‘I’ve Been Allowed to Find This Place of Joy Again’: Watch Photographer Catherine Opie Visit Her Childhood Home With Fresh Eyes

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Catherine Opie: Sandusky, Ohio." © Art21, Inc. 2014.

What defines an image as “American”? That is one of the questions that underpins photographer Catherine Opie‘s striking portraits and contemplative landscapes. The artist’s work often addresses themes of unity, inclusion, and identity, though over the course of her life, what those themes mean has shifted drastically.

Opie was born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, before she moved with her family to California. In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of its Extended Play series, the artist returns to Sandusky, where she takes in the city with new eyes.

“I grew up with all this American memorabilia around me,” Opie tells Art21, explaining how her father assembled the most comprehensive collection of political campaign memorabilia in the United States (it is now in the Smithsonian). “I could be a daughter of the American revolution,” she says with a laugh, referring to the group of blue-blooded descendants of those involved with American independence. That’s not exactly the path she followed.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Catherine Opie: Sandusky, Ohio.” © Art21, Inc. 2014.

Opie wanders through the town, noting how different it feels as an adult. “I spent a lot of time by myself,” she says of her childhood. “I would just lay for hours in the cornfield looking up at the sky.” Although Opie is best known for her striking portraits, often turning her lens on bodies that have historically been cast as “other” for not adhering to gender or societal norms, some of her most personal and intimate works document landscapes, exploring how environment informs emotion.

At a moment when many are returning to their hometowns for the holidays—or wishing they could—Opie’s visit is particularly resonant. “I’ve been allowed to find this place of joy again,” she tells Art21, “where it was really hard for me to be as a kid.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Play, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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