The Archives: Katy Grannan
Sun reflecting off a blank background creates an indeterminate space. Women, men, children pose in front of void white, the illuminated extremes of their edges disappear in the glare, become pure light; shadows descend down the spectrum of their body, catch on their ridges and furrows, define their forms. Faces strain in the sunlight: skin between ear and nose is pulled taut over the skull, nostrils squint, lips are tugged upward into scowling M’s, wrinkle grids ripple out of quiet eyes. In the ambiguity of the space, these bodies become their own background and foreground, their own context, features coming into definition out of themselves. The focus is on the terrain of the subjects’ faces and bodies: the bare spaces between curling patches of hair, hills of bone and muscle and the valleys between, skin smooth and rough, tight and slack.
The photographs are more than portraits, they are landscapes. Not just that they track the landscape of the subjects’ features, but in doing so these photographs build a landscape of California’s Central Valley, where the subjects reside. This region of Agricultural America, shifting annually between the dry desert heat of summer and flood frequented rainy season, when the Tule Fog drifts into the valley and obscures vision, a season of sight and a season of blindness, leaves its thumb print a reverse landscape on the people who populate it. But amidst the forces of age, of weather, of gravity that press them into the Earth, there are signs on these individuals’ bodies of movement in the opposite direction, toward an apex of individuality, an assertion of identity.
The series is Katy Grannan’s The Ninety Nine. The title refers to Highway 99, which runs the length of central California. Like her previous series Boulevard, she photographs her subjects in front of white city walls. There is a certain continuity in the subjects to whom Grannan is drawn: a roughness, a rich physical vocabulary, a high level of expressiveness. Where most of the subjects of Boulevard were from L.A. or San Francisco, these subjects reside outside these metropolitan hubs, and there is noticeably less urban theatricality in the subjects of Ninety Nine compared with their Boulevard counterparts. The subjects of Ninety Nine come from Bakersfield, Modesto, Fresno; towns that the hopeful L.A. bound pass over without so much as peripheral acknowledgement. It is only the town names that identify the individuals,all of whom are otherwise credited as “Anonymous;” an inversion of the photographs themselves, where it is the cities that are anonymous, and the figure that is the focus of attention.
Anonymity is something of an obsession for Grannan. Aside from The Ninety Nine and Boulevard, both of which find her approaching strangers on the street for portraits, her earlier work, The Model American had her finding subjects by placing an ad in the newspaper. Those who responded were not professional models. Like with any other personals ad, the responses were from those seeking the focused attention of some Eye, some fixated, infatuated gaze to lift their shape out of the white void of routine. Grannan, in placing the ad, is on the opposite end of the relationship: legitimization and consummation sought in the act of seeing, in the choice of who is seen.
Read the full article in our 11th Issue Vanity here