Katy Grannan The Westernsby Tessa DeCarlo
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco | January 3 – February 9, 2008
Like many Easterners who’ve been uprooted to California, photographer Katy Grannan has found herself simultaneously unsettled and ensnared by the Golden State’s seductive sunshine and mania for personal transformation. That unease and fascination brilliantly inform her latest series of pictures, which are on view in galleries in both San Francisco and New York.
Grannan grew up in the Boston area, and her first widely noticed work was a group of portraits of young women in upstate New York whose lives and dreams were in many ways similar to Grannan’s own. Next Grannan expanded her focus to include men and women of varying ages and backgrounds in a variety of Northeast venues, people who’d answered ads she ran seeking models, “no experience necessary.” Pictures from the “Model American” project were included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Like her earlier work, these photographs are lovely, steeped in pathos, darkly comic, and throbbing with unexpected intimacy in a way that reminded many of the work of Diane Arbus.
Since moving to California a few years ago, Grannan has chosen to go deeper, approaching people to ask if they’ll model for her and, if they’re willing, taking multiple pictures of them over months and even years. The results are sensational, in the best sense of the word.
On view at Salon 94 Freemans, New York, is a group of large, light-drenched color photographs of two middle-aged transsexuals. Looking more like grandmas than drag queens, Dale and Gail play out their new gender identities for Grannan’s camera, dramatizing the human need to be seen, to be identified, to connect.
A second group is on view uptown at Greenberg Van Doren. Also large, in color, and bathed in relentless California light, these photographs depict a woman named Nicole in a variety of poses and outfits, looking like a playful young girl in one picture, a zonked-out hard case in another.
Where the pictures of Dale and Gail expose the intransigent continuity of our personalities, despite all our attempts to become someone else, those of Nicole underline the impossibility of capturing anyone’s essence in even the most revealing photograph. Nicole’s age, life story, and even gender seem to change from one image to the next, and we sense it’s not because she’s attempting to elude the viewer but because her combustible personality keeps flickering and flaring in different directions. Only her tattoos and her wild energy remain constant.
Fraenkel in San Francisco is showing selections from both groups, along with several riveting pictures of other Californians. To me, Fraenkel’s format is preferable to that of the single-subject shows in New York, insofar as the mix of images encourages us to spend more time pondering Grannan’s artistry than wondering about her models.
During an informal gallery talk at Fraenkel a few days after her show opened, Grannan noted that its title, The Westerns, reflects her notion that “each picture is a short story about the West.” Certainly the San Francisco show’s diversity of subjects—here the androgynous, beruffled Gail crouched at the edge of a cliff, here Nicole, awkwardly nude on jagged rocks, over there an elderly man clutching at his bright red robe and glaring into the void—highlights the photographs’ drama, reminiscent of film stills or old-school history painting.
Usually when we see photographs this large and luminous, the people in them are movie stars, celebrities, or other professional impersonators of a specific kind of physical or social ideal. It’s only in an art gallery that we’re likely to come upon big, gorgeous pictures showing people as odd and unbeautiful and anonymous as we ourselves mostly are. As a result, our first impression can be that the people looking out at us from Grannan’s photographs are freakish or ridiculous, and to impute to the photographer the anxious antipathy that the sight of all this unvarnished humanity awakens in our own hearts.
The self-exposure of the people in these pictures—discomfiting to us, if not to them—undeniably adds force to Grannan’s work. But her latest photographs’ real power derives from the opposite of distance and disdain. They glow with emotional generosity and tenderness, with the intensity of the relationship between photographer and subject and, by extension, with us.
“I’m utterly drawn to them, fascinated,” Grannan said of Nicole, Gail, Dale and the others. “Love would not be too strong a word, for those I’ve really gotten to know.” Working with the same models over and over, often many times a week, “creates a much greater likelihood of incredible things happening,” she added. In these visually and emotionally compelling photographs, incredible things are very much in evidence.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.