Catherine Opie Exhibit at the Guggenheim

Oliver in a Tutu

Oliver in a Tutu

I spent Sunday afternoon wandering through the Guggenheim, visiting the exhibit of the Catherine Opie retrospective for the second time.

I’m not sure how much of it I can really put into words, which is why I haven’t mentioned it yet, here – I’ve wanted to write up just how powerful it is to see images of queers hanging in a museum gallery. How powerful, but also how strange and revealing, how vulnerable. I stood in the portrait galleries, tears streaming down my face, reaching for my handkercheif, attempting not to notice the way that other galleryviewers were watching me interact with the photographs.

There were moments when I felt like I too was on display, walking by the straight-laced folks who regarded me with their museum gaze as they held their hands behind their backs and clucked their tongues while examining the photograph’s informational card.

There were other moments when I caught the eye of another queer – there seemed to be an extraordinary amount of dykes wandering through the four galleries of Opie’s work – and it was an intimate, knowing look, a bit of reverance, a bit of support, a bit of an acknowledgement of how amazing it was to be in an incredibly fancy museum looking at images of ourselves reflected.

I highly, highly recommend the exhibit if you are able to visit the Guggenheim here in New York City. I’m including a couple of images that I’ve pulled from various places on the web here in this post, but there are many, many more that I didn’t include, her series on cities and series on freeways are both phenomenal and worth seeing in person for the scale and richness of the photos.

Catherine Opie: American Photographer
Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue, New York
September 26, 2008 – January 5, 2009

Since the early 1990s, Catherine Opie has produced a complex body of work, adopting genres such as studio portraiture, landscape photography, and urban street photography to explore notions of communal, sexual, and cultural identity. From her early portraits of queer subcultures to her expansive urban landscapes, Opie has offered insights into the conditions in which communities form and the terms that define them. All the while maintaining a strict formal rigor, working in stark and provocative color as well as richly toned black and white. Influenced by social documentary photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and August Sander, Opie underscores and elevates the poignant yet unsettling veracity of her subjects. [Text from Art Tattler.]

Opie’s Self-Portraits

So stunning. I don’t even know if I can write about these, there is just so much emotion that comes up in me just looking at the images.


Opie’s Portraits series

The Portraits series may be my favorite. You’ve probably seen some of her shots around in queer community events or galleries or homes before, I certainly have. There is especially a lot of exploration of gender celebration. Many folks have made note of how the portraits use portrait painting techniques, and the subjects become nobility in their rich colors and stature.


Opie first came to prominence with her Portraits series (1993-97), which celebrates the queer community in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including practitioners of drag, transgendered people, and performance artists. Set against brilliantly colored backgrounds, these figures confront the viewer with intense gazes, asserting their individuality and destabilizing conventional notions of gender. Opie describes these sitters, all of whom she knew personally, as her “royal family;” by adopting a style inspired by portraitists like 16th-century German painter Hans Holbein, she offers an affirmative and tender portrayal of a subculture rendered invisible by dominant cultural norms. [Text from Art Tattler.]

Icehouses & Surfers

Also particularly stunning was the gallery of Opie’s Icehouses series and Surfers series, set across from each other on opposite walls. They are visually stunning, huge photographs. The surfers especially explore waiting, the moment of solid grey where sea and sky are undifferentiated and there is just infinite patience. Icehouses, in contrast and in similarity, explores temporary communities. I love how the (somewhat absent) line of the horizon mimic each other in seeing both series across from each other.


If you’ve been to the exhibit, what did you think? Do you have other queer photographers you’d recommend? I’m not too terribly familiar with the world of visual art, I’d love the recommendations.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

17 thoughts on “Catherine Opie Exhibit at the Guggenheim”

  1. greg says:

    I had been planning on checking this out for a while now but never went. I think her work is fascinating.

  2. Gold says:

    I love Opie's photos. Good for her for making it to the Guggenheim.

    Other queer photographers:

    Eve Fowler

    Kelli Connell

    Michael Rosen:

    Emilie Jouvet (she made One Night Stand, is that name familiar to you?):

    Heather Corinna:

    Kael T. Block (here's a controversial one…):

    Kael's site:
    His XX Boys Project:

    There are others, but those are some of the most interesting ones. To me, anyway. I keep changing my mind about whether or not I want to make a blog and devote it to this subjec (queer art and/or pornography). I make one, take it down, make one, take it down… Indecisive.

    ps. I love your blog, Sinclair. It's too bad you aren't into butches ;)

  3. Joy says:

    While I haven't had the chance to see this, my uncle (yep, queer runs in the family) is one of her Portraits subjects, so I have a soft spot for it. Thanks for reviewing this show and sharing your moving experience.

  4. """I stood in the portrait galleries, tears streaming down my face, reaching for my handkercheif, attempting not to notice the way that other gallery viewers were watching me interact with the photographs."""

    Seriously. This made my heart pitter-patter and grow warm. Your amazing. Your passion in all things is admirable…and sexy as hell. :)

    So…Catherine Opie. I haven't seen much of her work besides what is online and I know there is so much more. I like it but I just haven't seen enough of it to say I love it. I do however love two of the artists Gold mentioned: Kelli Connell and Kael T Block. I love pictures that tell stories with an incredible ability to capture a moment. I love drama and tension in photos. I like to feel like I'm looking through a window at someone else's life as they are unaware of my voyeurism.

    Thank goodness for dyke photography. It's something that I wish I saw more often, especially here in Chicago. It's extremely validating to see ourselves reflected back at us. We do exist. That's what I love about living near the gayborhood. Each time I cross over onto the main strip filled with rainbows and smiles and all variants of love….I always smile and say inside "I fucking love my neighborhood". We are not "normal". We ARE queer and there is so much magic to be celebrated there.

  5. Jane says:

    Phyllis Christopher – http://www.thesexystuff.com/
    She used to take photos for On our Backs. She is so fucking talented and her work is so fucking hot! And she is smart as a whip.

    “Phyllis Christopher’s clear-sighted and original vision has made her one of the most talented photographers working today. Her work is challenging, erotic, ambiguous, and fresh. This is a body of work to savor, to think about, and to dream over.” – Patrick Califia, author of Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex

  6. Pugs says:

    I can't remember where I first saw the portrait of Opie nursing her child but it filled me with such emotion. As a mom, I really related to the peace, the closeness, the true intimacy of this act. I am honored she chose to share that moment with us but still feel stunned that she did so. That's a good way to describe the way her work effects me – it stuns me.

    <a href="http://www.ComeTogetherGiftBaskets.com” target=”_blank”>www.ComeTogetherGiftBaskets.com

  7. genderkid says:

    I usually go to GenderFork for genderqueer photography (it's a curator blog):

    Oliver looks so cute in a tutu.

  8. sinclair says:

    Thanks for the great links y'all!

    let's not forget the partner of my bromantic crush, Susan Mikula – she's got a show of polaroid photographs in a New York City gallery at the moment:

    sic transit

    CHC Gallery

    511 West 20th Street New York, NY 10011

    Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00am-6:00pm

    T. 212.741.0007

    Friday, December 19, 2008 to Saturday, January 24, 2009.

    “I’m obsessed with the passing of time and the way light changes. When I’ve done what I set out to accomplish in a photograph, I have preserved the skipping and floating and grinding of time.”

    –Susan Mikula

  9. Zoe says:

    *claps* for opie and sinclair. i thought the exhibit was incredible, both in the queer and non-queer content. the portraits series is so incredible. technically she's also a total whiz.

    the day i went i had just come from an Important Job Meeting so I was wearing business clothes and probably was much harder to "read" as queer. this oddly left me with the urge to go up to random people who i read as queer and say "hi, isn't she amazing, i'm queer too even though i'm wearing high heels, i like your gender presentation lets be friends." i don't normally feel that way though.

  10. Zoe says:

    Man, I wish you could edit comments so I could take out at least one of the “incredible”s. I’m just a little star struck with c.opie.

  11. alisha says:

    Kael T. Block is amazing.

    xx boys is on myspace, too. :)

  12. lb says:

    Yes! Went with my partner and another queer two and we were all talking about how many queers there were in a big fancy museum! It was delightful – and those photos! Just fantastic.

  13. Desaray says:

    You totally inspired me to make a road trip next wekend; Its only 4 hours away.

  14. queerboi says:

    I wish I could have seen the exhibit but wasn't able to make it to New York during that time. My mother went though (like Joy, queer runs in the family, haha) and sent me the coffee table book…brilliant work.

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