Being in a closet isn’t something one would associate with Catherine Opie. The photographer ascended to fine-art fame in the ’90s by documenting L.A.’s sadomasochist leather subculture, transgender punks, and lesbian dominatrices; in one self-portrait Opie is bare-chested and wearing a tight leather mask, the word pervert delicately carved into her chest with a razor blade. And yet in 2010, when the artist’s accountant offered her the chance to photograph Elizabeth Taylor’s home (the two shared the bean counter), Taylor’s closet was one of many troves Opie would explore over the course of six months. She conspicuously omitted any shots of the actress, who died half-way into the project, opting instead to capture blingy dresses, a “shoe-and-purse room,” and myriad tchotchkes—“documentary as extended portraiture,” Opie calls it. The resulting book, 700 Nimes Road, has been turned into an exhibition that’s opening January 23 at MOCA’s West Hollywood location.
While those images seem to reflect the specter of Hollywood glamour, the 54-year-old photographer isn’t averse to a more old-fashioned approach to portraiture. Beginning January 22, the Hammer Museum presents Portraits, a show in which Opie channels Da Vinci and other masters in a series of traditional sittings. Cultural luminaries such as writer Jonathan Franzen and artist John Baldessari pose before a black drop cloth awash in theatrical lighting. Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind the fashion house Rodarte, glow like the prized La Peregrina pearl Opie photographed in Taylor’s collections. The chiaroscuro effect is one even Rembrandt might like on Facebook. “We’re inundated with selfies and social media,” Opie says, “but photography can still carry this place of the sublime within us.”