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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Catherine Opie for Rodarte

Rodarte is two sisters, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who started making clothes in their parents' house in Pasadena, California. They make sculptural, artisanal knits, artfully destroyed frocks, tights that land somewhere between woven and shredded. They're weird and sort of goth and tangled and fragile and elegant, and manage to look awesome on both Chloe Sevigny and Michelle Obama. Of all the designers who've done capsules for Target's Go International line, theirs had the most amount of covet-able pieces and was the least dumbed-down, design wise.

Catherine Opie is a photographer who's just come off an insane multi-show tear which included a retrospective of nearly two decades of work at the Guggenheim and the acclaimed Girlfriends show at Gladstone Gallery in NYC, which mixed new portraits of classic Opie subjects (model Jenny Shimizu, tattoo artist Idexa Stern) with shots of more recent art crushes (writer Eileen Myles, DJ JD Samson). Opie shoots people (bloody SM queers circa 1990s, surfers, high school football players) and landscapes (Los Angeles strip malls, Minneapolis skyways, colorful ice fishing houses). And as of this November, with the publication of the art book Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth she will have officially moved into the newer territory of fashion photography. Published by JRP Ringier, the book explores the Rodarte's intricate designs through the lenses of of both photographers. And Catherine Opie foudn a second between shooting New York Times Magazine covers and teaching at UCLA to talk to me about that, and about her stunning work, generally.

Hey, how did this excellent collaboration come about?

CATHERINE OPIE: We met each other at a gallery opening, and then we were talking. I had 5 solo shows back to back and I had some free time, let’s do it. I told them my vision, to have not only their top supermodels but also a handful of people that I knew, that it would make sense with the way I do portraits. I made 25,000 photographs in 2 days.

IBC: Did the Mulleavy sisters give you a lot of direction, or did they let you do what you want?

CO: They gave me free reign. I came up with the concept that I would shoot it my style, on different colored seamless. I set about it in a very formal way. On the shoot I would go over to the racks and pull things off and say, I think this would look great on so-and-so, and they would say, okay. They had a lot of trust in me.

IBC: Were you familiar with Rodarte before you met Kate and Laura?

CO: I have to say I wasn’t, and I think that’s because I follow a lot of more men’s fashion because that’s what I wear, men’s clothes. I don’t really read the fashion pages, but as soon as I saw what they made I was blown away. I said, you guys are sculptors. And I really like them as people, they’re really good people, they’re smart. They’re just so passionate about what they do. For as much notoriety as they’ve received at a young age, they’re sitting very well with it. They’re not clique-ish people at all. It was very cool to work with them.

IBC: Who were the people you brought in as models?

CO: Idexa (Stern, tattoo artist), Julie Tolentino - she’s a performance artist, she did a lot of work with Ron Athey. Also Job Piston, a student of mine, and then I brought in Audrey, one of Oliver’s babysitters, and also Oliver posed in a Rodarte look, and he’ll be in the book as well. I would say I brought in about five people that I really wanted to look at. The other person I brought in was Jenny (Shimizu), and that makes sense because I photographed her a long time ago and then she became a fashion model! And I brought in Kate Moennig, who played Shane on The L Word. I had photographed her for a show called ‘Girlfriends’ I did in New York last year.

IBC: What guided your selection when you were casting your models?

CO: A. The body type has to be right for the clothing, the clothes are small. I couldn’t bring a woman in my size at all, nothing would fit. Idexa I’ve photographed for years, and I knew her tattoos would look excellent with the clothes. Julie is an amazing performance artist with a dance background, and there was this leather outfit I knew she would move really well in. And I wanted to bring a boy in just to genderfuck it a bit.

IBC: Where did you shoot?

CO: I rented a studio out for two days. I had a kitchen, I had it catered - an amazing woman, Jen Smith, who is an artist and who makes the most amazing food in the world. They had hair and makeup that they provided, and I had a crew of 4 people working with me, and they had a huge crew dressing, and, really, imagine - to shoot 25,000 photographs with 19 looks over a 2-day period is unheard of. It was 12 hours days, but it was incredible to get that amount of work done. And they were thrilled on the shoot, Kate and Laura watching things come up on the monitor, they were, ‘Oh my God, look at that! Oh my God, look at that!’ I think they had a hard time editing the book because there were so many great photographs. But I think it’s going to be a beautiful book.

And Alec Soth shot mostly landscapes?

CO: Yeah, he did all landscaped things that inspire Kate and Laura, in relation to California and nature and the ideas that they bring into their clothing.

Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth cover image

IBC: I read an interview you did with Jenny Shimizu where you say you're not super interested in continuing on with fashion photography. How is it different than fine art photography?

CO: Well, I think it goes well with Rodarte, because they gave me an enormous amount of freedom. Usually with an editorial you’re dealing with art directors, you’re dealing with clients. As an artist I make all my own decisions. It comes down to ideas of freedom. If I had to deal with an enormous amount of people telling me what it had to look like, that would be hard with me. But I love working with Kate and Laura, I love looking at what they make. Its fun!

Laura + Kate Mulleavy with Jenny Shimizu

IBC: What menswear designers do you like?

CO: I personally wear Adam Kimmel, he makes my suits for me. I like him a lot, and I always wear James Perce T-shirts. I love his T-shirts, they’re some of my favorite cotton and I like the way they fall on my body. There’s a lot of stuff I love that I would love to wear if it would fit me, I’m a big girl. I would wear Prada if Prada fit me, and I also love Tom Ford, I love what he’s doing with men’s clothing.

Chloe, 1993

Looking back at your portraits of young queer punks in the 90s, I was struck by how really fashion-y they are, both the models with their intense looks, and the colorful backgrounds. Could you feel the fashion element to those pictures when you shot them?

CO: No, I really felt like I was just representing my friends and my community, and part of that was how we all dressed. There’s a certain amount of style always in relationship to queer culture. It was a by-product of what happened in the process of documenting my community. Putting in the colored seamless wasn’t about fashion, it was about I was photographing people in their homes, and that already exited in the lexicon of photography, and I really wanted to break that up.

Jerome Caja, 1993

IBC: Your portraits of Jerome Caja are so amazing. I'm such a fan of his art.

CO: Oh I know! Jerome, our dear Jerome. Yeah, he was a wonderful man. I met him when I was an undergrad student at San Francisco Art Institute, and we just kept a friendship going. You know at the Art Institute, how you walk down the ramps to the sculpture area? He lived underneath the ramp. He had a little studio set up, but he sort of inhabited that space underneath the ramp. Of course it was like the magical creature underneath the ramp! Yeah, he was a nasty good one. He was a nasty, dirty little drag queen. I remember going to ­ oh god, what was it called? One of the clubs south of Mission, god I can’t remember the name, but he was Go-Go dancing, and he would have a child’s swim mask over his dick. His cock was pressed up against the window of the swim mask, he had a bikini top on, his makeup was streaming down his face like Nine Inch Nails, god, what was that club called!

Julie (play piercing), 1994

IBC: Sometimes when I’m telling stories of how insane nightlife and performance was in underground queer scenes in the 90s, I’m like – was it really that extreme? Was I really walking into clubs and seeing girls sewing their labias together with sewing neeedles on top of the bar, or getting mummified in Saran Wrap and tossed in a body bag, am I exaggerating? And then I see your portraits from that era and I’m like, nope, that really happened. So, thank you!

Down in LA there was Club Fuck, and it was Pig Pen and Ron Athey and they were all doing performance. And they created a queer community in LA, because we certainly weren’t being represented by West Hollywood. Eventually lawyers stared coming and ruined our club experience. But it was a really cool club culture. I was in San Francisco from ‘81 to ‘85 and it was really amazing, the pre-AIDs club culture, going to the dungeon, and how divided the community was around leather, and leather dykes, and that really changed after AIDs because we were taking care of our friends who were dying. A lot of history! I like being almost 50 and knowing that I have this history of queer community. And I still think I’m one of the young ones! When I came out my legends were Dorothy Allison and Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin. I was like, that’s who I want to be. I’ve been trying to do a portrait of Dorothy for years and she still won’t sit for me, even though we like each other a lot.

IBC: How come?

CO: I don’t know, ask her! She says, ‘Oh Cathy, I don’t like the way I look in photographs,’ or, ‘Maybe one day.’ There’s always an excuse.

Pig Pen (tattoos), 2009

IBC: Your Girlfriends show was up this spring at Gladstone Gallery in New York . . .

CO: And now I have a show up at LACMA about high school football, that I just finished last year.

Rusty, (2008)

IBC: What is the thread that links, say, your portraits of SM queers in the 90s, and your Los Angeles strip mall landscape shots, and these portraits of teenaged football players?

CO: I think about it, I mean, I really look at it, and constantly my work is all about representation of community and landscape. And the football field is the American landscape. And I’m really in touch with vulnerability, and people don’t see football players as vulnerable, because they’re the jocks. But we’ve been at war, and a lot of these kids are going off to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it reminds me of how vulnerable my community was in the 90s, and wanting to photograph that. We have a lot of assumptions. These are these young, vulnerable men out there, and we kind of forget that because of the stereotypes we attach to that.

Josh, (2007)

The football portraits are so compelling, they're really intense. You just want to keep staring at them.

CO: I invite people to stare along with my obsession with staring at people! My partner Julie always tells me, ‘You’re staring at people!’ and I’m like, I know, I’m making a picture in my head!

Football Landscape #5 (Juneau vs. Douglas, Juneau, Alaska)

IBC: How did you get access to the high school football teams?

CO: I wrote a letters to the coaches and asked if I could come and told them what my project was and either received a yes or a no. It was telling coaches that I was interested in the way the landscape looked around the field as well, and asking permission to come and photograph them.

Dusty, (2007)

IBC: Did you give the football players any direction?

CO: I tell them where to put their hands, where to look, back up, go forward. I tell them not to smile if they’re breaking out a big smile. I tell them think about something that’s important in their head. People put on this weird fake smile when your’e taking their portraits.

Jenny (Bed), 2009

IBC: Do you know what your next body of work will be about?

CO: No. I was just at the (Michigan) Womens’ Music Festival, but it felt like sacred space, though I did make some images. It was interesting to me that usually I don’t have a lot of restrictions in my mind - in relationship to humanity I have restrictions, but I don’t usually think of ‘This is sacred, you can’t photograph this.’ But I loved it. I loved the festival. It was my first time. I was a ‘festive virgin’ as they say, and I thought it was incredible. It’s really incredible to figure out how to construct an image but still allow for privacy, because it’s a very private place.

Oliver in a Tutu, 2004

IBC: Whose portrait would you love to do?

CO: Joan Didion. Top of my list. She’s one of my heroes. She’s one of my writing heroes. I am photographing an author tomorrow who is big news these days, Jonathan Franzen. I’m photographing him for the New York Times Magazine.

Idexa, 2008

IBC: You must get asked to do jobs like that a ton.

CO: I get asked a lot, I say no a lot. Because my own work is so demanding, and I’m also a full professor at UCLA and I’m also a mom. I can’t just be dashing off everywhere.

Justin Bond, 1993

IBC: How do you decide what to say yes to?

CO: This is a good offer. I mean, he’s an interesting writer and I always like meeting interesting writers. And it’s also the cover shoot. I keep saying no to the New York Times Magazine and I have a great fear they’ll stop asking me, and so I have to say yes every once in a while. They do such a great job with what they do with photography in their magazine.

Diane di Massa, 1994

TBI: Who are your favorite photographers?

CO: I would have to say I’m very influenced by the history of American photography - Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans. Contemporary photography, I always look at the German school. You can’t not look at what came out of Dusseldorf. I really, really like - if I would have to pick anyone - Rineke Dijkstra. I really like her work. She does video and photographic work. I would have to say, I really enjoy teaching all these years. I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years, and seeing what my students make, what they talk about where contemporary photography is going. If I see a show that is just amazing. My eyes are always open, and it’s hard to nail down any favorites.

Thanks to Jenny Shimizu for additional photos


  1. The Mulleavey sisters are like a fairy tale. Last I read they still shared a room at their parent's house. A profile of them called their jeans "unironic levis" True originals.

  2. Great review.This is very informative article.Thanks for this write up..!