Catherine Opie Fixes Her Lens on the Vatican

The subversive American photographer has spent decades capturing the vibrance of her queer community and forces invisible to the mainstream. Throughout a six-week summer residency in Rome, she documented how the architectural identity of the Roman Catholic church enforces systems of power that continue to govern the lives of billions of people.

“No Apology (June 5, 2021)” (2023) by Catherine Opie. Image courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Seoul, and London

Since the 1980s, Catherine Opie has been equally, and rightfully, beloved as a photographer who has invited us to see what others fight to keep hidden (the existence of queer bodies, the dignity of non-nuclear families) and what’s lingering beneath what we see everyday (highways emptied of their endless traffic, surfers between their tides). This summer, she’ll spend some time looking back—the São Paulo Museum of Art will install a retrospective of her work, but she’ll also bring new photographs to Lehmann Maupin gallery in Manhattan. 

Walls, Windows, and Blood,” named for what she calls the “holy trinity” in the series, collects images Opie made while exploring an uncharacteristically empty Vatican City during the fraught summer of 2021, when she was the Robert Mapplethorpe Resident in Photography at the American Academy in Rome. Smaller-than-live documentations of Vatican border walls prop themselves against the gallery walls, resting upon pink marble steps. Pigment prints of the view from every Vatican window alternate with grids of close-up shots of each depiction of blood in the Vatican’s art collection, a visual reminder of the church’s power and dominance throughout history. The result is empathetic and claustrophobic, a gripping investigation into the architecture of spiritual power and inclusion versus exclusion.

Opie recently took Surface on a walk through the exhibition and, in a conversation that has been edited and condensed for clarity, talked about her relationships to the church and the art world, her view on the afterlife, and the need for revelation.

Catherine Opie. Photography by Heather Rassmussen, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Seoul, and London

The show opens with No Apology, a photo of the Pope in a distant window. Why?

I wanted to think about the Vatican as a city within a city because of its own governance. This was the day that the Pope acknowledged the Indigenous children’s bodies found in Canada. He didn’t apologize, but he acknowledged the 75 bodies, which now we know have grown into well over 1,000. 

The fact is that the Pope is a postage stamp size in this window, and is one of the great leaders in the world. What does that mean now? I’m trying to set up a dialog of: what is transparency? How do we think about these institutions as a society that is grappling with late-stage capitalism and all of the relationships to the histories of colonialism? I love that Sinead O’Connor ripped up the Pope on Saturday Night Live, but what I’m interested in is the systematic kind of documentation to get to other questions and other ideas of how we perceive the structures.

The photos of the walls seem to place their security cameras almost at eye level. Are you sort of taking them down a notch?

The walls are now just camera apparatuses. So in the same way that I’m using the apparatus of a camera, the wall is also documenting me. [The photograph] begins to be like a body as well, and it relates to my early full-length portraits of my queer communities. I’m using film, so there’s the grain. We came to think about Rome through cinema and photography, so using something like film grain brings back that kind of materiality and romanticism of something that’s very much not a romantic photograph. They become romantic because of what we imbue of them, the shadows and all that yummy stuff. 

“Blood Grid #1” (2023) by Catherine Opie. Image courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Seoul, and London
“Blood Grid #2” (2023) by Catherine Opie. Image courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Seoul, and London

They’re cruising, leaning against those walls. Were you intending the blood photographs to be in grids from the start?

They were never meant in my mind to be grids until I started editing the body of work and I ran out of studio space. I ended up formatting them into a grid with my studio assistant and I was like, wait a second, the grid is doing this thing. In the history of modernism, the grid and the new taxonomy automatically began to retell the story in a different way. My favorite thing about the blood and the grid is that this is the moment where the painters got to be abstract. These squirts and spurts become a painterly moment of abstraction within the blood. I like that metaphorically. I’ve used blood within my own work, and also the queer body has this relationship to blood. Embedded within is this idea of: why would my blood be perverted, but this blood acceptable? 

Were you concerned the Vatican guards might shut you down?

Nobody ever bothered me. I was there four days a week for six weeks taking pictures of every single window! And then I just went home with all this work. The thing was to figure out what I could do with it on an architectural level—the idea of transparency and a window, but also a pandemic and a window. Trying to bring back the humanity within the simplicity of the structure, but also to question it. The idea of reflection is so important because within these windows, Rome comes inside the Vatican. The cities join when the windows are open. That’s another parallel with me as a photographer, this inside/outside, this kind of relationship of power and structure and identity. All that specificity gets imbued within the work over the years.

“Catherine Opie: Walls, Windows, and Blood” at Lehmann Maupin, New York. Photography by Daniel Kukla
“Catherine Opie: Walls, Windows, and Blood” at Lehmann Maupin, New York. Photography by Daniel Kukla

Has this work made you think differently about your own mortality, about an afterlife? 

I don’t really believe in heaven or hell. I believe we make our own heavens and hells on Earth. It’s about how we choose to live and what we look at and think about. That’s the lasting idea. I’ve been in a privileged position as an exhibiting photographer for a long time now. I will have a position in relation to art history because I already hold one, and I don’t take that for granted. At this point, you don’t just think about what you’re making. You’re also thinking about what you want to bring people into, how you want people to think—how you want them to have moments of revelation. 

Catherine Opie: Walls, Windows and Blood” is on view at Lehmann Maupin (501 West 24 St, New York) until March 9.

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