Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Cutting


Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Cutting, 1993, chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches (Guggenheim)

Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Cutting, 1993, chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches (Guggenheim © Catherine Opie)

Catherine Opie’s unaltered photograph Self-Portrait/Cutting offers a picture within a picture. [1] The photograph is a richly colored, sharply focused, highly detailed chromogenic print of a person seen from the back, pictured naked from the waist up. The subject faces a floral damask backdrop in a jewel-toned emerald green that provides the complementary contrast to the pinks and reds of the flesh. 

Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538

Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538, oil on oak, 179.1 x 82.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)

The emerald-colored background with detailed patterning, straightforward, centered composition, and the dignity of the sitter, recall, ironically, the formal royal portrait conventions used by Henry VIII’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, particularly in this 1538 portrait of Christina of Denmark. Opie has looked to Holbein’s work for inspiration more generally. In Self-Portrait/Cutting, Opie grants herself, a member of the LGBTQI+ community, similar importance as members of the royal court.

In Self-Portrait/Cutting, Opie’s short-cropped hair is dark with copper highlights at the crown, above the dark-brown shorn under-layer by the neck. Both ears feature multiple piercings with a tangle of sturdy silver hoops that refer to the creation of multiple holes in the ears, and the pain of that process. The sitter’s shoulders are broad and rounded toward the relaxed, soft arms, seen above the elbow. We see a black tattoo encircling the upper right arm with stylized animals and a Celtic-inspired knot, which also implies the act of enduring repeated needle pricks to the body. The broad back is pale and flushed, covered in freckles, sloping inward toward the waist. The sitter is evenly lit with few shadows, except for where the inner arms meet the expanse of the back. 

The smaller picture is hand carved into the sitter’s back, consisting of blood-red lines on pink flesh that is inflamed from the incisions. The image is a child-like drawing of two skirt-wearing, smiling stick figures standing while holding hands in the foreground. A square house with two windows and a door, a triangle roof with smoke emerging in carved curls, and a cloud rests above the heads of the stick figures, with a flaming sunshine emerging above it. Two squiggled “birds” fly to the right toward the shoulder. Though very roughly carved, it is an idealized picture of domestic coupled bliss. 

This scene was carved into her back by an unnamed assistant, at her direction, and the photograph was also staged by Opie. The image left a scar, and like her tattoos, it became a permanent mark. While the pain was temporary, the mark endures like a visible memory of that physical and psychological pain. 

Opie’s families

Opie produced this self-portrait in response to the trauma of a failed relationship, and stated that the female figures and the house are symbolic of her yearning for domestic bliss. [1] At the time, Opie was a visibly “out” lesbian member of the BDSM leather community. BDSM stands for the sexual practices of bondage and sadomasochism. In the 1990s, Opie was a part of this close-knit and active community of people with shared interests and pleasures. That was her chosen family, and she featured photographs of members displayed with great dignity in her 1991 portrait series Being and Having. Opie’s early fine-art work was often dedicated to bringing recognition to her marginalized found-family community. 

Opie was born in 1961 in Sandusky, Ohio, and recalls living an upper-middle-class Midwestern life. She remembers that her parents never fought, genuinely enjoyed each other, and presented an idyllic family life until the family business was sold while her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. [2] Around that time, the ideal family image faded as Opie was subjected to abuse and childhood trauma by her brother, whose friends sexually assaulted her. [3] 

Opie had been using photography as a means of self-expression—and making friends through taking portraits—since she had received a camera at age nine. After studying photography at The San Francisco Art Institute for her BFA, she earned an MFA from California Institute of Arts, where she studied with prominent conceptual documentary photographers like Allan Sekula, whose work stressed the importance of having a socially committed practice. In Self-Portrait/Cutting we see her vulnerable longing for an idyllic family life, but one that was not yet recognized as a legal partnership in 1993. Opie’s photograph can be read as a painful form of advocacy for the recognition of lesbian partnerships. 

Queering art history

Opie’s aesthetic choices are formally driven, much like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs sympathetically depict communities too often overlooked, in whose ranks he included himself. While Classical sculpture inspired Mapplethorpe, Opie instead looks to art-historical depictions of nobility by portrait painters like Holbein for guidance. As she stated:

[M]uch of my work is related to painting and photography history. It gives me the ability to use a very familiar language that people understand when looking at my work and seduce the viewer into considering work that they might not normally want to look at. [4]

Lewis W. Hine, Group of boys who work at the Brown Shoe Factory, Moberly, Missouri, October 1910, gelatin silver print, 11.9 × 16.8 cm (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Lewis W. Hine, Group of boys who work at the Brown Shoe Factory, Moberly, Missouri, October 1910, gelatin silver print, 11.9 × 16.8 cm (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Her engagement of royal portraiture enables her to seduce the viewer with familiar compositions and rich color, while she replaces the portraits of kings with dignified portraits of drag kings and others who had been marginalized for their sexuality or practices. Opie, who fondly regarded the work of U.S. social-reform photographer Lewis Hine, similarly evokes viewers’ sympathies for the subjects of her images. [5] Like Hine’s photographs of child laborers, Opie focuses her camera on people who have been marginalized and portrays them in a way that confers dignity while not hiding their identities. 

Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Pervert, 1994, chromogenic print, 101.6 x 75.9 cm (Guggenheim © Catherine Opie)

Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Pervert, 1994, chromogenic print, 101.6 x 75.9 cm (Guggenheim © Catherine Opie)

Opie’s Self-Portrait/Pervert, made one year after Self-Portrait/Cutting, deepens her allegiance to the BDSM sub-community by showing a series of needles inserted into the skin of her bared arms, as well as a label “Pervert” carved into her bare chest. Her head is covered with a leather hood used in bondage practice. As she explained,

I thought it was important, if I was going to document my community, to document myself within that community. [6]

Catherine Opie, Bo from "Being and Having", 1991, chromogenic print, 43.2 x 55.9 cm)

Catherine Opie, Bo from “Being and Having”, 1991, chromogenic print, 43.2 x 55.9 cm

Opie photographed her male alter-ego “Bo” as part of Being and Having. By including herself, Opie sidesteps criticism regarding attempted sensationalism of the BDSM and LGBTQI+ community as “the Other” by showing her own belonging.

Again in Self-Portrait/Pervert, the background is a richly patterned black-on-gold drape, echoing formal portraiture conventions with a rigidly symmetrical pose, and by framing the subject in the center. Self-Portrait/Pervert, Opie mentions, expresses her reaction to the ways that certain groups in the late twentieth century advocated to legalize marriage between gay men and lesbian couples while trying to downplay important cultural and political differences to gain political favor. Opie instead advocates for her LGBTQI+ community and BDSM sub-culture precisely as she saw and experienced them, without trying to make them “safe” for average American consumption. [7] She sought increased visibility and acknowledgment as a means to combat her communities’ further erasure.  

The year Opie made Self Portrait/Cutting, 1993, featured a Whitney Biennial that for many art critics was a pivotal event. It signaled a turn in art toward engaging identity politics, to question the normative position of the cisgender Western male as the locus of all importance, and included pivotal artwork by Fred Wilson, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, Byron Kim, and more. While Opie’s work was not included until the Whitney’s 1995 Biennial, her photographs were already in tune with the turn toward identity as subject matter for art. 

 

Notes:

[1] Catherine Opie, “I Have Represented This Country: An Interview with Catherine Opie,” Interview by Russell Ferguson, in Catherine Opie: American Photographer (New York City: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2009), p. 260.

[2] Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, “Oral History Interview with Catherine Opie, 2012 August 13-27,” Smithsonian Archives of American Art (2012), pp. 4–5. Accessed Aug. 11, 2021

[3] Drohojowska-Philp, p. 6.

[4] Jennifer Blessing, Catherine Opie: American Photographer (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2008), p. 15. 

[5] Drohojowska-Philp, p. 4.

[6] Catherine Opie is quoted in: Elisabeth Lebovici “Destabilizing Gender: Interview with Catherine Opie,” Make: The Magazine of Women’s Art, No. 89 (September-November 2000), p. 19.; Blessing, Catherine Opie, p. 14. 

[7] “Catherine Opie with Russell Ferguson,” Index Magazine Vol. 1, No. 2 (April-May 1996): p. 29. 


Additional resources:

Jennifer Blessing, Catherine Opie: American Photographer (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications) 2008.

Catherine Opie, “I Have Represented This Country: An Interview with Catherine Opie,” Interview by Russell Ferguson, in Catherine Opie: American Photographer (New York City: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2009).

Nadja Spiegelman, “From Catherine Opie, A Visual Diary of the Recent Past,New York Times: Style Magazine (July10, 2020). Accessed August 10, 2021

Cite this page as: Dr. Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafsson, "Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Cutting," in Smarthistory, August 29, 2021, accessed October 16, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/catherine-opie-self-portrait-cutting/.