CATHERINE OPIE HAS BEEN TAKING PICTURES OF THE same thing since she was a 9-year-old living in Ohio. “I had a little Instamatic my parents gave me, and I became obsessed with photographing the neighborhood. People. Portraits. Stop signs, whatever.” Now 38, with a Whitney Biennial and a major show at MOCA on her résumé — and a reputation for taking photography to, if not beyond, the fringe — Opie's technique is a little more sophisticated. (She shoots with an 8×10 field camera.) But the thematic thread running through all her work has remained the same: She documents community. “Everybody has their one thing that they think about in life, and this is mine,” she says.

A lecturer at UC Irvine for the past five years, Opie first came into the mainstream in 1994 with her critically acclaimed exhibit “Portraits,” picturing pierced and tattooed members of L.A.'s S&M scene. A literal approach to documentation, the near life-size photos were spare, direct, in-studio portraits. Marking her own place in this scene, Opie included an image of herself dressed as her male, mustached alter ego, Bo. Her later panoramas of inanimate objects around L.A. — freeways, mini-malls and expensive Beverly Hills homes — are more metaphorically linked to the central idea in her oeuvre. “The freeways were about the archaeology of the city, how you travel to a place. And the mini-malls are about the [billboard] signage that defines what ethnic community you've entered in L.A. The homes are about a lot of things, mainly the complex issue of identity within the city of Los Angeles.”

Opie's new work, “The 'Domestic' Series,” is a departure in the sense that it travels — literally — outside the boundaries of L.A. She spent two and a half months in an R.V., making her way cross-country photographing lesbian couples at home. The aim, she says, is to shed some light on the broader ways in which families can be constructed. “So much of what we define as being domestic has to do with a heterosexual framework. A family doesn't have to be a mom and a dad and a kid. We build family and community in other ways, too.”

Traveling alone with her dog, Nika, Opie passed through nine cities, including Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, and Durham, North Carolina. Visiting both friends and strangers, Opie was able to photograph a variety of lifestyles, ranging from couples with kids to entire households. “I wanted to talk about the community in a larger sense,” she says, “and there's also this kind of American dream — this idea of road trip. And I think these are very American photographs in a certain way.”

The eight enormous 40-by-50-inch color prints that make up the exhibit could almost be from any all-American family's collection — just bigger. One shows two women, hand in hand, relaxing outside their Oklahoma house in lawn chairs beneath a solid oak tree. Another seemingly more candid shot captures a couple lounging in their lush, overgrown North Carolina back yard. Clad in a sundress and straw hat, one woman sips lemonade while the other mows the lawn. And in the background, fuzzy but definitely present, is a white picket fence.

Though she shot 250 sheets of film, Opie says she included only eight prints because of space constraints — believing it more important to have fewer, larger pieces than a roomful of smaller works. “I wanted them to have presence. Any smaller and you'd miss the little details in the images.” This makes for a slim representation of the community in focus, and while geographically well-rounded, the exhibit feels a bit thin. But the sheer grandiosity draws you in — not just into the physical surroundings, but into the relationships. The effect is intended. “You look at it, and all of a sudden it's a world that you can enter; and maybe it's a world that you didn't think about entering, or it's a world you had preconceived ideas about, so you come away with a different understanding.”

In this sense, Opie's work is political. “One of the things about being a documentary photographer is that you have this ability in some ways to create history, or add to history — influence it.” But all of her work, past and present, is also personal — none more so than “The 'Domestic' Series.” “It's about my own desire for domesticity,” she says.

After a 1991 breakup with a woman she had been living with for two years, Opie began contemplating lesbian domesticity. The first actual picture in the series was of a scarification of her own back — a crude cutting of two stick-figure women, hand in hand, in front of a childlike drawing of a house. The scar has since faded, but not the feelings that inspired it. “I've always wanted to make a home and live with a lover, and I haven't yet been able to achieve that in my life.” She says she hit the open road, in part, to figure things out, though all she came back with were photos. “I don't think there are any answers. There's just a lot of images to make and a lot of ideas to think about.”

VIEWING THE IMAGES, IN A BARREN WHITE ROOM AT Regen Projects, is like wandering through an Alice in Wonderland­size photo album. There is an easy, almost lazy grace to them that conjures snapshots — not smiling vacation mementos but, rather, tableaus. Domestic moments frozen in time, people staring coolly into the camera with deadpan gazes, these are what you might find in a weathered frame on your grandmother's dresser. Aesthetically unselfconscious, they appear effortless. Opie says she went to great lengths to make them look that way, choreographing each image. “It's hard to shoot that big and make the images look like snapshots. These are all staged — all of them. I place everyone where they are — movement, gestures, everything.”

By setting up each shot — even down to where her subjects focused their eyes — Opie made the camera to some extent invisible, ironically avoiding photos that felt manipulated. But through this engineering, she was actually able to convey a clearer emotional truth than if they were “true documents.” The camera's anonymity helped bring her subjects to the forefront, and visibility is the point. “Very rarely,” says Opie, “do you see big color photographs of lesbian domesticity.”

In addition to those at Regen Projects, four of Opie's images are in Australia for the Melbourne Biannual as part of an exhibit entitled “Signs of Life.” She has also been commissioned by the American Arts Federation to photograph both estate and, not by coincidence, community gardens around the country. Opie will not be submitting these photographs to Martha Stewart's Living magazine. “All the work I do is very personal,” she says. “It's about kind of roaming this landscape, searching for signs and signifiers of what community is all about.”

CATHERINE OPIE: The “Domestic” Series At REGEN PROJECTS | 629 N. Almont Drive Through May 22

Catherine Opie's work will also appear in “Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the Twentieth Century,” at UCLA Armand Hammer Museum of Art, opening June 2.

LA Weekly