© Catherine Opie
This photograph is part of Catherine Opie’s 'Girlfriends' series — a collection of informal, black and white portraits of the group of friends and lovers she refers to as 'my royal family'. It is number 2 of an edition of 8.
Opie became widely known in the early 1990s for her portraits of LGBT men and women, and, in particular, for her documentation of the ‘queer’ leather subculture in her native Los Angeles and San Francisco. Opie’s dual position, as participant and documenter of these communities, enabled her to develop images that functioned as a form of LGBT activism through art. At a time when the LGBT community was being decimated by AIDS, Opie felt it urgent to create images of those specific underground LGBT sub-cultures that tended to remain invisible in wider society, in order to make a historical record that could assert their existence and cement their memory. Taken from the mid 1980s until 2010, the photographs that formed ‘Girlfriends’ were more intimate and spontaneous than Opie’s earlier studio portraits and social documentary projects. They were intended to document a fragmented and personal history — ‘these little moments of sexy desire and memory’— of Opie’s own close social circle.
With ‘The Gang’ Opie playfully questions notions of community and gender identity. Opie staged the group photograph spontaneously one night in 1991, after taking individual portraits of her lesbian friends for her renowned photo series ‘Being and Having’. ‘Being and Having’ is a set of extremely close-cropped portraits, where the women, adorned with exaggerated masculine facial hair, stare directly at the viewer. The sitters were part of a specific lesbian subculture known as Daddy/Boy, who regularly use male drag and personas as part of their social and private lives. These women use drag in a performative way as part of their daily lives to play with and pastiche male fantasies rather than because they wish to be identified as male. By bringing these women together in a group photograph for ‘The Gang’ and asking the women to copy the gestures of youth gang culture, Opie reinforces the performative aspect of their drag and highlights the role of dress and styling in reinforcing a sense of community. The Daddy/Boy subculture has not always been welcomed by mainstream lesbian, and in particular lesbian-feminist communities, because it is seen perpetuate unequal sexual relationships. However, Opie argued it was essential to recognise and validate all lesbian subcultures in order to expand people's understanding of lesbian identity, recognise the diversity of lesbian communities and challenge stereotypes.