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Assignment: assembling a portrait of L.A.

Catherine Opie, whose photographs have been exhibited in some of the finest art museums and galleries in the United States, Europe and Japan, will soon be showing her newest work to people on the run, who will be viewing her work on the fly, so to speak.

Opie, a professor in the Department of Art whose work is well-known for its social/political commentary and for capturing  the concept of community in many diverse forms, is working on a new series of photographs — called the Portrait of Los Angeles Project — that will introduce millions of travelers passing through LAX to the city and its mayor, Eric Garcetti, in ways that may widen their perspective of L.A.

Slated to go up for the holidays, giant posters of Opie’s photographs will soon be seen in terminals at the airport and at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Her images will show the mayor in settings that celebrate the city’s multifaceted charms: She has captured Garcetti kayaking down the Los Angeles River (see video above) as well as appearing at last Saturday’s USC vs. UCLA rivalry football game at the Coliseum.

"I have always believed in art work that reaches audiences beyond the museum and gallery walls," said Opie in an email. "I feel this is a great opportunity to create a new look for both Angelenos and tourists to engage with … celebrating visually some of the places in our city."

Garcetti praised Opie in the L.A. Times as the perfect photographer to take on the project. "Her love of our city comes through her photographs and I’m excited to have her images welcome visitors to L.A. and Angelenos back home."

Opie came up with the idea for the series after she helped organize a fundraiser to support Garcetti’s bid for the city’s top job. She pitched the idea to him and his team, and they jumped at it. She is volunteering her time and talents to photograph Garcetti at six or seven iconic sites.

The public can visit the Portrait of Los Angeles page on the mayor’s website to suggest sites and comment on the suggestions of others. The L.A. River site was the top choice of online voters.

That doesn’t surprise Opie, who had to stand in the middle of the river and keep her footing and camera steady for about 30 minutes to catch the mayor paddling back and forth. "The L.A. River was always one of my top locations as well," she said. "I think involving the community is also very important to the mayor’s platform."

So far, she said, the most challenging aspect of her assignment has been getting on the mayor’s jam-packed schedule.

An L.A. resident since 1987, Opie will be photographing the mayor at the Watts Towers and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s "Urban Light" installation by Christopher Burden, a UCLA colleague who is a professor emeritus in the art department. Both the towers and the museum, Opie said, "are a crucial part of our city and its identity," connecting L.A. to art.

Opie is no stranger to the city’s faces and venues. As a fine arts photographer, she has been capturing images of L.A.’s people, places, freeways and buildings for more than 25 years. Among her many honors, she is the 2013 recipient of the Julius Shulman Institute Excellence in Photography Award, which was presented to her at the opening of the exhibition "Catherine Opie: In & Around L.A."

With the unveiling of her newest work, Opie may have some surprises up her sleeve.

"Not all the sites are glamour shots," she said, "but seduction is not such a bad element in regards to a wider set of places for tourists to explore in L.A. I hope visitors are inspired."