The immediacy with which we recognize this picture’s status as a portrait stalls when Catherine Opie denies us her face. The more time spent in front the print the more Opie’s turned back becomes a slight. Yet her inscription cuts short any probe for information regarding the subject’s identity. The portrait, in the way the subject fills the frame and stands upright, most resembles our posture in meeting a stranger and thus begs an investigation of the newcomer’s origins. But by stopping our investigative work at her back, she refuses to return our gaze. If she were to avert her eyes another way—if her head were bowed, for instance—she would incriminate herself and reinforce the power and morals supposed in the viewer’s gaze.
She is not ashamed or bashful but defiant. She has already done the reductionist work that happens in meeting a stranger. She argues that even at the back this work (“Is this person a man or woman?” “Is he poor?” “Is he my color?”) has begun. What is wrong is not the curiosity but the inadequacy of our lexicon. In approaching a stranger, our limited lexicon—inevitably a product of the particular neighborhood we matured in and even our mood in the first sighting—to stay afloat in a world of sensorial assaults, sorts that person. Such eye contact wrests the other of individuality and reduces him/her to label.
The photograph, like Opie herself, can only be a thing to possess, the viewer’s prop, when it has no will of its own to protest the words the viewer projects onto it. In photographing herself Opie prolongs the captivity of the stranger’s gaze. Her insistence that her identity be delivered in a series of representamens—first, that of the photograph; then, that of an elementary-school inscription—is as if to say, In the eyes of the viewer my identity can only be a mere copy of a larger signifier. Blood drips down Catherine Opie’s back. Real human blood, real human life, is often the cost of an impoverished symbolic order.
see more work by Catherine Opie here.
Article by Luke Smithers.