By Ted Loos
Elizabeth Taylor (1932–2011) was certainly among the most photographed women of her time, endlessly represented by formal portraits, journalistic shoots and paparazzi snaps—and famously one image was eventually turned into an iconic Andy Warhol painting, too.
She broke into the consciousness at age 12 in National Velvet, and never left it through her two Academy Awards, her many husbands and affairs, pioneering AIDS activism and multiple honors.
But perhaps the most haunting and evocative series of Taylor pictures doesn’t even depict the star herself. Los Angeles-based photographer Catherine Opie’s 2010-2012 series “700 Nimes Road” takes us inside Taylor’s home (the address of the title), closely examining a life through its accumulated details—a cat walking over a row of white shoes, roses in the garden, dresses lined up in a closet, walls of memorabilia.
“I wanted to do an intimate portrait of her through her belongings,” says Opie, the acclaimed artist who had a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 2008–09. And now 53 of the best images in the series are going on view at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale from February 12 to June 18, a show that was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.
In some ways Opie, a married lesbian mom, is the last person you’d think would be suited for the task. Many of her most famous portraits plumb the identity of marginalized people who don’t fit the dominant paradigms of gender and sexuality.
But Opie turned a bizarre, only-in-L.A. connection—she and Taylor shared an accountant—into a powerfully poignant project. For years, her accountant was asking her if she wanted to do something related to Taylor. “But I said, ‘I’m not interested in celebrities,” Opie recalls.
But there was something pulling her to the project. “She’s such a star, the last of her generation,” says Opie. “She’s already so well represented by photography. So I was interested in complicating the iconic image.”
Opie essentially embedded herself part-time in Taylor’s house, with the permission of the star, whom she never met. “There’s an incredible sense of light in that house,” she says of the intensive six-month stretch she put in at 70 Nimes Road. “I would spend a lot of time watching the light change through the day.”
Three months into the photography, Taylor passed away.
Instead of scrapping the project, Taylor’s intimates had a very different response. “The family and staff didn’t want me to stop,” says Opie. “It was an important marker for them—they saw it as the last portraits of Elizabeth.”
Bonnie Clearwater, the director of the NSU Art Museum, puts it plainly: “Cathy caught the transition between life and death.”
Clearwater has long been a fan of Opie’s, and included the photographer in a show of 90s art some 20 years ago. “I spotted the Nimes series four years ago at Art Basel Miami Beach and I told her, ‘As soon as these are ready, I want to show them,’” says Clearwater, who has also added a set of the images to the museum’s permanent collection. “It’s such a unique take on portraiture.”
One of the rare parallels in photographic history was color photography pioneer William Eggleston’s series of Graceland pictures from the 1980s, taken after Elvis’s death—it was also devoid of human subjects, and focused on mementoes and physical traces of a life. But that body of work pointed out the soulless, tacky and narcissistic elements of the singer’s famed mansion.
Opie, by contrast, is a fan of Taylor’s, and wanted to simply add another layer to our understanding of the star. She says she still thinks of the universal humanity of the images: “A remote control on the beside table.” Taylor’s spectacular jewelry collection was of particular interest, not as much for the shiny baubles as for what held them.
“The jewelry boxes were the most incredible to me,” says Opie, who still reflects on the series with an immediate tenderness. “The tears, rips and stuck-on labels. It begins to get at the notion of a person, the physical touch.”