In Jay Prosser’s photographic study Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss, Prosser analyzes the power of photography to record absence, as well as–seemingly contradictorily–presence. As he explains, “photography is the medium in which we unconsciously encounter the dead…Photographs are not signs of presence but evidence of absence. Or rather the presence of a photograph indicates its subject’s absence. Photography contains a realization of a loss” (32).
Perhaps startlingly illustrating photography’s ability to reflect loss, Catherine Opie’s engrossing series 700 Nimes Road represents the palpable presence and overwhelming absence of late Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor through photographs of her Bel-Air home. On view in both New York and Los Angeles at Lehmann Maupin’s Lower East Side location and MOCA Pacific Design Center, as well as recently published in catalogue form, Opie’s 700 Nimes Road creates a unique and incredibly intimate portrait of the star by capturing her daily surroundings.
Beginning with her 1991 series Being and Having, investigating female masculinities through portraits of dykes wearing fake mustaches, Opie’s photography is largely defined by her portraiture with gorgeous images of friends and fellow artists in the queer communities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Although her more straight-forward portraiture remains an important aspect of her practice as seen in the concurrent exhibition Portraits and Landscapes at Chelsea’s Lehmann Maupin, Opie’s 700 Nimes Road, at once, indicates both a departure and a continuation of her career-long interest in portraiture.
Maintaining her focus on depicting gay icons with the preeminent Hollywood diva Taylor, Opie was given unprecedented access and opportunity to shoot Taylor’s surprisingly modest-looking home in 2010. Sadly during this same period, Taylor passed away, preventing Opie from ever having the ability to create a typical portrait of the actress. Instead, taking thousands of photographs of 700 Nimes Road, which she pared down to fifty for the portfolio and exhibitions, Opie used these multitude of images of Taylor’s home to construct a fractured but nuanced portrait of the star in absentia.
It is certainly no mistake that Opie has cited influential photographer William Eggleston’s seminal 1984 Graceland portfolio as a significant inspiration to her own project. Depicting the gaudy yet role model-worthy aesthetic of Elvis’ abode, Eggleston’s photographs transform Elvis’ opulence into a overwhelming and suffocating musing on fame and its trappings. With a similar eye for Taylor’s over-the-top design sense, Opie’s photographs, however, appear less like an exploration of the stratospheric heights of fame only achieved by the likes of Taylor, Elvis and select others. Conversely, Opie’s photographs seem to represent an attempt to transcend Taylor’s celebrity to find the humanity beyond the gossip fodder.
Rather than falling into a tabloid trap, Opie’s photographs maintain a tender care and empathy for the star. However, this isn’t to say there’s not a healthy dose of camp humor and kitsch, which partially made Taylor such a queer figure for generations. With Taylor’s unmistakable and quintessential glitzy aesthetic, Opie’s photographs reveal Taylor’s plentiful jewels, perfume bottles, bedazzled photographs of her beloved Maltese terriers, purple shag carpeting, rows of Chanel heels sniffed by a kitty and as much flamboyant extravagance as you can handle. You can practically smell the White Diamonds.
Beyond all the kitsch and questionable taste, which I’m sure will have some Old Hollywood-obsessed queens screaming in galleries on two coasts, Opie’s series also features less sensational and more personal moments. For example, one particularly moving photograph is AIDS Activist, depicting a collection of Taylor’s–still flashy–red ribbon brooches and other activist artifacts. A prominent HIV/AIDS activist, Taylor’s significant contributions to activism sometimes goes unnoticed through all the Dick Burton fighting, Lindsay Lohan adaptations and diva worship. Similarly, Opie’s photograph of Taylor’s bedside table portrays unsuspectingly touching personal photographs with her friend Michael Jackson–another star whose fame eclipsed their individual humanity.
Like her appearance in personal photographs with Jackson, Taylor’s presence haunts Opie’s series even though she physically is not. In addition to her unrelenting aesthetic, Taylor also appears mythically and ghost-like through other artists’ representations of her from Warhol’s Liz to film stills from her early movies.
Similarly, many of the photographs in the series also include reflections whether in mirrors, glass or even the glittering diamonds in Opie’s final staged photographs of Taylor’s jewels, recalling studio portraits.
In her On Photography, Susan Sontag describes photography as “to participate in another person’s (or other thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability” (15). With these varying levels of representations from personal snapshots to recognizable artistic creations, 700 Nimes Road becomes a hall of mirrors in attempting to decipher and discover the real Elizabeth Taylor. An impossibility given Taylor’s death, the star remains throughout Opie’s 700 Nimes Road as elusive, changeable and perhaps unknowable as she was in life.