Katy Grannan went west for the same reasons so many artists in the past have sought the terminal coast—for difference, distance, and the revelatory light. That’s the implication of her latest series, Boulevard, on view at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery from January 6 to February 19, and at Salon 94 Bowery in New York from March 31 to April 30. In the past Grannan was known almost as much for her strategy behind the camera as for the arresting portraits she made of the people in front of it. Taking up residence in California several years ago seems to have changed all that. Where once she solicited a theatricality from her subjects by placing ads in local papers and collaborating in self-presentations with the people who answered, now she elicits it, content to let the naked, apparitional quality of human appearance emerge through the miraculous agency of California light. Her subjects for Boulevard were photographed on the streets in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Unlike her previous portraits, these subjects have no names and are accompanied by no narratives. They are their stories, sculpted in all their eccentric singularity out of the featureless streetscape by a relentless sun. Where did they come from? Where have they been? Jeffrey Fraenkel points us toward the wonder of this singularity, this history-that-is-the-surface, in reference to our cover image, a woman with an almost unimaginably wrinkled face. It is as if every incident of her life were inscribed on her skin, in a language she has no wish to conceal, only to embellish with her lipstick. “The light Grannan captures describes everything,” he says, “every line, every button, every detail of her clothing, even the light reflected in her eyes. Her face holds nothing back, withholds nothing.” It is a landscape, a continent, a world. Grannan’s parents were morticians, and there has been a tendency to read much into that, including a fascination with bodies that hover between fullness and decay. On the boulevard, however, people
wear their experience; it is alive and written in the depredations of their bodies—in lines, emaciation, tattoos, and by metaphoric extension in their clothes. This is the ambience of the street, always slightly seedy, an unpredictable mix of high and low, of self-conscious projection and complete self-absorption. But in the face of it, Grannan seems to have entered a new maturity—Fraenkel calls it “courageous.” Her interest seems to have shifted from the fact that people deny their conditions to the miraculous fact that they exist at all. The evidence of that miracle is as clear as the light reflected in the elderly woman’s eye. In these versions of the portrait, the camera does not collaborate but witnesses and notes. It is sympathetic in its pitilessness, loving in its relentless attention. It accepts the fact that illusion collides with stark reality in people’s lives, that their fate is universal and too often unremarked. It focuses light to offer a benediction.