Capturing Juneau's essence

Renowned photographer to chronicle capital for Perseverance project

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2007

Renowned Southern California photographer Catherine Opie and her assistant, Nicole Belle, traveled from one end of the Juneau road system to the other over the last week and a half.

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They watched Juneau-Douglas High School's football team defeat Palmer in the pouring rain last weekend, and they visited Glacier Bay.

"We saw crazy, almost National Geographic moments out there," Opie said. "We saw a grizzly bear with two cubs surrounded by a pack of wolves. It almost became a cliché."

This is Opie's first visit to Juneau, which is an exploratory trip in conjunction with her artist residency at Perseverance Theatre. She's one of 50 artists chosen by United States Artists to work with a nonprofit arts organization within the country. The Rasmuson Foundation is also sponsoring the project.

The goal is to create a theatrical set design that incorporates some of her work. The initial plan is that Perseverance artistic director PJ Paparelli will write the original piece. But the script, the timeline and the scope of the project are very much up in the air.

In the meantime, Opie will give a lecture and a presentation of her work at 7 p.m. today at the Back Room at the Silverbow Inn. Food will be served, and the public is welcome.

"This is such a foreign landscape for me coming from mainly Southern California," Opie said. "I've been playing with a lot of the color from the water, from the glaciers. I've been looking at how these clouds float down and this amazing expanse of water and trees."

Opie is a professor of photography in the art department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City will hold a retrospective of her work in the fall of 2008.

Did you know?

Who: photographer Catherine Opie.

When: 7 p.m. today.

Where: Silverbow Inn.

Admission: free.

For more:

Her many solo exhibitions include shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; The Photographers' Gallery in London; and Thread Waxing Space in New York City.

One of Opie's favorite themes is the construction of community. She's documented mini-malls and freeways, photographed ice-fishing houses in Minnesota, shot surfers along the California coast and chronicled Bel-Air and Beverly Hills homes.

She may be best known for a collection of portraits of the San Francisco leather community, and another series of self-mutilation self portraits.

Indeed, she once lamented that she was a "poster child for leather-dyke art." Even her Wikipedia page calls her, "a North American artist specializing in the photography of transgendered people."

"I would say I've moved my work over the years in a lot of different directions," Opie said. "I'm happy that I was able to make incredible photographs that are at this point somewhat historical, even 15 years later.

"It's still really important to present the queer community, as I'm part of the queer community," she said. "But I'm also interested in the grander scale of idea and identity, and how, historically, communities get positioned in relationship to culture."

Opie used the money from the fellowship to purchase a Hasseblad H2 with an extremely high-end digital back that shoots with up to 39 megapixels. The expensive Swedish camera allows her to create very large, detailed pictures.

"I'm hoping that when we get in here with the projector, you'll almost feel like it's a landscape," she said.

One of Opie's original proposals for the piece is that two actors stand on stage with their backs to the audience. The backdrop would be some sort of series of large, detailed projections of Juneau's landscape and wilderness.

"I don't really want the play to be based on talking about nature, I'm more interested in letting the nature happen as the backdrop to a more esoteric conversation," Opie said.

"I want my photos to inspire something in him to want to write," she said. "How it will get translated through a theater piece I have no idea. I'm not a writer."

Opie hopes the production will run sometime within the next year and a half.

"I'm concentrating a lot on what happens with this vast wilderness and the dichotomy of these cruise ships coming in," she said. "It's such a strange juxtaposition to a certain extent. I'm really interested in what that does to the idea of community here."

• Korry Keeker can bereached at 523-2268 or

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