Catherine Opie is a formidable figure in the West Coast photography pantheon. She grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, in a family devoted to crafts and painting, surrounded by artistic kin and media, including a grandfather keen on photography. Enthralled by a Lewis Hine photograph, she got her first camera at age nine. “Photography allowed me a way to observe and think about the world and feel that I had a language. Writing didn’t come naturally to me; my language was really visual. And I just never stopped.” Opie’s journey of well over four decades has covered a very wide road. Early on, she documented her “queer community” in the Bay Area, which included the S&M leather scene and images of herself in vulnerable “transgressive” poses that many understood as a powerful way to self-identify from within a marginalized sector of society. She spent two years photographing master-planned communities near CalArts while studying there. She practiced as a street photographer, eventually at ritualized public events such as Tea Party rallies, Boy Scout jamborees, and the inauguration of Barack Obama, capturing a distinctly American zeitgeist. She has photographed surfers, high school football players, ice fishermen’s shanties, mini-malls, backyard pools, freeways, iconic Chicago architecture, the sunrises and sunsets viewed from aboard a trans-Pacific freighter, her family and friends, and her longtime neighborhood of West Adams in Los Angeles. Her various pursuits can be seen in two sets: documenting her era by way of covering political and community events, but also exploring an interior reality of desire, memory, and identity (often linked to specific subcultures). “There are no politics lately,” says Opie. “Right now I’m more interested in the subconscious … The camera has become a surrogate of meditation for myself.”

The other evolving dichotomy for Opie has been that of portraits and landscapes, sometimes merged, as when people begin to appear in her normally depopulated vistas. In two current LA exhibitions, Opie’s ongoing exploration of the art of portraiture is on display in two very different modes. From the beginning, Opie has been a photographer who instinctively grapples with and adapts to what is in her immediate orbit and a part of her local life — rather than, as many do, traveling far and wide or seeking out the strange and unfamiliar. In Catherine Opie: Portraits at the Hammer Museum, a selection from an ongoing series, she aims her camera at admired artist friends and acquaintances. Although she sometimes ventures beyond her circle (her dream subject, she says, would be Joan Didion), the series is in part a valentine to creative souls with whom she has forged an enduring connection, as much as a study in contemporary portrait-making that alludes to historical painting. Opie also engages in a dialogue about image-making in the age of selfies, going so far, by way of contrast, as to frame some of her subjects in ovals that suggest refined cameos. Floating in spotlight as they emerge from impenetrable black, her sitters take on a theatricality that exaggerates their pose, their gesture, their presence. While some of the artists are seen distracted by their own thoughts, their own dramas, others gaze confrontationally at the viewer. One becomes acutely aware of the intimacy of Opie’s sessions, and of the respectful scrutiny she brings to her interactions with often well-known peers (including Jonathan Franzen, John Baldessari, Kara Walker, Miranda July, Matthew Barney, and the design duo of Rodarte). Opie’s portraits operate in the space between public and private persona, while posing questions about the subtle forms of voyeurism that portraiture permits.

An interesting anomaly in the Hammer show is Untitled #12, an out-of-focus, cloudlike form with a prismatic core. It turns out to be an etherealized image of Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite — an exercise in abstraction that represents yet another of Opie’s overlapping concerns. Unlike the recent show at the Getty Museum — Light, Paper, Process — Opie is not going further than the camera itself in investigating the nature of the photographic medium. According to Opie,

It’s a lens-based process, which is always what photography has been. I’m here looking at it, the decisive image. So it’s still based on what we think of as the Szarkowski rules of photography — but by simply opening the aperture so you get rid of the depth of field, and racking the focus of the lens, you allow the self-questioning of what you’re really looking at — because if I took a very clear picture of Bridalveil Fall, you better believe that you would care less about it. You have to make photography work a little harder these days!

In Opie’s other LA exhibition, 700 Nimes Road, at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center gallery, she has seized upon a unique opportunity to explore the possibility of merging portraiture and still life. In the months prior to Elizabeth Taylor’s death in 2011, and then continuing thereafter until the house’s contents were auctioned off, she photographed that 20th-century icon’s domicile and possessions in rigorous detail. Disdaining the kind of celebrity idolatry that might have been a photographer’s natural reflex, Opie bestows a “democracy of glamour” on the star’s objects, giving equal weight and attention to, say, a priceless tiara, an Oscar, and a dog-eared remote control manual. Although she never actually met Taylor, Opie was given full access, and as a whole her images convey a vivid sense of a full and accomplished life lived, not just in its opulence and indulgences, but in its loves, struggles, and beliefs. Viewed up close and as found (very little was staged), the star’s home reveals what we already imagined about her, that she was passionate, feminine to the nth degree, gregarious, family-centered, and partial to plush comfort. With its shrine-like elements in particular, the series also becomes a meditation on mortality, a solemn recognition of the hard fact that our things carry on without us and that ultimately all that is precious is ephemeral, except our deeds.

It’s true you don’t take on what you collect in life. With Elizabeth, her objects aren’t really the life that’s after her; it’s what she did as an activist as well as an actor that lives on. So there is a kind of memorializing of it because she did pass away during the making of this body of work.

Opie had a special regard for Taylor’s courageous early support of AIDS victims. “I reflect on mortality all the time. Most of my friends in my 30s and 40s died because of AIDS … I don’t think there’s been a time in my career that mortality doesn’t orbit my work.”

Catherine Opie: Portraits is on view at the Hammer Museum through May 22. Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road is on view at MOCA PDC through May 8. (The exhibition catalog, with essays by Hilton Als, Tim Mendelson, and Ingrid Sischy, is published by DelMonico/Prestel.)

¤

More from the Photographer Spotlight Series:

JACQUELINE HASSINK

SOHAM GUPTA

AGNÈS VARDA

¤

SERIES PRODUCER / MICHAEL KURCFELD