Untitled #19, following Untitled #2 (Tate L02454), Untitled #5 (Tate L02455) and Untitled #11 (Tate L02456), is the final image in Opie’s photographic series Wall Street. This comprises nineteen black and white photographs of street scenes located in the financial district of downtown Manhattan around Wall Street, where the New York Stock Exchange is based. The photographs were taken early in the morning at weekends, when the area, vibrant with activity during the week, is empty of people. Situated at street level, Opie’s panoramic view-point captures sections of the roads, pavements and the lower stories of buildings which tower upwards, disappearing out of the picture frame. The majority of the photographs are centred on a perspectival vanishing point at the end of a street where the early morning light falls on distant buildings. This source of illumination contrasts dramatically with the darkness of the foreground walls and provides the focal point of each image. Untitled #19 is unusual in the series in that it depicts more sky than building. Shot at the edge of the district looking east over the East River, the image is dominated by the raised freeway which runs around the eastern side of lower Manhattan. Extending from behind small trees on either side, it cuts horizontally across the image. Above it, a large expanse of sky fills nearly half the frame. Below it, a hazy silhouette, the high rise cluster of Brooklyn on the other side of the East River, is framed between the underside of the freeway and the ground below. In the left foreground, a section of building and a car are visible. On the other side of the road, a stop sign, a streetlight, a rubbish bin and a telephone booth are the only features on the large expanse of pavement on the right. The scene appears eerily deserted.
Opie’s photographs document the urban landscape in a topographical manner. She has commented:
I think a lot of my work is about loss. That’s something I’m realising more and more as I travel, and collect images. I actually feel in general that fewer and fewer photographers are really trying to make those kind of social documents, and the ones who are are not really seen in an art context; just in the category of photojournalism ... much of my obsession with being a documentarian comes from this deep-seated sense of the loss of time, and of how things shift so quickly.
(Quoted in Catherine Opie, p.50.)
Opie was born in Sandusky, Ohio and moved to a master-planned suburban community, Rancho Bernardo near San Diego, California, when she was thirteen. She studied photography and fine art at San Francisco Art Institute and completed a Masters degree at California Institute of the Arts in 1988. While living in Valencia for her MA course, she photographed ‘ideal homes for ideal families’ (quoted in Currents 82, [p.1]), the prefabricated model homes being erected in the housing developments of Southern California. She later commented: ‘The underlying basis of all my work has been about the structure of urban and suburban space, and about how communities begin to form ... My work is always close to home. It’s always about my surroundings and the way that I wander through the world.’ (Quoted in Catherine Opie, p.44.) Opie first became known for her photographic portraits of members of the gay and S&M communities made in the early 1990s. Inspired by the portrait paintings of German Renaissance artist Hans Holbein (1497-1543), Opie’s portraits feature a simple, dramatic format against a richly coloured background. Carefully posed and lit, they are titled with the name of the sitter(s). More recently, for her Domestic series (1998), she travelled across the American continent photographing lesbian couples and families in their homes. Created in parallel, her photographs of urban American landscapes are shot in black and white and are usually called Untitled with a number referring to their position in the series. Like Wall Street, such series as Freeways 1994-5, Mini-Malls 1997-8 and Saint Louis 1999-2000 were photographed at dawn (or in the middle of the night) in order to avoid human presence. All these series feature a panoramic format, created by the use of a specially made 7 x 17” ‘banquet camera’, which emphasises the breadth of the landscape. The artist relates this to ‘turn-of-the-century photography ... [and] the American West, the Western landscape ... Western movies’ (quoted in Catherine Opie, p.48). The Wall Street series denotes a geographical shift in Opie’s work from West to East coast (the result of her relocation to New York at the end of the 1990s). But, like her earlier series, they represent what she has described as ‘my relationship to the world and where I live’ (quoted in Currents 82, [p.2]). Opie’s photographs document and make visible aspects of the American landscape - its buildings and its people - which were previously unnoticed or concealed.
Untitled #19 was produced in an edition of five (plus two artist’s proofs) of which this is the second.
Catherine Opie, exhibition catalogue, Photographer’s Gallery, London and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 2000
Elizabeth A.T. Smith, Catherine Opie, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1998
Currents 82: Catherine Opie: In between here and there, exhibition brochure, Saint Louis Art Museum 2000