Catherine Opie on Kate Moennig’s “L.A. butch” archetype and the meaning of “Girlfriends”


Iconic lesbian photographer Catherine Opie graced Portland, Ore. this month with her exhibit “Girlfriends,” an eclectic ode to modern day butches. Opie’s known for her solid portraiture of various subcultures — everyone from the S&M community to high school football players — and was recognized with a fabulous retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2009. To accompany “Girlfriends,” she gave a generous interview with Portland’s LGBT paper Just Out, and spoke about why and how she chose to shoot such subjects as Kate Moenning and JD Samson for this collection.

Within itself, the title “Girlfriends” is a play on words, an exploration of what labels are given to which gender presentations. Expressing a similar thoughtfulness about butch identity as Sinclair Sexsmith’s Top Hot Butches, Opie talked about the ironic title for a collection of butch portraits:

“Girlfriends” also for me is a play in terms of identity and relation to girlfriends. So many butches are mainly boyfriends, and not really girlfriends. I really wanted to bring back an old school conversation of “you’re my girlfriend vs. my boyfriend” and not in any way to shake up the transgendered community at all. It’s always been that I’ve been butch on butch. I never call my girlfriends my boyfriend. She’s still my girlfriend.

Language is of course only one piece of the puzzle, the bulk of her exhibit’s power coming from the simple yet driven portraits of iconic butch lesbians of our time. The collection started with photographing Kate Moenning, who Opie considers, “an L.A. butch, not what most of us consider as butch.” The resulting photo — a portrait of Moenning leaning forward to blow a sumptuous smoke ring from the O of her mouth — is certainly not the hyper-masculine butch stereotype many are familiar with. This new definition of butchness caught Opie’s attention:

I started thinking about what [Moenning being butch] meant, and where that was in our culture. There were a lot of complaints that a lot of the good butches have been lost to transitioning in terms of men. I was thinking about how butch [is] being lost and what does it mean to maintain that, and I wanted to go back to portraits, too. I missed making a queer body of work, and I wanted to go back to making some portraits. I’m very satisfied when I’m doing that, so the body of work just culminated in my own desire.

The resulting collection works to preserve butch identity in queer culture, and includes photos of other iconic butches such as Jenny Shimizu, Eileen Myles and k.d. lang. There’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing the lexicon of present day queer celebrities documented in Opie’s stunning portraiture. When asked about her reliance on classicism in her photography, she replies, “I believe that there’s a certain sense of how one should seduce and hold the viewer.” Every photograph in “Girlfriends” nails that.

The most touching part of the interview, though, may be when Opie talks including JD Samson in the collection. As most of her subjects also count as her peers and friends, Opie comments:

We’ve become iconic together; we’ve grown up together. It’s mainly within my generation … JD being the youngest one, but I’ve known her since she was 15 years old. She’s one of my best friend’s nieces out here in California. So I remember when JD came out; in a way she becomes family.

Nothing warms my queer heart more than knowing that JD Samson is Opie’s best friend’s niece! It’s a small, beautiful gay world out there. Thank goodness Opie’s catching it on film.

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