AT the age of 9, after writing a book report on Lewis Hine’s images of child laborers from the early 20th century, Catherine Opie sat her parents down and passionately announced that she wanted to be a social-documentary photographer.
“I talked to them about this photograph of a little girl who worked in a factory in North Carolina and how this guy was able to change the laws,” Ms. Opie, now 47, said. She spent the next year of her childhood meticulously documenting her family and neighborhood in Sandusky, Ohio, and hasn’t stopped taking pictures since.
An anthropological interest in home and identity, and the idealistic belief that images can help bring about social change are both fundamental to Ms. Opie’s wide-ranging photographs.
On the eve of her midcareer survey, “American Photographer,” opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Friday, she discussed her work in one of the studios that she and her companion, Julie Burleigh, a painter, built in the backyard of their house in South Central Los Angeles. At the time Ms. Opie was trying to have a baby, and she wanted to be able to put him down for a nap and walk across the yard to work. Now she intermittently glanced through the studio window with amusement as their 6-year-old son, Oliver, raucously animated a Pokémon character on the back deck.
Ms. Opie’s seamless weaving of home and work, the personal and the political, are familiar from her series “In and Around Home,” shot during the 2004 national election cycle, with pictures of Oliver playing in a tutu, street protests in her largely African-American neighborhood and grainy television images of George Bush infiltrating her living room.
Ms. Opie came to art-world prominence in the mid-1990s with her large-scale portraits of what she has called her “royal family,” friends in the sadomasochistic leather group in San Francisco. Photographing her highly individualistic tattooed subjects frontally against vibrant-colored backdrops in a manner evocative of Hans Holbein, Ms. Opie sought to give dignified representation to what she felt was a maligned subculture.
“Cathy likes to use these art-historical quotes to seduce the viewer into looking at things that they don’t necessarily want to look at,” said Jennifer Blessing, the Guggenheim’s photography curator, who organized the show to underscore the breadth of Ms. Opie’s work. “Through the familiarity of the iconography as well as the incredible formal beauty of the photograph, she hopes the viewer will respond sensitively to the things and the people she depicts.”
Ms. Opie said, “I’m very fluid with photography, and I’m actually in love with it on a technical level.” With her generous personality and a Midwestern cadence that she has retained despite living for decades in California — her family moved near San Diego when she was 13 — Ms. Opie habitually talks strangers into agreeing to be photographed. She is also often the first person photographers call for a technical opinion.
Yet Ms. Opie, a tenured professor in the graduate art program at University of California, Los Angeles, said that people have misconceptions about her because of a controversial self-portrait she made in 1994 with the word “pervert” cut into her bare chest and 46 needles thread into her arms.
“I made the piece out of a reaction to all of the sudden gays and lesbians’ bringing on the ‘normal’ dialogue to us,” said Ms. Opie, who added that those involved in sadomasochism were being marginalized by other homosexuals. Her response to the mainstream was, “Let’s push the boundaries a little bit here about what you guys think normal is.”
At the time she made the piece she had not exhibited widely. Then she was selected by the curator Klaus Kertess for the 1995 Whitney Biennial, and “Pervert,” along with her other portraits, created a whirlwind of attention that threatened to pigeonhole her. “I was frightened by just how quickly people want to create a box with a singular identity for you,” she said.
At the Guggenheim “Pervert” will be shown alongside two other self-portraits: one from 1993 with a childlike drawing of two girls holding hands in front of a house that is cut in to her bare back, and another from 2004 where she is nursing a cherubic Oliver in a classic Madonna and Child composition.
While Ms. Opie may bristle at the word “normal,” she has created a domestic ideal that she expressed a longing for in her earliest self-portrait. Her lively household also includes Ms. Burleigh’s 28-year-old daughter, Sara LaCroix, several dogs and a cat, and five chickens roaming the backyard. “Oliver will say: ‘I want eggs this morning. I’m going to go check the coop,’ ” said Ms. Opie, adding that she is pleased their “farm” takes the urban edge off her son.
Ms. Burleigh, a microfarmer, has also developed a community garden across the street with dozens of neighbors. “I have the American dream,” Ms. Opie said. She and Ms. Burleigh alternate child-care days, and Oliver’s father, Rodney Hill — the former director of Ms. Opie’s onetime New York gallery, Jay Gorney — sees him on Sundays. “I really did always want the married life with a family,” Ms. Opie said.
She was the top baby sitter in her Ohio neighborhood and studied childhood education for a year as an undergraduate. Then a family friend convinced her that she was an artist and needed to move to a big city, and she went to the San Francisco Art Institute to earn her bachelor of fine arts degree and to California Institute of the Arts for her M.F.A.
While she describes herself as having been a high school tomboy who always had crushes on girls, there was no place for her to come out as a lesbian in that atmosphere. “To even say that word, you didn’t want to be that,” Ms. Opie said.
She pointed out that people who might have been her heroes, like Billie Jean King, were not public about being gay at that time. “Another reason that I think it’s really important to be out and do the work that I make is to create examples for younger people,” she said.
A yearning to explore what lesbian family life could look like prompted Ms. Opie to travel in an R.V. for several months in 1998 to locate women in committed relationships. She photographed them within the settings of their homes for her series “Domestic,” playing off Robert Frank’s 1950s road trip for his photo series “The Americans” as well as Tina Barney’s images of affluent families in their homes. “The discourse with family is usually heterosexual, and I wanted to create another context to begin to think about family, both on a personal and political level,” Ms. Opie said.
She has continued the road trips for her project “American Cities.” These black-and-white urban scenes shot with a 7-by-17-inch view camera — Chicago architecture at night or Los Angeles mini-malls in the very early morning, all without any human activity — might seem a departure for Ms. Opie. Yet each set captures something essential about the urban environment and how community is organized.
In 2001 her wanderings brought her to the extreme landscape of rural Minnesota and temporary communities of little houses set up by ice fishers on frozen lakes, which she shot with heavy apparatus in sometimes blizzard conditions. In her finished series of 14 photographs, Ms. Opie plays with the idea of a panoramic landscape but in segments, keeping the thin horizon line of ice houses consistent across the images that begin to dissolve into diaphanous white abstraction.
She creates a similar aesthetic in her 2003 series of California surfers, where another nomadic group of tiny dark figures hovering in blue water waiting for a wave gradually melts into vaporous fog across the 14 images. “I was thinking of the Rothko Chapel when I made them,” Ms. Opie said, referring to the meditative series of canvases installed in that building in Houston. She is excited that “Icehouses” and “Surfers” will hang across from each other for the first time at the Guggenheim.
On the walls of her studio today are nine large prints that sequentially reveal the grand landscape of Alaska. Called “Edge of Time,” they will be part of an exhibition that opens on Oct. 15 at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London. “I haven’t stopped wanting to play with this horizon-line idea,” said Ms. Opie, who added that the metaphor of time in relationship to landscape reflected her thoughts on growing fears about global warming. Since she made the series, Alaska has become a subtheme of the presidential campaign, adding an odd layer of cultural resonance.
Another current project is photographing high-school football players around the country. Rather than snapping the perfect catch or play, she chooses moments in between the action on the field, capturing the American cultural landscape from a different angle. “I’m very empathic to the construction of masculinity within our culture and how we build these identities up,” Ms. Opie said. She pointed out that Oliver’s father, Mr. Hill, had been the 6-foot-4-inch teenage gay boy with the football coach father. The political and personal are inextricably linked for Ms. Opie.
“At first I had the little boy who wanted to wear the pink tutu and dress up,” she said. “Because he’s not in a traditional household with a football coach dad, he was never ashamed. Now I have a 6-year-old who only wants to play Pokémon and kill aliens on the Xbox.”
She hasn’t decided which she likes better. “He’s now very aware of the social structure of masculinity,” she said. “He’s trying it on and seeing what it feels like.”
Images and text by The New York Times, USA