Recently, Jamie M. Allen, associate curator of the Department of Photography, had the opportunity to speak with artist Catherine Opie. Her exhibition, Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road, will be on display at the George Eastman Museum beginning October 1, 2016. The works featured in the exhibition were taken over the course of six months at the Bel Air, California, residence of Elizabeth Taylor (1932–2011). The images feature rooms, closets, shoes, clothing, and jewelry that intimately depict the life of the screen star and cultural icon. In this interview, we hoped to learn a little more about how this project came about, the artist’s goals and objectives, and how the project changed due to the death of Taylor midway through.
Allen: How did you get started on the 700 Nimes Road project?
Opie: It’s kind of one of those crazy things that happens. You don’t really think about the project, it just kind of lands in your lap. It just so happens that my accountant was also Elizabeth Taylor’s accountant, and he kept saying to me over the years “Hey Cathy, do you want to do anything with Elizabeth Taylor?” and I kept saying “Well, I don’t really do celebrities.”
Later, I made this body of work called Inauguration around the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. At that time, I was thinking about William Eggleston quite a bit. Eggleston did this body of work around Carter’s inauguration called Election Day, and I discovered that he had also photographed Elvis’ home in Graceland at the point when it was more of a monument since it was after Elvis had passed away. This got me thinking about the idea of portraiture through still life and how to extend this genre that I’ve spent so much time in. I ended up going to Derek and saying, “Hey, I’ve figured something out. I’d like to make a portrait of Elizabeth through her belongings, and have complete access to her house.” Then I had a meeting with her personal assistant, Tim Mendelson, who vetted me. Then, Elizabeth vetted me for the project, looking at my previous work, and said “Let her have it.” And that was it. And six months later, I ended up coming up with the body of work called 700 Nimes Road.
Allen: I love that we see everything from whole rooms to details of specific items in this body of work. It really allows for a sense of exploration in Taylor’s personal space. When you were working, did you work in any specific manner, such as finding an overall view of a room and working to the details, or did you have a shot list of things you wanted to collect?
Opie: I would say that I experienced the house slowly. Over the six month period I would be watching the light in all the rooms. I really wanted light to carry this body of work. It needed to have beautiful raking light streaming in through the windows… that was one of the first things I did, was map out the light throughout the house. Then I would say that it was like getting to know a friend really slowly. The first conversation, not with Elizabeth, but with her objects, was me photographing it. I would look at things and go back.
Obviously it really changed after she passed. The house rapidly started to become dismantled, and even though I took a lot of photographs of that as well, it wasn’t what I set out to do. Most of that is left out of the body of work, except of the abstract jewelry and the shopping bag image at the end of the portfolio, which was the bag that Christies was loading up with the jewelry. It was a slow process of getting to know the house, and I didn’t really make checklists or anything. I would just watch the light and experience different rooms.
Allen: One of the things that I appreciate about your work is how you present all types of people equally, from members of the LGBTQ community to high school football players to surfers. In this case, you were working with the notion or idea of celebrity. Did your choice to not photograph Taylor directly stem from a hope to in some way equalize her to the other subjects that you have photographed?
Opie: I’m interested in looking at things democratically, looking at her objects versus her. A lot of people create judgements when looking at portraits, like “Oh wow, Elizabeth is this age now, and looks like this.” Elizabeth is one of the most photographed women in the world, but not her home. Her home was always really private. You would see it in Architectural Digest, but by no means did people have access to the entire house. I like the idea of that kind of democracy that a stuffed animal can be as poignant and valuable as the Krupp diamond that Richard Burton gave to her. All objects have special meaning for people that might not be about a monetary value, and I really thought about that within the body of work. Obviously the jewelry is iconic. Her femininity and fashion sense are iconic. But where are the other moments? Did we know that she has Buddhas on her desk? It is this information that makes a complete portrait rather than just photographing the person.
Allen: I had heard that you took over 3,000 photographs at Taylor’s home. You were able to narrow that down to 128 for the book, 50 images for the portfolio, and 50 for the exhibition. Can you tell us more about your editing process?
Opie: I think that it was just the process of looking at everything. You look and begin to map out a journey. One of the reasons I took so many images is that toward the end she had passed, so it was really going to be the last moment of this home. Some of the images we used for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation that weren’t in the portfolio or in the book, but we made special editions to raise money for AIDS research.
I definitely made probably too many photographs, but in the end, you go through and you begin to figure out that narrative you want to have within the body of work. You keep putting things up on the wall and taking them down, put them up and take them down, until it feels like a good balance to you.
Allen: You were just talking about her death, and it sounds like that affected you during the project. Did you feel a sense of responsibility for capturing things after she passed?
Opie: Not necessarily a sense of responsibility. More that the staff at the house and the family members had become attached to me at that point doing this, and I wanted to honor their love for Elizabeth. It was really quite emotional, because the family was emotional and Tim [Mendleson] was emotional. When anybody passes, and for somebody who I had never met, for me to have as much access and ability to make this body of work, it was really quite phenomenal.
Allen: I know that part of the process after she passed was working with her jewelry, and many people who I’ve shared this work with are fascinated by her jewelry and want to know more about your access to it. Can you tell us about working with Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry? Did you photograph exactly as you found it, or were you able to make decisions about how and where it would be photographed?
Opie: It’s funny, I’m not very feminine myself. I have worn the same necklace around my neck for 12 years, I don’t like to change things up. So it was interesting in terms of that femininity and how iconic and beautiful the jewelry was. It was scary to think about trying to portray it, because I’m not a commercial photographer, but I also didn’t want this body of work to look commercial in any way. I love that it’s in these jewelry boxes that have these wonderful frays and edges, and identity tape on the outside of it. I tried to make it as human as possible, where it wasn’t a jewelry ad, but it was how it was in her house.
Allen: I have just one final question that to me touches on a lot of what you’ve spoken about today. Did you discover more about Elizabeth Taylor or yourself while you were on this journey?
Opie: That’s a good question. Probably more about Elizabeth Taylor. It was very personal. It’s an intimate body of work, and it’s interesting to get that intimacy from somebody that you’ve never met before.
Allen: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Opie: Sure! We’ll see each other soon.
Catherine Opie will speak about her career and 700 Nimes Road at the George Eastman Museum on Wednesday, October 5.
Photos courtesy of Catherine Opie Studio.
Catherine Opie (American, b. 1961). Andy Warhol to Elizabeth (Self-Portrait Artist), 2010–2011. From the 700 Nimes Road portfolio. Pigment print. Courtesy of the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong © Catherine Opie