Being, Not Seeming

Afshan Shafi


Once glimpsed, Catherine Opie’s portraits stick to one’s mind like cloying taffy. A hallowed American subversive, Opie is currently a professor of photography at the Yale School of Art. She has photographed quintessential football jocks and rock-stars of the art world, including David Hockney, as well as countless scenes from the heart of suburbia.


‘Justin Bond’ by Catherine Opie

Her portrait of the young man above (1) belies a complex schemata of representation, including the performative aspects of gender. During the period in which this photograph was taken, Opie was inspired by the classical portraiture of Hans Holbein and one can discern the almost severe diffidence and poise of the painter’s brush, reflected tartly in this contemporary snapshot.


I love the apologetic stiffness of Justin’s smile, the stepford-wife gloss of his maquillage and the platinum swirls of his coiffure. One can tell he is intimidated slightly by the camera—perhaps by Opie herself, as a nouveau-master of the arts. His corset hints at a deeper curiosity about the trappings of the ‘feminine’; is his life perhaps a study of modalities, costume, artifice and its begettor, truth?


Opie’s subjects are transformed by her attention, and they in turn recommend to us their honesty, multiplicity and candidness. They invite us to turn to the eye of the camera, to be seen, and to be regarded.

(1) https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/48.2008/