On a recent marvelously sunny and warm “winter’s” day in Los Angeles, I faired the ferocious freeways, intent upon seeing the Hammer Museum’s latest exhibition—“Catherine Opie: Portraits” featuring twelve works by the acclaimed American photographer.
Within the few first seconds of stepping into the gallery that is temporarily housing Opie’s portraits, the chaos of speeding cars and the rapidity of everyday life almost paused completely. Entering the gallery, I was struck by the phenomenon that occurs when your eyes attempt to adjust to a bright light: all you really see is blackness and white dots, pulsating. The room was stark white and Opies’ nearly life sized portraits lined the room, each with a black background. As I focused on the first photograph, time slowed.
John was the simple title to a profound portrait. The subject appears to be a floating head in a sea of blackness, as Opie’s lighting caresses his head and subtlety moves down his neckline and right shoulder. His gaze emits that time-ceasing effect. The world pauses. His eyes are not fixed on anything, but they emanate the expression of a trance-like contemplation. John’s seemingly moonstruck hair softly breaks the barrier of contrast as its feathery white fibers float over the stark black background like satellites in space. The portrait seems to exist in the moment right before someone yells “John” to snap him out of his trance.
I continued around the room, each photograph exuding as much of a time-encapsulating effect and intrigue as the next. There was one portrait in particular to which I was drawn back. That image was the portrait entitled Jonathan. In this portrait, a man sits with his back turned to the viewer, cross-legged, with the novel “War and Peace” on his lap. This portrait stood out because, unlike the others, the focus and the brilliance of Opie’s light hit on an inanimate object: the book.
Although my eyes were initially drawn to the novel, I found myself intrigued by the slightly illuminated profile of the sitter’s expression. The light hitting the pages of “War and Peace” reflects off the paper and onto his face. He is similar to a character in a movie opening up a chest full of treasures, but he does not seem triumphant or amazed. He appears to be uncritically satisfied.
The premise of this series of photographs erases preconceived notions of what portraiture should be. Unlike portraits of the past where lineage, wealth, and importance were depicted alongside the subject in order to illustrate their story, Catherine Opie depicts her subjects in a way that forces the viewer to look at the individual in a certain moment in time, free from any artificial and external distraction.
“Catherine Opie: Portraits” will be on display at the Hammer Museum from January 30th until May 22nd.