The twenty-five large-format photographs that make up Katy Grannan's exhibition Boulevard, currently on view at the Fraenkel Gallery, are crisply detailed, color saturated, and immaculately composed. Technically, the series demonstrates Grannan's complete mastery of the medium, while the treatment of the subject matter is much more ambiguous. The artist selected socially marginalized people from the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles and photographed them outdoors against generic white stucco backgrounds under the harsh midday California sun.
The surface complexity of each portrait is visually arresting, engaging the viewer immediately on a visceral level. Her 4x5 view camera accentuates vivid details, such as the turquoise rings on an elderly man's right hand or the puckered wrinkles in a dour woman's chin. Subtle motifs of disarray repeat themselves through the series: the bright gaudy lipstick of elderly women is poorly applied, permanent stains mar worn clothing, mysterious scabs mark sallow cheeks, and filthy fingernails suggest a rough life. However, while the physical components of each individual are in plain view, the stories of the subjects are obscured.
Grannan is part of a group of female photographers who attended Yale University's MFA program in the late 1990s. She is notably influenced by two of her graduate school mentors, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Gregory Crewdson. DiCorcia's photographs of anonymous subjects in urban settings feature cinematic lighting, which lends significance to ordinary people. Crewdson's photographs are elaborately staged tableaus, banal scenes imbued with anxiety. Grannan is clearly indebted to her two professors: her photographs combine mundane reality with calculated theater. While diCorcia and Crewdson use artificial light, however, Grannan is able to achieve a similar effect with the intense midday California sun. In Boulevard, the posed photographs accentuated by the strong light convey a sense of high drama implicit in the everyday.
Anonymous, Los Angeles, 2008; Courtesy of the Artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
In Anonymous, San Francisco (2009), a person who identifies as a woman glares intently at a spot to the photographer's right. Her brow is furrowed in consternation, her cheeks are sunken, and her straight straw-colored hair is tied tightly up in a high ponytail. Layers of caked foundation cannot mask her chin stubble, and her icy blue eyes penetrate an unknown target. The portrait conveys a sense of gravity, but remains outside the viewer's sphere of understanding.
Grannan is often compared to Diane Arbus, famous for her controversial photographs of pariahs and freaks. While superficially closely linked to Arbus' portraits, Boulevard deviates from Arbus' approach simply in the artist's lack of connection with her subjects. In Arbus' photographs, the men, women, and children almost always stare straight into the camera. In Boulevard, only one person looks directly at the photographer, and many are even further shielded by a head scarf, sunglasses, hair, or a hat.
In Grannan's earlier projects with the transsexuals Dale and Gail, and with the San Francisco woman Nicole, the photographer constructed a narrative around the characters. She offered a window into the world of fascinating, flawed human beings, and the viewer empathized with the subjects and became invested in their stories. The photographs in Boulevard demand that viewers look closely at people who usually pass unnoticed on urban streets, but they do not encourage deeper reflection. The subjects are beautifully rendered in exquisite detail with all the care historically given to members of the upper class, but they are nevertheless still presented as the Other with no point of access.
But perhaps the anonymity of the socially marginalized is precisely Grannan's point. Each photograph bears the title "Anonymous" followed by "San Francisco" or "Los Angeles." Whether intentional or not, Grannan emphasizes the alienation of her subjects from mainstream society, focusing on physical details of their appearance while denying entry into their souls.
Boulevard is on view at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco through February 19, 2011. Katy Grannan's film The Believers will be screened continuously from noon until 7pm Wednesdays through Sundays at 1453 Valencia St., San Francisco. For more information visit fraenkelgallery.com.