Catherine Opie

(b. 1961)

About The Artist

American artist Catherine Opie is acclaimed for her striking photographs that explore the construction of identity. In Opie’s work, gender is presented as a performative act; her sitters often blur the boundary between male and female by assuming signifiers, from traditionally gendered clothing to facial hair. Opie grew up in Ohio and relocated to the West Coast to study at California Institute of the Arts, where she received her MFA in 1988. Opie is a tenured professor of photography at UCLA and one of the city’s most prominent artists. In 2016 alone, the artist presented solo exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Hammer Museum. 

Opie’s work first came to widespread attention in the early-to-mid 1990s with a series of portraits and images of gay, lesbian and transgender participants in California’s BDSM subculture, which generated controversy and praise in equal measure. These non-judgmental representations emphasized community and relationships, in opposition to traditional characterizations of such practitioners as perverted. According to the artist, “The S&M community … was thought of – and still is thought of, to an extent– as predatory or perverted. S&M was often framed in the language of the abnormal, which stripped it of its humanity. I wanted people to have a humble moment with my friends.”

With transgressive subjects including drag kings, S&M themed self-portraits, as well as gay mothers depicted pregnant and breastfeeding, Opie challenges conventional understandings of love, family, domesticity and identity. This is epitomized by the artist’s famous and provocative self-portrait, in which a child-like drawing of a happy family has been lanced into her back. Opie’s work is rendered doubly persuasive by her skill as a photographer, opting for classical compositions that seduce the viewer, inviting them to feel empathy with subjects they may not ordinarily be familiar with. This is underscored by the recurrence of particular models throughout various series, which heightens the sense of intimacy and poignancy. By presenting identity as fluid and malleable, Opie’s subjects are presented as powerful and self-determining, thus subverting the notion that the gaze objectifies the subject. Opie’s portraits are complimented by numerous series in which monumental American landscapes and cityscapes are captured in epic style.

Opie’s work is held in several major collections worldwide including Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); MOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA); Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA); Institute of Contemporary Art Boston (ICA), Boston; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; Tate, London; UBS Art Collection, Zurich; and Sammlung Goetz, Munich.



Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke U, 2006. 33-34. Print.
Joo, Eungie, Joseph Keehn, and Jenny Ham-Roberts. Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education. New York: Routledge, 2011. 169. Print.
Heartney, Eleanor, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue A. Scott. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Munich: Prestel, 2013. Print.