Boulevard: An interview with Katy Grannan
January 20, 2011, by Seth Curico, Daily Serving
Roaming the streets of a metropolitan area, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of urban architecture and the number of individuals that occupy the space. So often, the individual gets lost in the equation; attention is turned to the sum over the parts. For the past three years, San Francisco-based photographer Katy Grannan has walked the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco observing what many choose to overlook — subjects for whom life has been hard and despair has been plenty. Working within the grand tradition of portraiture, Grannan has selected a wide range of subjects for her recent body of work, Boulevard, which is currently on view at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. Grannan turns the city into her studio, shooting each subject on a variety of white surfaces found on location. Relying only on the strong California light and a stark white backdrop, the physicality of her chosen subjects open a myriad of narrative possibilities that simultaneously evoke hardship and optimism. I recently spoke with the artist about the series, Boulevard, her upcoming film project, The Believers, and the shared history between the viewer and her subjects.
Seth Curcio: The portraits in your new series Boulevard are striking in their simplicity. Yet, given the reductive context, each photograph speaks volumes about the subject. The physical qualities of the individual make evident their distance to the what most call the American dream. With the narrative possibilities being so strong, I wonder what are the guiding principles used to select your subjects?
Katy Grannan: It’s difficult to explain what makes someone especially interesting to me – it’s a combination of personality, spirit, and their actual, physical being. These photographs, as you mentioned, are so reductive – photographic description and detail is virtually all there is – & hopefully physical description becomes illuminating on another, psychological level. It’s important that the photograph describes a particular subject, but it also has to speak to something much larger, so that the viewer has the sense of a shared history; they’re portraits of all of us.
SC: Its interesting that you mention photographic description and detail being all that is available to the viewer. Given the reduction of image context, light becomes an even more prominent component in this work than in earlier series and remains consistent, as each figure is illuminated on a stark white ground. This purity of light is something that is evocative of the west and California in particular. Do you view the light as a metaphor? Something that is simultaneously seductive and revealing?
KG: Yes, certainly. It was the first thing I observed when I moved to California. The light is so seductive and comforting, and at the same time it kills everything – nothing stays green very long – and the light can be relentless and indiscriminate. It illuminates everything, everyone.
SC: Each of the portraits speaks to how the ideals of a particular city can physically wear on the subject. It seems that this is most evident in your portraits from LA, as the city has come to represent celebrity and wealth, while its reality is often much darker. It seems like the vain pursuit of beauty has worn physically on many of the subjects, leaving little more than the residue of longing for an unobtainable dream. Yet, there is a persistent optimism that runs through the series.
KG: I’m glad you mentioned optimism. I definitely did not want the series to be a parade of despair, nor am I interested in smiley happy people (family photo albums are already filled with those pictures – this has always irritated me). Each one of these photographs is like a short story and part of that narrative, of course, is the part where they’re working with me to make a photograph on the spot, right after we’ve met. The dynamic is different every time, but it’s almost always a lot of fun. People really get into it, and it requires a generosity and openness to be part of this process, to dance on the sidewalk in front of traffic, to wave at strangers honking. And I love the spirit of someone like the eighty year old woman who still wears bright lipstick and eyeliner – she deserves to feel gorgeous, and she is. Or the eighty year old man that handed me his business card that read “International Playboy.” These are the people I want to know better. But of course, all of our histories are complex – there is disappointment, shame, loneliness, and there’s also joy. I want all of it to exist, messily and awkwardly, in the photographs. Because that’s life.
SC: Have there been any personal stories shared with you by your subjects that you find particularly captivating?
KG: Yes, almost everyone shares a lot with me. Each one is like a story from The Dubliners or Chekhov. A few women spoke to me about having a nervous breakdown after they had kids and their husband didn’t help out, then rejected them after their breakdown. Now they’re alone; they were never able to fully recover. I see them as especially sensitive women – they’re not crazy or strange, they’re women who are vulnerable and sensitive and who live every day knowing their kids are out there somewhere, and these kids might never know that their moms did try, but it was just too much.
I’ve made several good friends – Nicole, Melissa, and Linda are three women that I spend a lot of time with, and whom I’ve also filmed for the past year.
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Soho Nights and Katy Grannan: The Westerns
Sunday 28th December, 2008, Sean O’ Hagan, The Observer
The Photographers' Gallery has inaugurated its new, bigger, brighter space on Ramillies Street in central London with two contrasting shows; one nostalgic, one utterly contemporary. The first is Soho Nights, part of an ongoing series of linked exhibitions taken from the gallery's archives. Curated by Val Williams and Bob Pullen, it is a celebration of Soho's subterranean nightlife from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Many of the images here were originally used to illustrate articles in Picture Post magazine and possess the innocent energy of social reportage from that era. Photographers such as the great Thurston Hopkins capture a Soho of thriving coffee bars and after-hours clubs, many of which have long since disappeared, even if the kinds of nefarious character that haunted them can still be glimpsed in various drinking dens in the early hours. You may also recognise some enduring establishments like the French House, which seems to have surrendered little of its bohemian charm in the interim.
The biggest surprise is a series of snatched intimate portraits of dancers in the Cat's Whisker coffee bar taken by then-fledgling filmmaker Ken Russell. He captures the frenetic atmosphere of a joint that is so packed that the teenage clientele only have room to do the hand jive, an elaborate series of gestures immortalised in song by Johnny Otis in his 1958 hit, Willie and the Hand Jive, which is nowhere near as rude as its title suggests. Blessedly, Ken's black and white photographs possess none of the baroque indulgence of his later films.
Upstairs in the main gallery, Katy Grannan's big colour portraits of a pair of middle-aged American transsexuals, Gail and Dale, seem to have been made on another planet. Grannan is one of a new breed of portraitists who take their cue from the transgressive work of the likes of Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. There is something of William Eggleston too in her use of colour to suggest altered states of mind. Here she has captured the harsh, unsparing natural light of the American west, which illuminates her subjects' otherness even more. Gail and Dale possess what Grannan describes as "a very romantic notion of themselves", which is putting it mildly, and seem content to comply with her exaggerated rendering of the same. The result is both disturbing and oddly affecting, and calls to mind Warhol's images of the drag queens and so-called superstars who congregated in the Factory in the late 1960s as well as certain more traditional portraits of ageing film stars - Mae West springs to mind - marooned in a culture that no longer has a place for them. This is a very Californian show in more ways than one, then.
Grannan's other subject here is a woman called Nicole, who seems quite mad. In one or two portraits she poses like a typical Hollywood starlet from the 50s, in others she looks like a whacked-out junkie. Another image that again recalls Eggleston's work captures her lying on a grassy hill, seemingly trying to divest herself of her shroud-like dress, which is gathered around her thighs. In yet another shot she is a blur of motion on a bed, either having a self-induced orgasm or a fit of some kind. What does it all mean? Whatever, Nicole's wild and unsettling poses - part learnt (model) behaviour, part deranged posturing - are the polar opposite of Gail's and Dale's passive compliance with Grannan's lens. Both subjects offer exaggerated ideas of femininity and otherness, and seem implicitly linked to their setting, the mythical American West which offers limitless possibility for self-reinvention. Here, though, the various models of female stardom are mimicked and distorted.
Grannan's title, The Westerns, is also resonant, accidentally or otherwise, of Richard Avedon's extraordinary series of portraits of workers, published in his seminal book Into The American West. Whereas Avedon's stark ultra-realism spoke of grit and grim determination, Grannan's sun-bleached, artfully staged portraits depict a kind of heightened reality, one infused by dreams of self-reinvention that have nothing to do with toil and labour but are determined by desire and perhaps desperation. There is something irrevocably sad in these images that often stop just short of the grotesque. Here, the warm Californian sun is unforgiveable, the landscape a place of deferred promise.
Like Arbus, Grannan possesses an empathy with her sitters and, in an accompanying video, talks of her work as a kind of collaboration, expressing the hope that people do not view her subjects "in a judgmental way" simply as "the other". Which is all well and good except that their otherness is at the root of her interest in them, and cannot help but be amplified by the camera.
For all that, Grannan's work is never less than intriguing. At best, there is an otherworldliness here that sets her apart from her influences, and continues the theme that underpinned her first conceptual series, Model Photographs, a decade ago. Then, she highlighted the everyday strangeness of middle America in portraits of ordinary people in their local environments, and managed to suggest a collective repressed anxiety lurking beneath. Here, it is as if California, and all its undercurrents of desperation, has defined her subjects to the point where they exist entirely in a world of their own making. All they really needed was an image-maker to come along and make their fantasies real - or even more unreal.
In this, Katy Grannan has certainly succeeded.
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