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Photography Exhibit Explores America's Communities

In this image released by the Guggenheim Museum, a work by photographer Catherine Opie titled, "Jerome Caja, 1993," is shown. (AP Photo/Guggenheim Museum, Catherine Opie)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Known and respected as a documentary photographer, Catherine Opie catches the people and moments we all might miss as we race through our lives -- an empty highway, a lesbian couple, street corner shrines, a lone surfer.

For the first time, selections of her major works are together in a mid-career show, "Catherine Opie: An American Photographer," that opened Friday at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Opie is perhaps best known for her formal color-saturated portraits. These pieces brilliantly use classic portraiture form for contemporary subjects. Transgender, pierced, scarred, bleeding, cross-dressing subjects confront the viewer with defiant, curious, confident, sometimes plaintive attitudes. The classic meets the "fringe" and the two marry to create a rare, confrontational beauty.

According to Opie, "If you are going to make color photographs, then play with color," and she certainly does.

Set against rich backgrounds of greens, blues and yellows, her subjects pop out with velvety skin, gleaming body jewelry and vivid tattoos. The serious "Frankie" (1995) is a stunning contrast of colors as is the playful "Jerome Caja" (1993) with granny glasses, red feathered shoes and prom dress against a lush green.

While Opie acknowledges that she is most interested in portraits of people, in "what a portrait does," her landscapes are hugely affecting. Because she is strident in her formal set up of her photos, her landscapes -- whether empty Los Angles freeways, Beverly Hills gated mansions or deserted mini-malls -- read as portraits.

Stripped of people, Opie's series "Untitled (Freeways)" (1994) and "Untitled (Mini-Malls)" (1997) distill down to the essence of the subject. Like her portraits, she is examining how the exterior form -- the look of the thing -- fits into our world.

Housed in a beautiful chaplelike room are two more landscape series, "Untitled 1-14 (Surfers)" (2003) and "Untitled 1-14 (Icehouses)" (2001), which are sublime in the true sense of the word. Transient and minor, surfers and icehouses are enveloped in nature.

Walk through "In and Around the Home" (2004-2005), a series full of humor, politics, love and the mundane shot in and around Opie's Los Angeles house, and you enter a small room with a high ceiling. Covering the walls are huge Polaroids, at least 6 feet tall. These dark, painterly images play with religious iconography and, as many religious paintings do, evoke pain and suffering for a greater goal.

Like all Opie's works, they are disarmingly beautiful, but significantly more confrontational. Stand directly in front of the photos and they become a mirror: Our reflection merges with her subject.

Placing these pieces next to the "In and Around the Home," series is a jarring, effective juxtaposition. It also shows that while her formal structures are fairly static, her pictures have an impressive range of tone.

In planning the show, Opie had hoped that putting all these different series of photos together would show a cohesiveness and coherent vision. For Opie, this vision is documenting community and cultural identity, what it means to belong, though there is a palpable sense of loneliness in much of her work.

Opie's photos are dignified, beautiful, political, provocative and hinge on an amazing formal vision and an almost unreal clarity, but the subjects are often alone, as if testing whether identity can hold up without community.

Seen as a body of work, the cohesiveness Opie hoped to see is clearly a reality.