What becomes a legend most?

What becomes a legend most?
July 24, 2014 Roberto Maiocchi

Prominent Los Angeles photographer Catherine Opie got the enviable opportunity to peek into Ms. Taylor’s closets and other private spaces while immortalizing them in images that will be published in a new book, 700 Nimes Road, coming out summer or fall 2015.

Blackglama declared it was ranch black mink when the company draped a lustrous coat over Elizabeth Taylor’s shoulders in 1983 as part of its famous ad campaign. While Ms. Taylor’s personal glamour arsenal did indeed include many furs, it also contained much more than that, such as handbags, makeup brushes, negligees, couture evening gowns, Chanel shoes and, of course, her renowned jewelry collection, notably including the stunning La Peregrina pearl necklace she received from Richard Burton. Prominent Los Angeles photographer Catherine Opie got the enviable opportunity to peek into Ms. Taylor’s closets and other private spaces while immortalizing them in images that will be published in a new book, 700 Nimes Road, coming out summer or fall 2015. Ms. Opie, whose work is collected by such important museums as the Guggenheim in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., told ElizabethTaylor.com how she came to develop an intimate relationship with the star — even though she was never in the same room as the woman herself.

It was serendipity that first brought them together. The women shared an accountant who asked Ms. Opie if she would be interested in an introduction to the movie star. While the photographer was mulling over the offer, she came across William Eggleston’s posthumous portfolio of Graceland photographs, shot at Elvis Presley’s Tennessee home and published in 1984. A light bulb went on for Ms. Opie, whose work revolves around ideas of identity. “I started thinking about that extension of a portrait — how a person’s home is a portrait of them,” she recalls. “It is a real extension of someone. Sometimes a home and how someone actually lives can reveal much more about a person than having them sit for a single portrait.” Ms. Opie arranged a meeting with Tim Mendelson, Ms. Taylor’s longtime secretary, who passed on the star’s enthusiasm for the proposal. She then spent the first half of 2011 in Ms. Taylor’s home, photographing her rooms, gardens and closets, generally with the objects exactly as she found them. They revealed Ms. Taylor’s sophisticated aesthetic, expressed in the arrangement of items on her vanity to her groupings of photographs to the color coordination of her closet. “Elizabeth was very interested in curating her objects,” Ms. Opie observed. “Tim would tell me stories: Elizabeth was an insomniac and sometimes she would be up in the middle of the night in her jewelry closet, just pulling out things to see how they looked together, and he’d come in the next day to a whole new arrangement. She was very interested in organizing her own objects and making these aesthetic decisions around them. That is definitely portrayed in the objects within the house that I took images of.”

The one exception to Ms. Opie’s hands-off approach was Ms. Taylor’s legendary jewelry collection, which Cathy and Tim removed from boxes to photograph to spectacular effect. For one shot, the photographer even filled up a Louis Vuitton suitcase with the precious gems, visually likening them to “pirate’s booty.” Ms. Opie says the experience made a profound impression on her. “Through the photographs, I came to see her as one of the kindest, most gracious, vivacious, interesting, brilliant women of our times,” Ms. Opie says. “Her home spoke to that, what she had around her. From the horses that her daughter [Liza Todd-Tivey] sculpted, the pictures, the little objects given to her by friends. Elizabeth was a very well-loved woman, and I think that her home was the site of that generosity.” Sadly, Ms. Taylor passed away three months into the project and never saw the final results. Ms. Opie was left to decide how to segue from photographing a home with someone living in it to documenting one being taken apart post-mortem. While Christie’s was collecting Ms. Taylor’s belongings for a sale that later earned her estate $183.5 million, Ms. Opie ultimately decided to chronicle the dismantling of the home for the historical record; what she didn’t plan on was shooting it for exhibition or the upcoming book, which came later. She worked in Ms. Taylor’s home until the closets were empty. Reflecting on the experience, Ms. Opie says, “It’s one of the most honoring, humbling things I’ve ever been able to do, really. It’s really interesting to be that touched by someone I didn’t have a personal relationship with, but I ended up having an incredible personal relationship with Ms. Taylor through photographing her home that will move me for the rest of my life.”

All images: © Catherine Opie. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

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