‘I Used the Landscape to Change My Emotional State’: Watch Photographer Catherine Opie Revisit Her Midwestern Roots

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

Production still from the "Change" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 6. © Art21, Inc. 2012.

Catherine Opie has spent her entire career documenting the passage of time, whether in the deepening wrinkles that appear on old friends she photographs year after year or in the changing landscape as the seasons turn.

After spending a portion of her childhood in rural Ohio, the photographer moved with her family to California; but when she was commissioned by the Cleveland Clinic to make a series of works for its hospital, she jumped at the chance to return to her hometown.

“I wanted to look at it again through a 50-year-old photographer’s eyes,” she explained in an exclusive 2012 interview with Art21 for an episode called “Time.” The resulting works are meditative studies of Lake Erie at sunrise and sunset in each season, with the sea and sky meeting on the horizon, and only the tiniest signs of human intervention.

Production still from the “Change” episode of “Art in the Twenty-First Century,” Season 6. © Art21, Inc. 2012.

Because these contemplative, sparse photographs live in a hospital setting, where emotions run high and any news could mean the difference between life and death, Opie realized they would carry additional weight. Remembering that as a child she would “literally use the landscape to change my emotional state,” she told Art21 that she hoped her images might help offer patients and their families “a place that’s ethereal to almost escape to,” if only for a moment.

Right now, Opie is one of several artists deeply informed by their Midwestern roots whose work is included in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago’s “West by Midwest” exhibition. The show focuses on the path that led many Midwestern-born artists to seek out work, art, and a different life on the West Coast.

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “West by Midwest” is on view at MCA Chicago through January 27, 2019.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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