In April of 2016, I went to go see Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road, at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center location. Catherine’s photos presented a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, through her home and the objects that filled it. A mix of broad views of the Bel Air home and detailed shots of jewelry and keepsakes adorning her dressers. Considering that just a week later I was to start documenting homeLA // Victoria Park, the show was encouraging to say the least. The show has since come and gone* and I’ve been thinking about putting my inspiration into words for sometime, but it wasn’t until some recent events occurred in my life that helped me understand Opie’s work - and mine - in a new light.
Earlier this year, I lost my grandfather. One of the first things I found myself doing in the aftermath of the news was documenting his house. The way it was when he left it. The first chance I got, before the rest of the family arrived. The furniture, the knick knacks, the stains, the folds - the home. While this isn’t the strangest response, given my background, it quickly became part of my process of grieving.
Over the past four years I’ve documented every aspect of homeLA: artists developing work in new spaces, capturing themes and patterns as they emerge, and doing so from every angle and corner of every home. I document not only the artists as they explore the houses we’re invited into, but also the personal details that make the houses, homes. I work to capture the living breathing spaces that are given life by the people who inhabit them. So when it came time to say good bye to my grandfather, I felt compelled - and quite comfortable - to capture who my grandfather was, and how he lived at the end of his life, through the documentation of the things that filled his home - particularly because he took pride in his belongings.
When I walked into the Pacific Design Center, I got to know Catherine Opie's work on a much deeper level than I had before. I was familiar with her work, but only through my studies and the occasional run-in with a work or two. I had never seen an entire exhibition dedicated to her. That exhibition gave me a deeper understanding of the work I do documenting dance in domestic spaces, but it wasn’t until I found myself photographing my grandfather’s house that it really sank in. There was one photograph in particular (and even an exhibition note) that really had an impact. The photo was of Taylor’s kitchen table, with the table as subject, and in the background through the mirrored glass walls, you could see Opie. She’s unassuming - you could look at the picture and not notice her - but she’s there. This was a powerful moment for me.
During homeLA, I do my own dance of sorts: trying to get the best documentation without getting in the way of the dancers, or audience when they enter. Over time, I developed an unspoken guideline to remove myself from the images. It’s not about me, it’s about the artists moving throughout the space. This unconscious self-imposed constraint even manifested itself in the rehearsal space - where I have the freedom to move around as I like and not worry about audience. Until this exhibition, homeLA, for me, was about the home, artists, and hosts, but seeing Catherine in that photo added photographer to the list. Her inclusion in (a few of) the images throughout the show didn’t ever position her as the subject, but rather was a natural inclusion of her body in the space as a part of the process. In our “conversation” she let me know it was ok. Being in the photo doesn’t take anything away from the photos, but rather encompasses the full experience - and in my case with homeLA - which includes the roaming photographer.
All these considerations came back to me after I started documenting the layout and objects in my grandfather’s home (did I mention that Taylor died during Opie’s process of photographing the home?). As the rest of the family entered, I became very cognizant of bodies - mine, theirs, and the lack of my grandfather’s - in the domestic setting we found ourselves in the days before the funeral. How were people using the space? What was being moved? Had I captured it? Should I re-photograph as the lighting changed? I found myself stepping back and watching as people moved through the home. Even though I had already had my time to document the framework of the house without people in it I continued documenting the little nooks and crannies. Capturing the changing light on different objects. How had my grandfather experienced things in the day vs. at night? I found myself jumping up to photograph something when I remembered a specific memory. In one instance a shadow leaned into frame. I paused. My conversation with Catherine came back to me. I realized that keeping it in the picture allowed me to be part of the process. Allowing myself to be in those pictures shifted the process from cataloguing to documenting, allowing me to say goodbye and shape my final memories in the space. I put my experience in conversation with my grandfather’s, in a way that Opie has had me thinking of since I saw her photos.
The photos of my grandfather’s house created a sense of release through their encapsulation. If we couldn’t keep objects, I could keep photos. This was the end. Of an era, as they say. But it actually felt that way. My grandpa is the last family member of his generation to go. The golden boy of 1928. It was not only the end of a life, but also a shift in family elders. As we cleaned his house I couldn’t help but think of the objects that had come from a distant past and lived long storied lives, one that will not be continuing on in our family. To say goodbye to my grandfather’s dresser was also saying goodbye to my grandmother again. While we said goodbye to her years ago, we would not be keeping the his and hers dressers like grandpa had previously done. Our objects speak to who we are; our tastes and styles at specific times and places. If we lose that we move on with a little less clarity. Documenting things was not just about the objects but of a past time and place we could no longer hold onto. So I documented, as best I could.
While I could shrug off the fact that these feelings towards my grandfather’s home and his personal affects were sensitive due to the personal nature of the space, I’ve had this affinity for capturing personal effects within homeLA for awhile. I don’t just document dancers moving in domestic space, I also capture the details of the home - often times without artists interacting with them.
Yet I often question the need / reason for capturing these types of images. Why do these details matter? What purpose do they have amongst the images of artists developing their work? Additionally, I don’t post a lot of the detail images to homeLA’s social media channels. And then I’m reminded that it all comes down to the process of storytelling. Those detail images have to do with how I tell stories of past shows. They create a sense of identity for/from each home that allows me to establish a sense of what the home was like and who lived there when I share it with the larger audience at a later date. As such, it’s not documenting for the sake of archiving, it’s documenting for the sake of revisiting, and communicating, and this was true as I photographed my grandfather’s home. Motivated by the desire to give myself the ability to tell this part of family story in the future I sought to capture who my grandfather was at the time of his death, and who I was at the time I took the photos.
So I’ve come to realize that my experience with homeLA is unique in that I get to be both the documentarian and the storyteller of the project, which allows me to not only see (and communicate) the growth of the project but of my own style and approach to each home. I’ve seen my work become more focused on the personal and less on the architectural. I know the moment it shifted too. A picture of his and her shoes lined up in the walk-in closet of homeLA // San Marino in 2015. It was the first home that the desire to capture the specific elements of the two story home outweighed the layout of the house. The lyre-playing mythical figure on the piano. The cat hair figurine in the living room, the tile work in the kitchen. The shoes in the closet. I had moved from architecture to accumulation within architecture, which I’d say allows me to capture a more specific glimpse of the time and place of each iteration - examining life beyond any sort of picket fence presentation strangers see from outside.
And when you get to that level of detail, it’s not just the knick knacks, but rather the condition they’re in, the way they’re arranged. As Catherine and I explore, the areas that get more attention than others tell a story. It was a sad moment when I realized the house wasn’t the way he left it on the last day he was there. The cleaning lady had come. But she’s part of his lifestyle. She kept him in order. She knew not to touch the comb or eye drops on the dresser. A detail I later discovered. I wasn’t surprised by it, but I wasn’t expecting it. That’s what excites me about homeLA - there are all these discoveries that need to be made, that I get to uncover, asking what happens behind closed doors when we’re not entertaining and fall into our routines?
It’s at that level - the accumulation of details - that you are able to create a clearer portrait of a person. For Catherine, during homeLA, and in my grandfather’s home the essence of a time and place created a portrait of a person through the details of their home, and in each situation the ability to do so was shaped by a transitionary moment. For Opie the moment occurred when Elizabeth Taylor passed away during the process, which Catherine said impacted the feeling captured in the subsequent photos. For each homeLA, I’m aware that we’ve only got a finite rehearsal period, and an even smaller window to capture the final works during the performance, which ultimately shifts with the addition of guests into the space. And in my grandfather’s home, I knew I wanted to capture the home as he had it, immediately before family entered, but also capture as much of the time period in that space as we got rid of things. Not necessarily capturing the grieving process but the time and place in our lives as we sorted through the home and its belongings.
Our objects are significant because at some time and place they’re of interest to us. And the way we keep them, re-arrange them, speaks to where we are in our lives at that given time and place. For Catherine’s process, it was not just a time and place in Elizabeth Taylor’s life, but what became the final time and place, in which we learned what she cared about and how she maintained things in the end. A year later, I found myself documenting the final phase of my grandfather’s home and came to allow myself to be part of the process in a way I didn’t anticipate - thanks to considerations I experienced from seeing Opie’s work.
We’re done cleaning out my grandfather’s home and I documented the entire process. It didn’t make it any easier - and a few times it was hard to stop and snap - but it’s how I worked through it, and in the process discovered new ways of understanding my work. Something I’d been thinking about for over a year. 700 Nimes Road was really powerful for me in that it demonstrated that what I had been doing for years was part of a larger vocabulary. That my interest in photographing images of personal details is a form of portraiture, but that looking that closely is a process and one that I should recognize my role with in that process. Catherine and her work helped me feel comfortable within my own process.
Thank you Catherine.
This was originally published on homeLA's Process Record / September 2, 2017