boyfriend having sex anymore.
And also, things changed when people started getting paid. You know, I pay my models, and I have a producer now and a crew. I started to make a living as an artist, and I started to accept that being an artist is a job.

CO: It is a job. I was on a panel one time with a critic, and he said, “Why do they call it artwork? Don’t you guys just play?” And I mean, I talked about your work as being playful, but it’s about what it evokes, not the fact that you’re just out there not working hard.

RM: Totally. What I get a lot from people is that the work looks very carefree and easy, and if people knew how much work went into it to make it look so carefree and easy, they wouldn’t be able to handle it. With the portraits in this book, people could look at them and not know what went into it at all. They wouldn’t know that this was a two-year project and that it’s people from all around the world who have been handpicked out of thousands, that it took hundreds of hours of editing to find these perfect moments. They wouldn’t know how crazy the whole process is and how obsessive I am about it.

CO: Yeah, I just looked at that critic, and I said, “You try standing in a darkroom for eight hours a day for ten days, printing out an entire body of work, and then you tell me I’m just having fun.” You know? It takes a lot of energy.

RM: Definitely. This may seem weird, but I wanted to ask you, do you feel like the camera’s magic—that you’re holding magic?

CO: [laughs] I don’t think I would use those words exactly, but definitely. I mean, who knew that I would spend three years on the edge of a high school football field photographing teenage football players? In that way, it is kind of magical, because it can transport me from my own reality into other places that I would never get to go. You know what a camera does for me? It gives me permission to stare.

RM: Yeah. I feel the same way.

CO: And I really am a starer. My partner, Julie, is constantly reminding me. She’s like, “You’re staring.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry. I just really like the way that person looks.” You know? I never get tired of looking at people.

RM: Oh, me neither.

CO: One of my favorite things in the past three years is the fact that I’ve gone and I’ve stood witness to these high school football players. I have to say, those photographs, it’s going to really freak you out, Ryan. I only take two frames of each football player.

RM: Wow. I love it. I wish I could work like that.

CO: Two frames, and if it’s there, it’s there. It has to be quick because they’re all lined up and they’re all catcalling each other. You know, they’re all like, “Oh, yeah. Make it look real pretty for her,” like doing whatever football players do. And I have to try to get them to a place where they’re not doing that. And they’ve just been in practice. They don’t want to stand around for this almost-50-year-old woman photographer who’s come to their high school to take pictures. So I have to be really fast about it. But it’s interesting, because I don’t even know what it would mean for me to take 1,000 photographs of one person. I’m going to have to try it one time and see what it feels like.

RM: I’ll have to try shooting two and see what that feels like.

CO: With no music.