Catherine Opie: High School Football @Mitchell-Innes & Nash

JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 color photographs, framed in white with no mat, and hung in the entry and the large main gallery space. The works are c-prints, made between 2007 and 2009. The portraits are sized 40×30 or 30×22, and the wider game scenes are sized 48×64. No edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Catherine Opie’s recent photographs of American high school football are cunningly understated and subtle. At first glance, they reminded me of the individual posed portraits taken on picture day and of the countless action shots taken by parents standing on the sidelines. They have all the trappings of the familiar, the look of pictures we have seen before, and yet upon closer inspection, there is something anthropological about her gaze, an investigation of this ritualistic behavior from a fresh vantage point.

Her posed portraits (either 3/4 or full body) capture the boys in their shoulder pads and uniforms, with sweaty faces and matted helmet hair. The players run the gamut from the swaggering and confident to the timid and gentle, a whole spectrum of male attitudes (both real and fabricated) on display. There is strength and vulnerability, toughness and defensiveness, grown up man and young boy, all mixed together in the stew of adolescence. While the settings are completely different, I saw some parallels between this work and Rineke Dijkstra’s beach portraits.

Opie’s images of the games in progress are equally compelling and unexpected. All of the photographs are taken at ground level, with the painted lines of the green fields radiating outwards and large expanses of open air above the turf. In each case, the field is shown in the context of the surrounding land, alternately hemmed in by mountains, palm trees, towering evergreens, big sky deserts, and leafy suburban streets. Many were taken at night, when the lights were on and the skies opened up with downpours of rain. While there is of course action on the field (often small and seemingly insignificant), the pictures document the surrounding community, and the role of these games in that larger society. There is a strong sense of theater, of being out on the field in front of the whole town, of striving to prove worth or strength for all to see.

These photographs really grew on me as I spent more time with them. As the wary parent of a middle school aged football player myself, it was as if Opie had shown me a side of my own sideline haunting that I had never really understood or internalized before. They show why the boys play, how they create and try on masculine personas for themselves, and how the community is stitched together by the support of the team. Perhaps what is most impressive here is that Opie has found so much rich and nuanced material right where most of us have routinely overlooked it, out on the playing fields of every town in America.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 40×30 portraits are $20000 each and the 30×22 portraits are $15000 each; the 48×64 scenes are $40000 each. Opie’s work has started to show up in the secondary markets with more regularity in recent years. Prices have ranged between $1000 and $17000, although not many of her larger prints have come up for sale.

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  1. Sam B. /

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