On Saturday, March 2, Catherine Opie will join the ranks of previous awardees Iwan Baan and Richard Barnes as the recipient of the 4th annual Julius Shulman Institute Excellence in Photography Award. Opie will receive the award at the opening of the exhibition Catherine Opie: In & Around L.A. at the Woodbury University Hollywood Gallery (WUHO). Included in the show—and exhibited for the first time in LA—will be photographs from her Shopkeepers series documenting small businesses in Opie’s West Adams neighborhood.
We had a chance to talk with Emily Bills, who, along with Karin Higa, curated the exhibition, Opie and her work.
FORM: Why choose Catherine Opie as this year’s recipient of the Julius Shulman Photography Award?
Emily Bills: Catherine Opie has been photographing the built environment since her graduate student days at CalArts in Los Angeles. Although she became celebrated for her portraits of the S/M community, of which she was a part, it was a series of quiet, diminutive photographs of L.A.’s freeways that surprised the art community. Since that time Opie has consistently framed the way we think about community, politics, urban development, and domestic space through exquisite prints that challenge us to look closely at the physical spaces that make up our everyday experience.
F: How does her work fit in/depart from that of previous recipients?
EB: The Julius Shulman Institute strives to bring attention to photographers who challenge the way we view the built environment, and this is true for all our recipients. While on the surface Opie’s work may seem very different from that of Iwan Baan and Richard Barnes, I see more similarities than departures. Like Baan, for example, Opie’s early photography education was documentary in nature and there is a strong social component to their work. Unlike past recipients, her work doesn’t straddle the world between commercial architectural photography and traditional art practice, but we believe that line is becoming more and more blurred, and for good reason.
F: How did you end up choosing the works you included?
EB: Opie has produced an incredibly diverse body of work on the built environment that stretches, for example, from Freeways in Los Angeles (1994) to Wall Street in New York just before 9/11 (2001), to Icehouses in Missouri (2001), to photographs of lesbian couples in their domestic environments all across the country (1998). Despite this rich array of work, Karin Higa and I really wanted to focus on Los Angeles, the place where Opie has lived and produced art for most of her professional life. Her work documents environments that, when combined together in this exhibition, provide an understanding of the city’s diverse communities and the people that occupy and shape them. We were also mindful of Julius Shulman’s own love of Los Angeles and the significance of showing Opie’s very different, but equally influential way of framing how we see the city.
F: Can you talk a bit about the two ends of the economic/class spectrum portrayed in her work?
EB: I think Opie’s interested in the politics of place, particularly how people shape their environments to reflect their vision of themselves and how they want to communicate to the world. We might compare the Bel Air and Beverly Hills Houses series to the Shopkeepers and In and Around Home series, the last two of which were photographed in Opie’s West Adams neighborhood. The facades in Houses are in many ways a disconcerting pastiche of architectural styles that suggest their owners want to claim a kind of European cultural legitimacy, but are confused about how to do so. Fronted by gates and hedges, the message is one of restriction. This is a portrait of a closed community. Although her camera frames the Shopkeepers in a similar manner—one-point perspective, vivid color, attention to decorative details—there is an openness missing from the Houses. The people in Opie’s West Adams neighborhood are available to be photographed, not locked behind doors. In Houses the occupants shape their individual identity through the manipulation of private property. In In and Around Home photographs like Monica Lewinsky Mural and Tree Stump Christ show how shared spaces such as an abandoned lot or sidewalk planter become opportunities for community expression.
F: Would you say that her perspective on LA has changed during the course of work on the city?
EB: I think there are some shared ideas that run through most of her work, despite the fact that she tends to work in distinct series. Almost all of the work has a documentary quality to it. All seem influenced by the history of portraiture, even the photographs that don’t include people. Her more recent work, Shopkeepers and In and Around Home focus less on infrastructure and more on the people who occupy communities.
F: What does her work say about the past and the future of LA?
EB: In a recent conversation with the artist, she suggested that the work might someday function as an archeological record of our city. I think what she meant is that her photographs of different neighborhoods reflect the everyday L.A. and not a staged version of what L.A. tries to project about itself to the world. If we really want to understand the city, we can look at her intimate portraits of shopkeepers in their working environments in West Adams, or the Bel Air and Beverly Hills house facades that are a curious pastiche of architectural history. I think her photographs also serve as documents of spaces that are undergoing continuous change. In Landscape 4, the steep, grassy hill off of Doheny Drive is marked with a real estate sale sign, and we can bet much of that natural environment has been developed. It is not a static city, but one that is constantly being built, rebuilt, and repurposed.
The show runs until March 24, 2013. For more information visit here.