Some happenings are easier to remember than others. These same instances can be simpler to photograph, too. Traveling, for example, can be recalled and recorded in a series of documentary portraits, recounting the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” details of the visit.
But what about an event not quite so simply captured on film, or so easily ingrained into memory? What about, for example, sex? Or even, more difficult, love?
In 1999, Los Angeles-based photographer Catherine Opie set out to document the San Francisco bondage community, of which she herself was a part. Given the fact that queer S&M was then, as it remains today, taboo subject matter, Opie faced a number of hurdles.
How does a person not simply document, but depict, sex? What about intimacy? How does one translate a subject matter so intensely private into an image for public consumption? What is lost in doing so? And considering the triggering and illicit nature of the images, could their beauty ever transcend the hype sure to cloud around them?
The resulting series, called “O,” does not document sex as a series of players, outfits and actions. Rather, the soft black-and-white images capture, with a dreamlike graininess, those rare glimpses that become staunchly fixed in the mind, against all logic and sense. A fishnet sock, 10 fingers interlaced, a loose bundle of rope ― Opie frames the details that bring a sexual encounter beauty, transforming a subject matter normally associated with hardcore extremes into the foggy memories that lull you to sleep.
“O,” Opie has repeatedly explained, is in dialogue with Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic “X Portfolio,” a series of unflinching, explicit photos of gay men in leather and chains, playing in the space between pleasure and pain. The photos, taken in 1978 in New York, are not for the prudish. In one image, Mapplethorpe sticks a bullwhip up his anus; in another, a man urinates into another man’s mouth.
Mapplethorpe’s exhibition sparked the first-ever criminal trial for an art museum, due to the contents it exhibited. The Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, were eventually acquitted of the obscenity charges lodged against them for showing the provocative photographs. “Are these Van Goghs, these pictures?” Lead prosecutor Frank Prouty asked the jury. He then described each photo and asked, “Is that art?”
Many artists who’ve documented the S&M scene have felt the unavoidable ghost of Mapplethorpe looming over them. Opie, however, acknowledged his influence, offering a feminine, queer alternative to his male-centric images. “‘O’ is the Story of O,” Opie explained to Out Magazine, referring to the 1950s erotic novel by French author Anne Desclos, in which she pens letters to her lover, a fan of the Marquis de Sade. But, the “O” is about oh-so-much more. “It’s my last name, Opie, and it’s vaginal. And then it’s X and O, like tic-tac-toe, so it’s a game with Mapplethorpe.”
Opie played the game by cropping out select snippets of an earlier lesbian porn series she took for On Our Backs, the first ever women-run erotica magazine. By isolating particular fragments of the images, she calls upon the viewer to use her imagination, dip a bit into her dreams, to conjure the remainder of the sultry scene. Hovering on the boundary of abstraction, the images appear subdued and dignified.
Even a photograph of blood streaming down a woman’s chest like lustrous ribbons emanates a sort of peaceful elegance. “I’m a fan of blood,” Opie told Out. “The permission to play with blood in the ’80s and ’90s was very much political in relation to the AIDS crisis in our community. Blood became the substance everyone was afraid of.”
To depict her community in a manner both truthful and loving: This was Opie’s goal. To provide the queer populace with an image that was worthy of them, presented in an entirely different language than the one propagated by mainstream cultural norms, a language founded not upon ideas of offense and depravity but togetherness, intimacy and expression.
“I didn’t like the way the leather community was being represented in the mainstream culture,” Opie told ArtNews. “They think we are child molesters and everything that’s attached to that. We have had a bad rap. That was probably the biggest reason for doing the portraits ... I decided to do a body of work that was about being really out, and about being out about my sexuality, and being into S&M and leather and stuff like that. Instead of just showing the tattoos and the piercings and the markings on the body, I wanted to do a series of portraits of this community that were incredibly noble.”
Almost 30 years after their creation, Opie’s images are as necessary as ever. They challenge the viewer to an epic match of tic-tac-toe, suggesting that what seems to be explicit is in fact hazy as a dream, what was thought to be hardcore is a bit more gentle, what seems deviant or extreme is in fact elegant and noble. Creating stately yet soft portraits of flesh and needles and leather and blood, Opie subverts artistic and cultural norms, yielding images that don’t only help us remember a certain physical feeling, but a group of individuals and their way of life.