Beauty is often thought of in relation to fashion and femininity. Its construct in pop culture is something that I’ve always tried to work with in different ways in relation to my work as a photographer. Beauty is complicated; it’s an individual response to how we live our lives — but it can also encompass kindness and compassion.
I don’t think that real beauty is easily defined, otherwise it’s cliched. I’m a self-identified butch dyke, I’m a big woman, and even though I might struggle with my body, I still find it really beautiful in terms of what it can do. Artists who challenge the idea that only a certain type of person or body can be valued are showing that what’s considered “the other” can be beautiful too.
I find an enormous amount of beauty in being political and intellectual. Beauty isn’t necessarily surface-level; it can also be about one’s personal life and contain conflicting ideologies. You can create a certain aesthetic around those ideas, draw someone in with an element of beauty, and then push those boundaries by posing questions.
“Self-Portrait/Nursing” (2004) Credit: Catherine Opie
It’s also important to make photographs that inspire one to really look, to be drawn in, instead of just glancing at something quickly. For me, beauty is also about being held.
I’ve experienced that captivating feeling in a series of three portraits taken by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra in 1994. They feature three different women in the hospital, just after giving birth. They stand, nude, holding their newborns, and at times you see a trail of blood running down a leg, or the marking of a caesarean scar. I find beauty in the honesty of these images, and I’m moved by how they show a mother’s protective nature.
People in my community were shocked when I became pregnant. It didn’t seem like butch women like me birthed children.
But, I knew I always wanted to be a mom. When I gave birth to Oliver in 2002 , I took a self-portrait while nursing, recalling the forms of Madonna and child.
“Self-Portrait/Cutting” (1993) Credit: Catherine Opie
“Self-Portrait/Nursing” became the third in what could be considered a trilogy of photographs, with my earlier photographs “Self-Portrait/Cutting” and “Self-Portrait/Pervert” from the 1990s. The photograph with “pervert” cut into my chest, when I participated in Los Angeles’s queer BDSM community, is a little too extreme for me now. It was important for me to make it, but there’s some work that you don’t necessarily want to live with every single day. I was talking about beauty in it, though, and the formality of a photograph. It engages you; it’s very well-designed. For a large queer body to both hold space, and to seduce you, was a radical concept.
For me, it was perfect to complete this trilogy with the nursing image, which fulfilled my own longing to be a mother. I love the photograph because he was such a beautiful baby — and he still is. At my last opening, Oliver sat on my lap and told me how proud he was of me as an artist. The fact that my 18-year-old son will still come and cuddle in my lap, mirroring the moment I photographed him while nursing, is incredibly touching to me.
“Rusty” (2008) Credit: Catherine Opie
I try to show that kind of vulnerability when photographing male beauty. In the 2000s, I took tender photographs of high school football players that show both their vulnerability as well as their performance of masculinity. Some of those images are hung now for the “Masculinities” show at the Barbican in London.
Chicken from “Being and Having” (1991) Credit: Catherine Opie
The show also includes images from “Being and Having,” which I hung in 1991, of my queer friends and I acting out exaggerated masculinity in moustaches and beards. The show included portraits of my longtime friend Pig Pen. Pig Pen is beautiful to me — it’s in their butchness, the way they hold their body. I’m drawn to the slippage of identity. We met in Los Angeles, running in the same circles, hanging out in queer clubs and being a part of grassroots organizations like Act Up and Queer Nation. The presence of our friendship, which spans decades and multiple bodies of work, is also really important to me. Sentimentality and nostalgia can also shape our perceptions of beauty.
“Pig Pen (Tattoos)” (2009) Credit: Catherine Opie
Today I think we’re getting around to understanding that it’s also important to show people who are aging. There’s something beautiful to that. I think about portraits of John Baldessari, David Hockney or Edith Windsor, all taken in their 80s, and what it means to kind of sit with somebody and photograph them when they’re of that age. It’s another way of talking about the beauty of longevity. Youth culture isn’t the only important area to explore in beauty and fashion. It’s important to represent the transitions of a person’s body throughout their life.
“David” (2017) Credit: Catherine Opie
We have to question the norm. And if we question the norm, then we question ideas that surround beauty. For me, beauty has to encompass more about the human condition and the times we are living in. I see just an enormous amount of hatred these days. It’s troubling; I didn’t think that we would return to this level of bigotry. In response, we have to figure out how to really support one another — to treat people with decency. It’s important to realize that beauty is actually tied to ideas around happiness. How do we become fulfilled in that way? And can we fulfill it through acts of kindness?