When it comes to organizing and executing shoots, Opie has found that it’s best not to force her subjects into certain scenarios or emotions.
This begins with who she can and cannot shoot. “There’s always someone I want to photograph who I can’t get,” she admits, noting that she’s been trying to shoot a portrait of Joan Didion for 10 years; and for the portraits in London, she’d wanted to shoot
, but it wasn’t possible.
Once a shoot is confirmed, Opie is careful to prepare her subjects, but not to give them too much direction. Beforehand, “I say it’s a formal portrait,” she explains, “but I don’t tell them how to dress.”
The day of the shoot, when the subject arrives at Opie’s studio, she offers them a beverage (“a coffee, or whatever”) and they sit down for a chat. “If they have the time to spend, if they’re not on a time crunch, we might talk for 30 minutes or so,” she says. “If it’s the first time meeting me, I want them to know and feel that the portrait is just a conversation, I’m not essentialist about my ideas—I care deeply about what I’m doing, but I’m not manipulative about wanting my subject to show a certain emotion.”
To accomplish this, Opie ensures that the atmosphere in the studio is as calm and neutral as possible. This is important not only in making her subjects feel at ease, but also to make sure that the resulting photographs (particularly her most recent series, shot over the last five years) do not aim to expose the essence of a person, but rather seek to create an intimate moment in time that speaks of the power of a portrait.
This also accounts for why Opie chooses not to play music, and speaks little during shoots. “Music informs a potential emotion. If you play jazz, and the subject hates jazz, you’re screwed,” she explains. “I’m very quiet about it all, I want them to create an internal space.”
The black backdrops Opie has chosen for her recent works are also a part of this neutral space. “The black background is also blank,” she says, “everyone is placed by me, it’s a controlled environment but it’s not a manipulative environment.”