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Matinee: 'Catherine Opie -- Photography, Painting and Portraiture' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

21 October 2017

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 210th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Catherine Opie -- Photography, Painting and Portraiture.

Los Angeles-based fine arts photographer Catherine Opie has a day job as a tenured professor of photography at the University of California at Los Angeles. So you might not be surprised to see her interview in this clip take place in a museum.

Or you might, if you know her from her portraits of "leather folks and fans of S&M," as NPR put it in 'I Do Like To Stare', which was broadcast last year.

It's easy to get the wrong impression of this American portraitist, who also does landscapes. But by the end of the video, she may strike you more as a modern day descendant of the Peale family.

In this clip from the Tate, we join her in the museum wearing a warm-up jacket and jeans. She tells us how she wrote a book report in grammar school about Lewis Hine. His portraits of children at work led to the laws that today still prohibit child labor. That kind of impact impressed her.

"And I went home and I asked my parents for a camera for my birthday so I could be a social documentary photographer," she says. She got her wish, a Kodak Instamatic she trained on her family, friends and community.

'I have no desire to literally try to copy one of these paintings photographically in this room.'

She talks about her work in the early 1990s, making portraits of her friends in the leather community. Documentary photography influenced that work, she admits, but an even stronger force was "the influence of painting and going to museums early on with my father."

She points out a painting to show what she means. As she discusses it, the video shows us her current work influenced by the painting. The connection may be hard to see at first but as the video goes on, it becomes more and more obvious.

"I have no desire to literally try to copy one of these paintings photographically in this room," she explains. She's up to something else.

"Taking the formalities of old master paintings and applying it is kind of my device of getting people to slow down," she says.

She points out another painting and wonders out loud why it grabs her. As she talks about what interests her, it grabs you, too.

When she points out how hands were handled in the paintings, we see how she handles hands in her images. With a great deal of attention.

Then she ends with a bang, a portrait of her son informed by Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine.

What do you want the viewer to take away from your work, she asks, when every viewer comes to it with a different history?

"It's really about the humanistic experience, the kind of expectations that we have gazing upon either a portrait or a landscape or a situation. And if you can walk away having a little bit better understanding and openness of being human, I think that's what I care about the most."

The portraits Opie photographs paint a larger canvas that itself is a portrait of our time. One that is straight-forward but engaging and ultimately helps us appreciate what it means to be human.

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