Thursday, January 6, 2011


When I spoke about surprises in my recent Top Ten, I didn’t expect to be surprised so quickly and as dramatically as I was when I opened up an envelope from the Fraenkel Gallery to find a card with the image above on the cover announcing Katy Grannan’s new show (opening on Saturday in San Francisco). Do click on the image to see it in a larger size.

I’ve written admiringly about Katy Grannan before, but her new series, BOULEVARD, takes her work to a whole new level. As Fraenkel’s website describes the work, these pictures were made over the past three years in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Shooting against white stucco walls in strong midday light, the city streets became Grannan’s outdoor studio. The characters who populate Grannan’s Boulevards are a parade of down and outers and eccentrics – the lady above being (I think) an exception. But every picture is shot with mesmerizing intensity and shocking jolts of color.

What was most surprising to me, though, was that I normally HATE this type of photography. The passion for displaying photographs of low-lives and losers is so far from my aesthetic I can never understand how people could ever want to live with these kind of pictures. But to me Grannan’s photographs are about something else. First, they seem to belong more to the school of street observation in the tradition of Evans and Callahan and De Corcia than to the freak school of Arbus (who admittedly was a genius) and more recently Robert Bergman. Note how in Grannan’s pictures no-one is making direct eye contact with the camera. The subjects are aware they are being photographed, but they are more rooted in their own world and their own reality than the photographer's. Secondly, the color and light in these pictures is just extraordinary. It must have taken some technical expertise to get it just right. Lastly, there is a humanism in these pictures that makes them extraordinarily complex. Everyone seems to contain a story. Take the woman pictured above. Is she rich? Is she poor? Is she beautiful or ugly? Is she proud of her color co-ordination, her lipstick, her hair? Is her expression the result of a life well-lived or one of regrets? Whatever the answers, the pictures are masterpieces.

(FYI – there’s a wonderful large format catalog available for $45. Only 2000 were printed and they’ll probably sell out fast so hurry!)


Katharine said...

at first I thought I hated these photos but as I read your comments and kept looking I became engaged with them. They have a quality that brings to mind painting and take photography to a whole new level. Definitely will keep watching her work.

Anonymous said...

Katy's work reminds me of the work of Judith Joy Ross, except in color. Ordinary people in an ordinary setting without a trace of that overused word, "nobility". The subjects seem to be navigating through life just like the rest of us, the best way they can. No heroics. No glory. True life. Yep.

Joe Holmes said...

That's a terrific series -- great concept, well executed. And I know there's always a special, underappreciated social skill required to photograph strangers.

I hope you don't mind if I mention the NYC Xmas Tree Vendors series I shot last month Not that I'd compare my series to Katy Grannan’s, but the project made me acutely aware of how difficult it is to shoot strangers on the street in any interesting way. I'm so envious.

J. Wesley Brown said...

Her casting is indeed excellent. I can't wait to see this next week up in San Fran - top of my list. So simple but so good.

Anonymous said...

"low-lives and losers..."


what's your criteria for catagorizing someone as the above?

if it's possible to be a low-life loser, then I just might be one.

I love this blog

dan said...

yep, these are amazing. thanks for writing about them.. your insight is really valuable.

Anonymous said...

''The passion for displaying photographs of low-lives and losers is so far from my aesthetic I can never understand how people could ever want to live with these kind of pictures.''

Maybe the most controversial and unprovocative thing I've read this week. I'm absolutely bewildered.