Thursday, May 08, 2014

The 99 and The 9 by Katy Grannan

My review of The 99 and The 9 by Katy Grannan (Fraenkel Gallery/Salon 94, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can read the review here and get the book here.

Despite its fertility and proximity to the wealth of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California’s Central Valley has long been an area of entrenched poverty — an area to be driven past on the way to somewhere much less celebrated or visited. Long since overshadowed by the multilane RT-5, CA-99 cuts through the Valley and was once a major thoroughfare. Beginning in the area south of Bakersfield, the highway links the often-overlooked ‘Valley Towns’ of Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and others. For photographers, the region was made famous by Dorthea Lange who took her iconic image, Migrant Mother, in the area, and gathered the material for An American Exodus, her book with Paul Lange, which focused on the migrants drawn to the Central Valley during the Great Depression. Inspired in part by Lange, and building on her own work in California since 2006, Katy Grannan’s two-volume book, The 99 and The 9, explores the region and its inhabitants through a series of unsettling and evocative color portraits and black & white landscapes.

 All images © Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery, 2014
  All images © Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery, 2014

The two books, although linked and housed in a single slipcase, are markedly different. The 99, which refers to the aforementioned highway, is a series of large-scale color portraits shot against the ready-made studio backdrop of a white stucco wall and under the harsh noon sun. The 9, a series of black and white landscapes and cityscapes, refers to Modesto’s South 9th Street, an impoverished and crime-ridden street where many of the pictures from the book were taken. The expansive wide-angled shots often depict people bathing and wading in, as well as resting by the Tuoumne River, fighting in motel parking lots, and wandering city streets. Interspersed with aerial shots of the car-laden highways cutting through the verdant cropland, these images further emphasize the geographic isolation of the landscape and give a larger context to the lives of the people depicted in both series.

Like a cast of characters, the stark and isolated portraits of The 99 appear as though they were plucked from the images in The 9 and in some cases they were. More narrative in structure and content, The 9 is also the only the book to contain text. Beginning with W.B. Yeat’s apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, the book also contains a series of fragmented statements that are largely religious in tone and seemingly drawn from interviews and discussions with the book’s subjects. Tinged with hope, yet also tempered with disappointment, the voices long for a life free of hardship.

  All images © Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery, 2014

Religious themes are present throughout the two books. One image shows a mural of Christ’s outstretched palms marked with stigmata, while another shows a woman and daughter whose pose recalls the Madonna and child. The river, a reoccurring character in The 9, also suggests baptism. People are shown bathing and wading through the river or lounging on its banks. Interspersed throughout are more troubling scenes of the hard lives lived in the areas. Fights breakout in parking lots over money and the guarded poses of women in the shadows suggests more illicit trade. There are also the harsh realities of the urban landscape that surrounds and haunts the people — cheap motels, barbed wire and ugly commercial strips. However polluted the waters may be, the river offers some measure of solace and escape from inescapable and harsh realities of the people's lives.

 All images © Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery, 2014

Similar to the work Grannan did in her recent book Boulevard, the portraits contain more than a passing resemblance to Richard Avedon’s famous work In The American West. An obvious homage, the work shares Avedon’s stark aesthetic and Western locale, but differs somewhat in tone. More theatrical than Avedon’s famous work, the people offer guarded and at times resigned postures for the camera. Given the religious overtones of The 9, I could not help but draw comparisons between her portraits and religious iconography of saints and holy men. Like the saints, Grannan’s subjects not only assume dignified and classical poses, but are also stripped bare, their characteristic scars exposed. Simultaneously signifiers of authenticity and a kind of armor, the wounds, tattoos, and make-up are evidence of their hard lives. Although intentionally left anonymous, many of the people are close friends of Grannan’s and have reappeared in her images over the years as subjects and collaborators.

From her breakthrough images of Poughkeepsie Journal and Model America to her recent work in California, Grannan has made a career of exploring the uncomfortable truths of portraiture — the desire to look, to be seen, and the gap, so brilliantly described by Arbus, between intention and effect. Like her recent book The Westerns, The 99 and The 9 continues Grannan’s move into a more expansive territory. Interestingly, Grannan has also released a trailer for her first feature-film, The 9, due next year. Based on the same subject as the book, the movie appears just as haunting and unsettling as her images. In both her photos and videos to date, Grannan’s work offers us a glimpse into the secret, forgotten or ignored lives of people on society’s margins, not only revealing moments of dignity, heartbreak and perseverance, but also reminding us all that fate and circumstances could have dealt us a very different hand.

Please note: This review originally appeared on May 8th, 2014 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.