In the late nineties, Katy Grannan began making haunting photographs of people who had extraordinary inner yens to be seen by strangers. She placed ads in local papers that read, “Artist/photographer (female) seeks people for portraits.” Subjects called; she let them pose any way they wanted. The results show young women naked and alone in their parents’ homes; a girl in a prom dress with a cockatoo sitting on her hand; couples staring blankly at the camera; a man in a park with an erection. A flawed American family.
Since then she’s moved from New York to Berkeley. She’s still taking pictures of people she meets, although she no longer places ads. The surrealism and voyeurism are gone. Where Grannan once seemed at a remove, now she’s more involved and vulnerable. For her current two-gallery show, Grannan has pointed her camera into the abyss between aspiration and actuality -- what Diane Arbus famously called “the gap between intention and effect.” In her intensely frontal forensic portraits, we see familiar yet still strange Americana. On Hollywood Boulevard and in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Grannan’s subjects again pose as they wish, directing the picture, riveting our gaze. She shows us prisoners of the street, celebrity impersonators, addicts, drag queens, born-again Christians, outcasts and others baked pitilessly by the annihilating noonday sun.
Grannan’s sun-bleached images depict the timeworn American dream of going West and reinventing oneself. Only here the dreams have turned out to be too big, or America too small, or nature too relentless, and they haven’t worked out. We see someone -- a man? A woman? -- with thinning hair and stained ruby-red pantsuit, clutch in hand, looking at once too turned-out and tellingly shabby. A blond in a white skirt, carrying a beaded purse, has large hands and muscular puckered knees, and seems caught in his own headlights. A Marilyn Monroe smiles with all the helplessness and need of the real thing. A black man in a black cowboy hat has an oxygen tube running up to his nose -- you think, Dead man walking. A shirtless man with a large chest tattoo reading FUCK LAPD grasps two white bunnies.
Initially, it’s hard not to see Grannan’s pictures as more photographs of slumming losers, one more batch of people from the ever-present-yet-still-hidden sub-world of drifters, gypsies, former dancers and outlaws, all of them staring formulaically into the lens. Yet Grannan knows many of her subjects and has photographed some of them for years, repeatedly returning to her locations. In the process, she becomes a sort of Charles Bukowski with a camera, a poet of the down-and-out who allows us to see these people as they see themselves.
I see nobility and yearning. But also something off-putting: a tyrannically controlling self-centeredness. Each of these people wants to be him- or herself by being something else -- another gender, a different age, a famous person. Every move they make, every article of clothing, every look is a wish into an image. Each is unique, yet similarly melancholy; misfortune, anger, and luck of the draw echoes in these leopards of regret. In The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West writes of those who’ve been “cheated and betrayed … slaved and saved for nothing.” W. H. Auden said people like this suffered from “West’s Disease”; that is, they were “incapable of converting wishes into desires.” That’s what I see in these pictures. Repression pulses beneath their skin. These are human larvae with raw nerves, people who can’t hide their inner lives.
I can’t tell the gender in most of these pictures, and that really threw me. Grannan turned me into a spying machine, a sun burning these people with my warping gaze, glaring at their physiognomy, bone structure, clothing, skin, muscle tone and hair. I suddenly realized: Looks can kill.
Katy Grannan, “The Happy Ever After: The Believers and Boulevard Series”: “The Believers,” Apr. 1-May 4, 2011, Salon 94 Bowery, 243 Bowery, New York, N.Y., 10002; “Boulevard,” Apr. 1-May 14, 2011, Salon 94 Freeman’s, 1 Freeman Alley, New York, N.Y., 10002.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.