For her ninth birthday, Catherine Opie asked for a camera, vowing to become a social documentary photographer. She got her wish and never looked back. Now a preeminent artist, the UCLA professor pushes the boundaries of the medium, drawing from Baroque and Renaissance painting as well as from the traditions of street photography. Her often startling images of empty freeways, planned communities, Wall Street, high school football players and more are exhibited throughout the U.S., Europe and Japan. Two recent Los Angeles exhibitions were stark color portraits of creative friends at the Hammer and images taken at the Bel-Air home of actress Elizabeth Taylor at MOCA.

What prompted your early interest in documentary photography?

I grew up in this small factory city, Sandusky, Ohio, on the edge of Lake Erie, surrounded by creativity. My father and grandfather owned a craft company and co-owned Prang Crayons and Watercolor. We always had artists and talk of art around the house. My grandfather had a darkroom in the basement. My dad took us to museums, and [what I saw] just seeped into my head. [In particular], Lewis Hine’s photographs of child labor really moved me. So I asked for a camera and told my parents I wanted to be a social documentary photographer.

And you got the camera?

Yes, a Kodak Retina, and I built my own darkroom with babysitting money when I was 14. I just kept going deeper and deeper and deeper into photography. Today, if you talk to my high school friends, they’ll say, “Cathy just made pictures.” Even in my senior portrait, I’m holding my camera.

After high school, you went to art school?

No. I went to Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Virginia, to study early childhood education. I was going to be a kindergarten teacher. But at Thanksgiving, I went to New York City to visit my dad’s high school sweetheart, Elinore Schnurr, who’s a painter, and she looked at the photographs I had made in Virginia and said, “You’re supposed to be an artist. You need to tell your parents you’re going to move to a major city and go to art school.”

So I told my mom I was applying to San Francisco Art Institute. She said she’d pay tuition, but that I had to figure everything else out on my own. I got in right away and worked at a residence club from 3 to 8 in the morning for my room and board, and at the YMCA after school to pay for my photo supplies. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and was named Most Outstanding Student of that year. Then I got into CalArts for grad school. After that I worked at a camera store and then went into teaching.

Your images are so powerful. How do you coax all that power from such a ubiquitous medium?

I’m very influenced by the history of painting, and one of the things people look at in my images is the aesthetics I choose to make photography luscious and really desirable, even if the subject matter might be tough. It’s the idea of desire being implanted within the work through light and framing and so forth. I think I really understand ideas of beauty and the history of aesthetics through painting, and I use those tropes to get people to stand before the images.

How do you begin a new body of work?

It’s important to start with a concept. I ask questions about the world we live in and how we build environment and community. Knowing from an early age that I was a lesbian at a time when homosexuality wasn’t accepted, I started to examine the discourse of ideas of difference. How do we image that, talk about it, theorize it? How do we find commonality in relationship to difference? I wanted to do it through photography; that’s what I was invested in. I start with making images that try to answer more complex ideas about who we are in relationship to humanity within society. Obviously, I want to make good images. But I want to dig deep, to be soulful and inquisitive, and create art that is not just of this time.

I’m always interested in repositioning the icon. We look at a mini-mall and say, “Oh, the worst architecture ever.” Or freeways — “Oh, I’m always stuck on the freeways.” But can we look at them differently? Can I aestheticize a freeway in a way that allows it to become a transformative space for us? I’m always mashing those things up and looking at how we recalibrate what we know and don’t know.

You shot a series of images of a planned community in Valencia, a Los Angeles suburb. What did you have in mind?

Master Plan is white flight from an urban center. How has this model of post–World War II 1950s suburbia redefined the way we look at the development of community? How does that kind of community — with paseos and cul-de-sacs and schools and the way it’s advertised — begin to define identity through its actual structure? I start with theoretical questions about our structured environment, and then view the body of work as sites of architecture as well. Certainly through my friends and tattooing and piercing, there’s an idea of architecting their own body or creating a site with their own body.

You have said you like to spark discourse. How do you do that?

Art creates a potential dialogue that traverses gender and all ages, all races. In a museum, people are looking and maybe telling their children what they see — or maybe the children are telling their parents what they see. Art enables us to see where we agree and what our differences are. It knocks down these walls we build, very intense ideas of what we think we know and how things should be. I want to bust through those things and create conversations that are more open-ended. Life is complicated, and representation is complicated. So let’s mix it up. Art can be confrontational, too — I’ve certainly made confrontational pieces in my life. But that also creates conversation.

Interviewers have said they expected me to be a mean, angry person. I said, “But my work isn’t angry. My work is about queers and visibility and seeing people.” But we think like, “OK, we better not talk to that person because she makes pretty radical work,” and it’s kind of judging a book by its cover. But why not think about coming together in society? We’re tribal as a species, so we need this coming together to try to build a better world.

Where do you go from here?

You keep making work. When an idea pops in, you try it. I have a big survey show that will open in 2017 in Oslo and travel to other countries. The portraits that were recently at the Hammer became more allegorical, and I was able to push a place of documentary photography so far that I’ll go back to that idea. I can pretty much do whatever I want, because I’ve always understood what light and photography do together.