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Lesbian Art and Politics. The work of Catherine Opie


For a very long time, female sexuality in different cultures was suppressed and restricted. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many lesbian artists had the freedom to produce art only in Paris and this city became a cultural center for many famous lesbians who were eager to reflect in the paintings and photographs what they felt. The second wave of lesbian art development took place after World War II which again caused critique and misunderstanding from the world society.

Catherine Opie – a well-known photographer

Today lesbian art remains controversial culture however it is not repressed anymore in the developed countries. So, lesbians have received the opportunity to express their sexual images and uncover real female desires. Catherine Opie is a well-known photographer with her primary focus on subcultures, gender, and sexual identity, lesbian in particular.

“When I was nine, I had to write a report for school on child labor laws. I came across a photograph by Lewis Hine in my social studies book that showed a little girl in North Carolina working in a cotton mill, dated 1908-9. […] Because I’m a visual person, I was drawn instantly to the photo. That photograph changed my life. It did. From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do, “- this is how Catherine Opie describes her motives of choosing her future road as the photographer. (Reilly, 2002, p. 83).

Catherine Opie introduced herself to the world with a shocking series of portraits; her first “models” were her good friends from Los Angeles. This series “Her Being and Having “included thirteen portraits of lesbians, who were wearing mustaches and goatees. “Her Being and Having” was produced to shock and wake up the sleeping world and to show the new trend of the new time. The next series followed just as controversial and stunning as the previous one. At this time her subjects were tattooed, lushly colored transsexuals, real specialists at using various body manipulators, not afraid to show their real desires and sexual nature.

Such great artists like Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, or Dorothea Lange inspired Catherine to produce her first works. At first, she was accused of “twisting the documentary photography”, later these shots were considered to be one of the most appealing and sensual pictures of modern society. At the time when Catherine was still studying at the California Institute of Arts, photography was the only way for a young artist to describe the world, whether concentrating on the gender of sexual identities or breaking the myth of the American dream.

In 1999 Catherine Opie exhibited one more folio “Domestic” which depicted images of lesbians at their homes, or domestic settings. To produce this folio she has traveled across the country in the motor home, which also served as the small studio she was looking for lesbian couples to present them in everyday, routine life- cooking, playing with children, relaxing together. (Terrell, 2006) The fact, that there was no pornographic message in these pictures proves that Catherine identified herself with her “models”.

In her works, Catherine Opie was trying to find the answer to the question of how communities are formed. She did everything possible to show that these families or couples are like other people, and they should not be excluded from society. Even conservative families, with certain religious traditions, can recognize themselves in these “awkward” families, and realize that there are not so many differences between their values and ways of life.

In 1999 Opie produced her 0 folios, which consisted of series of photogravures of the cropped lesbian porn images. Why did she title her series of work in such an unusual and mysterious way? Here is her answer: “O” as in hugs and kisses with Mapplethorpe’s X folio. It’s also my hugging Mapplethorpe. “O” as in anus, vagina, or other orifices. Tic-Tac-Toe, X-O-X. “O” as in Opie. All of those things.” (Reilly, 2001, p. 83) And such an answer could belong only to such a controversial artist as Catherine Opie.

It can not be denied that Catherine Opie’s works are worshipping human’s body, whether it belongs to the tattooed lesbian or transsexual. Explaining why she has focused on this art, she said that she had always found certain vulnerability and sweetness in such portraits. (Lord, 2000)

According to her words, these pictures reveal a pure tenderness and softness, however, not all of her models liked their portraits, arguing that they did not recognize themselves in the portraits. “I must have captured something unusual at the moment when I snapped the shutter, or when I edited it and picked that one,”- Catherine Opie talent is in reflecting people’s mood or inner world, and the picture is a great way to do that, because they never lie, uncovering the nature of every person. (Reilly, 2001, p.83).

Most of the subjects of Catherine Opie’s scenes are lesbians; however, she states that she doesn’t think about her models in terms of their gender or sexuality. She perceives her role in society as a historian who is documenting the lives of people with certain ideas and their way of life. (Hainley, 2004).

The importance of significant details from the scene is not neglected by Opie. This is amazing how one detail, corner of a bed or the dollhouse, or even the painting on lesbian’s breasts, can change the whole message of the picture.

For example, some of her pictures possess a strong feeling of dislocation and awkwardness, rather than unity and connection between people. One of the most memorable shots with a suburban room in the foreground and a happy couple of lesbians in the background coveys such a contradiction. It seems that the room was personalized in a very surprising and unexpected way by their inhabitants like they were barricaded from the outside world and misery around them. (Israel, 2000) Probably this is one of the messages from Catherine: lesbians can enjoy life regardless of the place they are in and the attitude of the society towards them. Love and trust between these two people are much more important than the poor surroundings they are in.

The most impressive portraits

One of the most impressive portraits made by Catherine Opie was executed by the huge Polaroid camera, which was so large that it could barely fit into the room and the size of Polaroid shots was from ten to twelve feet. This again highlights the artist’s innovativeness and far from the ordinary vision of the photography. This was a series of photographs of LA artists – Ron Athey and his troupe, devoted to the support of people with AIDS, including artists.

Another picture that leaves a deep impression on all of its viewers is the “Self-Portrait/Nursing”, which was taken by Catherine Opie in 2004. The nature of this picture and the meaning behind it can be argued about; however, this masterpiece of photography has a striking similarity with the painting of Raphael “Madonna and Child”. The love of the mother for her baby, desire to protect a child from an outside world is interminable and always widely expressed in art, so this picture can be a new way of expressing the lesbian or woman with her child.

Madonna and Child

Today Catherine Opie is a professor of Photography, working at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The best proof of her talent and unique understanding of photography is the fact, that her works are displayed in museums of Los Angeles, Chicago, and London.

To understand better who Catherine Opie is, it is important to remember that lesbian life and gender issues are not the only themes of her work. She started from self-portraits, later moving on to the cityscapes and remote landscapes, traveling along the California coast and looking for new inspiring scenes, discovering new images and ideas.

” What bothers me, though, is when everybody goes back to some of my earlier work of the S/M community or Pervert la photograph of a hooded woman in leather pants, naked from the waist up, with a nipple ring and the word PERVERT carved above her breasts] and then wonders, Why is she is doing work about cities? Stretch your mind a little–I am interested in other things than queer culture,”- Catherine Opie has produced a real masterpiece showing the nature of lesbians and their lives, however, she has found new interesting themes for her pictures, – nature. (Reilly, 2001, p. 83).

“I’m constantly looking at the history of photography and art as a source of inspiration. My portraits are hugely influenced by Sander’s typology, as is visible in his documentary project, Face of Our Time (1929). But I also want them to move toward a more traditional, formal portrait motif,”- Opie’s talent is evolving together with the art, taking new shapes and following new tendencies. (Reilly, 2001, p.83).

Can the former theme of Opie’s pictures and the new one be somehow connected? The answer is yes, lesbian life is about sincerity and discovery of your real nature, – and they are natural.

In 2004 Catherine Opie started a new series devoted to the beauty of the coastline and the courage of surfers, who seem to have a competition with the forces of nature. The interesting fact is that all these pictures were taken in the early morning when the coast was still covered with grey fog. The faces of surfers are glowing with the excitement of competing with the ocean and confidence in their victory over the next wave.

Catherine Opie

The development of lesbian culture and art is not restricted anymore, so each photographer or artist interested in this theme can express his or her images. One of the central ideas of such works is the self-presentation of lesbians, their bodies, way of life, and surroundings. However, today many works are not pornographic anymore, although the message of feminist agenda is present in all of them.


In the end, it should be emphasized that lesbian culture will evolve and soon the debates about its controversy will end and our society will finally learn to accept a new subculture. And the role of such artists like Catherine Opie will significant in their struggle against stereotypes and prejudice. Catherine Opie made a great contribution to the acceptance of lesbians and a better understanding of their values. Many of her works are widely criticized, however, time will show their real value when future generations will study the role of Catherine Opie in the development of lesbian cultures.


Hainley, Bruce. “Catherine Opie: Regen Projects.” Artforum International. 2004: 164.

Israel, Nico. “Catherine Opie.” Artforum International. 2000: 183.

Lord, Catherine. “From the Summer of Her Baldness.” Art Journal 61.1 (2002): 35.

Reilly, Maura. “The Drive to Describe: An Interview with Catherine Opie.” Art Journal 60.2 (2001): 83.

Terrell, Kellee. “Opie’s America: In Two New Shows, Photographer Catherine Opie Provides a Very Personal Take on the Country Today, Examining Her Own Family as Well as Whole Cities.” The Advocate. 2006: 48. Web.

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"Lesbian Art and Politics. The work of Catherine Opie." StudyKraken, 20 Sept. 2021,

1. StudyKraken. "Lesbian Art and Politics. The work of Catherine Opie." September 20, 2021.


StudyKraken. "Lesbian Art and Politics. The work of Catherine Opie." September 20, 2021.


StudyKraken. 2021. "Lesbian Art and Politics. The work of Catherine Opie." September 20, 2021.


StudyKraken. (2021) 'Lesbian Art and Politics. The work of Catherine Opie'. 20 September.

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