Katy Grannan's street people
Boulevard series takes an alternative look at outsiders in America
The photographer's skill in finding and focussing on the outsider in society and bringing their world into ours - for however brief an instant - is one we never cease to admire (especially in the hands of masters of the art such as Roger Ballen, Steve McCurry and Diane Arbus. So we were intrigued when we came across some previously unexhibited large-scale portraits of American street people, captured in glaring sunlight against white, stuccoed walls in a London gallery this week.
Born in Arlington, Massachusetts in 1969, Grannan earned a BA at the University of Pennsylvania before attending Yale's prestigious MFA programme, from which she graduated in 1999. Early series focussed on discovered subjects – found models met via local newspapers in which she would place hopeful ads. "Artist/photographer (female) seeks people for portrait," her anonymous text would read, and then "no experience needed." In the case of Model American, a breakthrough series completed in the mid-2000s featuring everyday people in various stages of undress, Grannan conducted portraits in her subject's own home, noting the importance of the model's physical environment – the furniture, the wallpaper, the surrounding detritus of private life – as a key element of an individual's character.
The Boulevard Series, though, is Grannan out in the world, on the sun-bleached streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, her subjects local passers by approached and quickly documented - the interaction brief but insightful. "My photographs are vignettes," she told The New Yorker recently, "but they’re not just about the specific person in the picture – the narrative includes the unseen exchange between artist and subject who are often strangers meeting for the first time, each taking a leap of faith by trusting an unfamiliar person and an unexpected encounter. In the past, I photographed people in their homes or in deserted outdoor spaces, but in Los Angeles and San Francisco, we met on the street and made the photographs street side, in public."
That a relationship between photographer and subject has been formed – consent offered, a position agreed – makes us think that claims Boulevard is traditional street photography are wide of the mark. And so too, for the same reason, are comparison's with American great Dianne Arbus. Grannan's portraits contain, alongside obvious disappointment, a kind of subtle optimism. Despite their unflinching honesty, despite every sun-induced liver spot, every piece of sagging flesh on display, they refuse to focus wholly on the negative, instead providing the opportunity for a more complete story to surface – the good times and the bad, the joy and the despair. If you're in London at the moment you can see them as part of a group show Out of Focus at Saatchi Gallery. And be sure to check out some of Grannan's earlier excellent work, The Mystic Lake series, in Vitamin PH.