Opie, a self-described “twisted social documentary photographer,” made pictures in gay, lesbian, and transgender leather-culture circles in Los Angeles during the 1990s. Her series Portraits (1993–96)—a celebration of her sitters’ tattoos, piercings, and clothing, adopted in defiance of mainstream heterosexual culture—emerged from these collaborations. Here the woman’s shorn hair and freckled shoulders frame the tattooed word at the nape of her neck. By taking possession of the label “dyke” through its imprint on her body, she aimed to render the slur powerless. In a broader context, “dyke” has been adopted as a positive term of self-reference by lesbians, whose use of it is intended to disarm derogatory connotations.
Opie’s work simultaneously satisfies and upends traditional expectations of portraiture. Although her backdrops, poses, and lighting befit the genre, she applies these formal tactics to atypical subjects. Particularly influenced by the portraits of the sixteenth-century German painter Hans Holbein the Younger, Opie’s color-intensive backgrounds, like Holbein’s, create neutral spaces that focus attention on the person rather than documenting the environment. The blue damask fabric in this work emphasizes the sitter’s contours and highlights both her biological and self-selected physical attributes. “I try to present people with an extreme amount of dignity,” Opie has said. “They’re always going to be stared at, but I try and make the portraits stare back.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)