At home with Elizabeth Taylor

It was November of 2010 when I first drove up to 700 Nimes Road in Bel-Air, the most glamorous neighbourhood of Los Angeles. As the gates opened, I entered into the private world of Elizabeth Taylor and found myself in a unique position to document a transition that at that point no one had anticipated.

I had been introduced to Tim Mendelson, Ms Taylor’s longtime executive assistant, through our mutual business manager Derrick Lee, and I proposed making a body of work in which I would create a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor through her home and belongings.

I spoke of [photographer] William Eggleston’s images of Graceland and my vision of creating a dialogue with that work through a photographic exploration of 700 Nimes Road. Nestled in the canyons of Bel-Air, Ms Taylor’s home was elegant but simple: a California ranch-style house with pale blue and lush lavender carpets and a shimmering turquoise swimming pool. Ushered into a living room, I sat on a sofa and drank an ice-cold Coke served on a silver tray. My eyes scanned the room, taking everything in and making photographs before I had even pulled out the camera or the project had been greenlighted.

Following Ms Taylor’s approval, I began a photographic investigation of 700 Nimes Road. The first images I made were of shining, oversized ornaments in the branches of the large trees outside. Inside the house, the feeling of solace and silence was meditative and the plush comfort enveloping. The days were slow as I got to know the way light filled the rooms at different hours.

Lunches shared with staff in the green lattice-worked kitchen felt like meals with family. Exploring the contents of Ms Taylor’s closets, which exuded an ultimate femininity, my identity as a butch woman was challenged, and sometimes I would put my scruffy tennis shoe next to a Chanel pump and shake my head in awe.

Unfortunately, I never had the honour of meeting Ms Taylor. Midway through the project she was hospitalised, and on March 23 2011 she passed away. As an artist it was an emotional and moving time for me to bear witness to her life and to her loss. Her home underwent many changes following her death. These photographs reflect that transition in a subtle way, while still maintaining an intimate portrait of Elizabeth Taylor through her personal space.

The 129 plates finally selected were edited from nearly 3,000 images taken over six months. Most of the images are still lifes of the interior as Ms Taylor left it. However, the photographs of her jewellery inevitably had to be staged in her absence. The final image was taken on the day that Christie’s packed everything up for auction. On that last day we put the jewels out in the sun to mark a moment of silence for her beloved and monumental collections.

This is an edited extract from ‘700 Nimes Road by Catherine Opie, published by Prestel on September 1 (£40). An exhibition of this work will be at MOCA, Los Angeles Pacific Design Center, from January 24 to May 8 2016 and will travel to venues in the US until April 2017; regenprojects.com

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