Image above: Catherine Opie by Heather Rasmussen.
ANDREA BLANCH: How did you gain access to Elizabeth Taylor’s closet?
CATHERINE OPIE: It was not just her closet it was her entire house. The closets are just one aspect of the body of work. We actually share the same accountant. He kept asking me over the years if I was interested in doing anything with Elizabeth Taylor and then I finally came up with an idea of making a portrait of her through her belongings. That’s the idea they took to Taylor’s people. Elizabeth looked at all my work and approved me to start photographing. Then obviously, other things happened over the six months period time that I was there.
©Catherine Opie, (left) Bedside table; (right) Untitled 6 Elizabeth Taylor Closet. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Ángeles.
AB: What did she represent to you personally?
CO: She represented an amazingly strong, independent woman who politically changed the face of the support around AIDS during my lifetime. Then she represented a brilliant actress. I mean, a really, really brilliant performer.
AB: Did you ask to take a portrait of her? CO: No, I did not. AB: OK. I was just curious. It’s unusual ...
CO: To not do a portrait of her? The thing is, she’s been photographed more than anybody else prob- ably. What was interesting for me was to try to make a different kind of portrait of her. Because every- body knows what Elizabeth Taylor looks like, but do they know what it is to photograph her personal space? It’s more intimate, to a certain extent, than a portrait of a movie star.
AB: Were you surprised at all by anything you found? Anything that challenged your perception of her?
CO: No. I think that the most challenging things for me was spending the time to make sure that I got the body of work just right. Then of course I’m not an ultra femme so I think that it was really interest- ing being surrounded by just such intense femininity.
AB: What did that do to you? Did it evoke anything in you? CO: No, not really. It didn’t make me want to wear lipstick or try out a pair of Chanel pumps. It was
just interesting because she was obviously a very human person but also a very celebrated woman.
AB: Did you discover anything about her constructed identity that you didn’t know before or that people wouldn’t necessarily know?
CO: I didn’t know how incredibly important family was to her. That wasn’t a perception that I had from the outside. In fact, I don’t think I even knew that she had kids.
© Catherine Opie, (left) Andy Warhol to Elizabeth self-portrait Artist; (right) MINE. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Ángeles.
AB: Did you ever rearrange or manipulate the items before photographing them. If so, for what reasons?
CO: There was some manipulation of items. There’s an image in the portfolio of all of her jewelry laid out on the dressing table in the afternoon light. Elizabeth was in the hospital at that point. Tim was arranging the jewelry in a way that Elizabeth would have arranged them. So, there were moments of manipulation like that towards the end of the body of work and a little bit of staging. For the most part everything was as it was. So when you get to an image of all the crosses and the Star of David hanging on a hanger, that was actually put together by Elizabeth. For the last images, we brought the jewelry up on the very last day that Chris was taking everything away, and we put them on the couch cushions and I made these abstract images of the jewelry so that they really sparkled in the sun up to Elizabeth. Those were definitely staged as well. For the most part it was as I found it.
AB: Some of the jewelry you chose to photograph is out of focus. I’m curious, why did you decide to do that?
CO: What Elizabeth loved the most about her jewelry was how it sparkled in the sun. When she did her jewelry book she wanted to see that kind of lens refraction stuff, but everybody who was photo- graphing the jewelry didn’t want to do that because they found it cliché. So I wanted to. The way you get that kind of refractions is to alter the focus of the lens. We knew the jewelry so well and they have been photographed so well professionally that I wanted to make a more metaphorical image about the passing of time and the passing of Elizabeth on the last day of the jewelry being in her home.
AB: It’s quite beautiful. CO: Thank you.
AB: You have a very eclectic body of work, how was your approach to this project different than how you approach your other portraits?
CO: Not that much different, except I had more time. Obviously when you’re doing a portrait of a person you don’t have the person sit for you for a six month period of time. It’s this idea of just being able to real- ly methodically go through the home. I got very involved in it and I just had more time than I usually do.
AB: When you’re taking your portraits do you feel that you want more time or you need more time?
CO: No, not with people. I don’t need more time with people. In fact, I don’t really like having long portrait sessions. I think that people get really bored by them and so it’s better to get it done within 45 minutes, if you can.
AB: Taylor passed away while you were still working on this series. Did that change the direction you took with the series?
CO: No, because even though I photographed the dismantling of the house very little of that ends up in the body of work. There are only hints of it. The last picture in the book is the jewelry in the shopping bag that Chris was taking away. I have full closets. I don’t have empty hangers in closets. I didn’t want it to be a postmortem piece. I wanted it to be about celebrating her life and the home in which she lived in. I tried to balance it out that way.
AB: Since you spent all this time with her possessions, did you find it hard when they began to be auctioned off? Did you get attached to any of them or the idea of them?
CO: No, I think it was harder for the family. I think that it was emotional being at the house with her son Chris and Tim, her assistant, who’s part of one of the executors of the estate. Watching them say goodbye to the objects. That was emotional for me. It was watching kind of the disappearance of this family home that people really knew and loved and gathered at. That was what I got tied into, the emotion of that. I remember when Chris handled the krup diamond for the last time. That was a really emotional moment for everybody.
AB: Many of these photographs juxtapose signs of Elizabeth’s celebrity with the signs of her more mundane daily life. What interested you about the interplay of these two elements?
CO: A celebrity is just a regular person and I think that to make it a humanistic body of work is a su- per important thing. I think we put these celebrities on these pedestals as if they don’t have any kind of regular life. That’s why one image in the book, of her night side table with the dog-eared remote control pamphlet, is so important to me. It shows a humanness and I try to convey that throughout the body of work. It’s important to remember that we’re all in this world together. Whether there is different hierarchy in terms of being one of the most celebrated actors of her time or an activist to any other person, that life matters. What we collect and gather around us to create home has a semblance of home for everybody, so to speak.
AB: What do you think Elizabeth represents in American culture? Is it very different from what you found or knew of her?
CO: What does she represent in American culture? I think multiple things. I think of a woman of her generation, her strength. I don’t know if Elizabeth would have ever called herself a feminist, but I certainly would call her that in terms of her activism. I think that she represented a certain honesty in living her life that other people could take away from in some ways.
AB: Any plans to follow up on this project with another celebrity?
CO: No, this one just kind of fell into my lap and the timing was just really unbelievable. This happens to me from time to time. I make a body of work on Wall Street, and then, all of a sudden, 9/11 happens. One of the things that I love about photography is that it creates a certain sense of history in time. It always amazes me that way as a medium, that the frozenness of time that can happen as you’re docu- menting. It becomes very poignant, and sometimes you don’t even know how poignant it will be when you begin to work on something. That’s the beauty of it. There’s always mystery within it.
© Catherine Opie, (left) Untitled 7 Elizabeth Taylor Closet; (right) Untitled 11, Elizabeth Taylor Closet. Courtesy of the artist.
AB: I think it’s wonderful that you still find that.
CO: I do! I’m still in love with the medium completely.
AB: I think it’s wonderful. I also think it’s interesting that you teach and you certainly are aware of a lot of new talent, new image making. You still you don’t manipulate your images in post at all. Am I right?
CO: No, I mean, a little bit here and there in terms of with certain portraits. If there’s light in the lenses, I’ll correct that. But I don’t move entire things around in images. There’s very little post-production.
AB: Are you ever tempted to or is it just another genre as far as you’re concerned?
CO: I think that it’s not really about temptation. I like waiting. I’m interested in that idea of waiting and time and what that begins to mean within the medium. I think that if I need to I’ll manipulate things, if those tools are important to me. Still, I’m attached to trying to find it out there without having to manipulate it. I like the idea that some people think that my images are completely manipulated. There’s one of men in Mendenhall Glacier that looks like it was completely constructed and photoshopped. It wasn’t; it was just that moment.
© Catherine Opie, The Quest for Japanese Beef. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Ángeles.
AB: It’s important for you to constantly diversify your ranges as a photographer and you have photo- graphed many subjects in American culture. What has been interesting you recently?
CO: Well, everything is interesting to me. That’s the problem. I’m still making abstract landscapes and these portraits of artist friends was my last show. Right now I’m making this huge piece for the new federal building in downtown LA. I’ve been commissioned to do a really large piece. I have six floors and I’m going to make the largest images that I’ve ever made. Each image is 8 feet by 16 feet. I’m kind of fascinated with how I can pull this off. Curiosity is my problem.
AB: How are you going to pull that off? What kind of equipment are you going to use?
CO: Well, we met with a whole installation team. With the equipment I’m going to use, my camera that I use, but then you have to construct these images. We have to get them up 180 feet over a railing and onto a wall. It’s going to be really interesting.
AB: Why did they want to do this?
CO: I wanted to do it, this was my proposal.
AB: Why did you want to do it? CO: I wanted to do it because I’ve never done it.
AB: Wouldn’t you say it’s more like architectural photography? CO: The images aren’t going to be of architecture. It’s fragmentation of Yosemite Falls. The whole pro- posal has to do with the history of California’s landscape. For years now, I’ve bisected the landscape either using the horizon line or using time. There’s a number of pieces that I’ve done this with. I’m in- terested in ideas of fragmentation that make up a complete image. So, at the top of the sixth floor you’ll look across at the top of Yosemite Falls and then you go down six floors and it’s the bottom of the falls. You can go to each floor and look across at that segmented part of the falls. The entire piece will make up the falls but it will be fragmented throughout the architecture of the building.
AB: That’s fabulous. Do you have any idea what you are going to print it on? CO: My assistant and I are testing out materials. We’ll let you know when it’s finalized. I’ve never done
a project of this scale before.
AB: How long do you think it’s going to take you to do it?
CO: It’s going to take over a year. We’ll install end of May 2016.
AB: Do you work on anything else, while you’re doing this?
CO: Yeah, I have four museum shows that I’m working on right now and I am also hopefully working on a new body of work for Regan Projects that I’m not ready to talk about yet.
AB: Well, my god, you’re busy. And you live in California. For some reason, I never think of people in California being busy.
CO: We’re very busy. We just don’t have to struggle through the cold like you guys do. You just think we are happy all the time because there’s no slush in our lives.
© Catherine Opie, Paintings. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Ángeles.