Cinema siren, humanitarian, close friend of Michael Jackson, and repeat divorcee—Elizabeth Taylor (1932–2011) epitomized what it means to be a true celebrity before the age of TMZ. In her project 700 Nimes Road, Los Angeles–based photographer Catherine Opie captured an intimate portrait of Taylor–though the actress never appears in any of the frames. Rather, it’s a narrative told through spaces she inhabited and the objects she surrounded herself with.
According to Opie, she found inspiration in the work of William Eggleston. She aspired to capture the personality and character of Taylor in the same way he documented Elvis by photographing Graceland, using his home and belongings as an oblique way to frame the star’s legacy.
“I think that the curious thing about Eggleston’s Graceland photos were how they actually didn’t represent a portrait of Elvis, but more of a place that was kept intact after Elvis’s death,” Opie says. “Thinking about that allowed me an entry point on how to construct something different through images of Elizabeth’s house.”
Opie, who grew up watching Taylor’s films, began shooting Taylor’s home in Bel Air—a tony LA neighborhood—in 2010. Midway through the six-month project, Taylor passed away, but she kept shooting. The images depict Taylor’s famous shoe collection, her more famous diamonds, and her vanity stocked with dozens of perfume bottles. While there were plenty of trappings normally associated with fame, Opie was also surprised at how comfortable and “normal” the house seemed. Yes, there were dozens of Chanel shoes and a salon-style hair-washing station, but there also were plenty of pictures, knick knacks, and humble touches.
“I thought it would be much more ostentatious,” Opie says. “It was also surprising to see how much she valued family and friends through photos throughout the house.”
Opie shot over 3,000 images, which she pared down to about 150 for her book and 50 for her portfolio. “The editing process is a balance between thinking about ideas of portraiture and archive,” she says. “Also to find the personal touch in relationship to the objects within the photographs that conveyed the deeper sense of the presence of the person.” Catch a few of the images in the slide show above.