Forthrightly titled Football Landscape #1 (Fairfax vs. Marshall, Los Angeles, CA) (all works 2007), the image records much of what one might expect: in the foreground, taut and determined, is a lithe wide receiver, his eyes trained on the distant line of scrimmage, poised for the snap. Facing him is a cornerback, diminutive but evidently unbowed, the textbook orthodoxy of his stance and the intensity of his gaze directed towards the unenviable task of attacking his opponent and beating him to the imminent punch. This high school football field, surrounded by a thick black veil and lit by floodlights whose posts disappear into the sky, is as close to a photographic ready-made as one can imagine, a theatrical composition awaiting its documentarian.
Like the 11 landscapes in this exhibition, Catherine Opie’s accompanying portraits of American high school football players could not declare their subjects more frankly. Seth (2007), for example, shows a young man, no more than 17 years old, in a sweat-drenched, ragged cut-off T-shirt that clings to the bulbous contours of his hyper-developed torso. The unsmiling, self-conscious stoicism of Seth’s flushed gaze – a leitmotif of Opie’s portraits – is an essay in the awkward masquerade of adolescent boys beginning to form and perform for the first time an image-ideal of manhood created by countless portraits published in ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated.
Yet for all their directness and apparent transparency of purpose, these images are as notable for what they are not as for what they most patently and literally are, as well as for what they imply rather than what they contain. The high capture, dramatic tenebrism, vivid colour and density of the landscapes are entirely consonant with commercial sports photography, but Opie’s insistence on recording the endless passages of tedium and readiness that punctuate the experience of a football game makes these images aniconic and elusive. Similarly, the asymmetry she carefully develops in her portraits between the highly composed heroic isolation of her subjects and the concomitant inability of these young men fully to occupy that space provides for an intimate, arresting viewing experience. This sensation is only amplified by the knowledge that Opie asked each of her subjects – Josh, Sean, Blake, Kaine, Marcus, Broc and Tyler, to name a few – to conjure their proudest moment on the field as she shot them.
Although the portraits and landscapes attest to the increasing bureaucratization and professionalism of the identity of young men engaged in highly visible, ultra-competitive high school sports, one is also palpably aware that, try as they may, many of these boys are not destined to be professional or even collegiate athletes. The attributes and trappings of confidence and success are abundant in portraits such as Davionne, but the elaborate regalia and performed machismo are made poignant by the lurking knowledge that the next step for some of these young men may very well be the armed forces. To acknowledge this possibility is also to acknowledge the fallacy and absurdity of popular adages that routinely equate football with warfare. Opie’s landscapes are theatres of furious competition, to be sure, but they are also flood-lit, small-town cocoons isolated from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from the politics of masculinity that attend these distant ‘theatres’.
The cultural associations and implied narratives evident throughout Opie’s new body of work place her at odds with what is perhaps the dominant, and certainly the most discussed, strain in contemporary photographic practice: namely, what might be termed New Formalism. Falling under this broad rubric are photographers such as Christopher Williams, Eileen Quinlan, Anthony Pearson and Walead Beshty, all of whom are concerned to varying degrees with exposing, exploring and manipulating the rudiments of the photographic process, often reverting to pure abstraction to achieve these ends. As this informal movement (with roots in Constructivism, mid-century Modernism and New Objectivity) gains traction within the art world, photographs such as Opie’s appear increasingly anomalous. Whereas abstractions by Quinlan and Beshty, for example, rely on a brand of indexicality that folds in on itself, reflecting on the limits and conditions of photography as a technical medium and as a mode of production, Opie’s landscapes and portraits are more conventionally (and unabashedly) indexical, tacitly embracing the documentary function of photography, so often understood as a conceptual limitation. The question, then, is clear: are Opie’s new photographs innately interesting, or do they rely on what they are not and on the extrinsic narratives they imply to generate critical interest? Is the strongly relational quality of her landscapes and portraits an attribute or an inherent deficiency? Given the gravity of the decisions that await the boys Opie’s images name and record – Blaine, Dusty and Junior – the answer to this question should be more than apparent.