San Francisco

Katy Grannan, Anonymous, San Francisco, 2009, color photograph mounted on Plexiglas, 26 x 19 1/2".

Katy Grannan, Anonymous, San Francisco, 2009, color photograph mounted on Plexiglas, 26 x 19 1/2".

Katy Grannan

Fraenkel Gallery

Katy Grannan, Anonymous, San Francisco, 2009, color photograph mounted on Plexiglas, 26 x 19 1/2".

With “Boulevard,” her latest exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery, Katy Grannan continues her subtle subversion of the idioms and codes of portraiture, a titillating project that has invariably drawn her to the marginal and marginalized, documenting an ever-expanding cast of offbeat characters and social outcasts ranging from the banal to the poignantly strange. As in previous work, Grannan’s images traffic in a poetic awkwardness that stops just short of the grotesque, and it is this finely honed sensibility—which mixes prurience and detached observation—that has positioned Grannan, rightfully or not, as the heir apparent to Diane Arbus. The show’s press release does little to dispel the connection, lasciviously touting the artist’s new series of “hustlers, strutters, addicts and beauty queens” captured on the streets of Los Angeles and in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Equipped with a Hasselblad and a keen eye for the poetically downtrodden, Grannan captured chance encounters with the street’s more colorful denizens under the unforgiving light of the midday sun. The photographs are stark, more or less frontal, and almost forensic in their clarity. Despite the presence of rich, saturated colors and an overabundance of quirky details, there is a blankness to each of these snapshots, a refusal of direct signification, a mere hinting at unspoken histories.

Though enigmatic, these photographs offer a specificity that cannot help but invite social critique: a black man, fingers ringed with heavy turquoise Navajo jewelry, bears respiratory tubing; a blonde woman, thumb hooked around one strap of her dirty black tank top, reveals a tattoo near her fleshy armpit. In such moments, Avedon’s epic series “In the American West,” 1979–84, seems an undeniable referent. It’s as though Grannan has reimagined the project for a contemporary context, trading in the western expanse for the city streets, replacing the heroic scale of large-format eight-by-ten-inch negatives with the slippery gloss of a digital file. Like Avedon, Grannan is a masterful casting agent, and the pathos and theatricality of her subjects are maximized by the liminal urban spaces in which she shoots them. In turn, her endeavor carries ambiguous political implications that, presumably, the artist is not only aware of, but actively exploits. At its most compelling, Grannan’s work uses minute detail less as an ethnographic index than as a mirror reflecting the mannered exigencies of the social costumes each of us wears every day. The image of an older Marilyn impersonator, fully made up, furrowing her brow under the beating sun, perhaps speaks to this—if all too easily.

Ultimately, though, Grannan distances us from her subjects, revealing only their surfaces, however eccentric-looking or idiosyncratically adorned. And, by underscoring this divide—between subject and viewer, interior and exterior—Grannan grapples with the history of street photography, from Walker Evans to Philip-Lorca diCorcia. It is a largely male lineage, and by positioning herself within the genre, Grannan lays bare both its mechanisms and limitations. From her debut in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Grannan has cultivated an acute awareness of the exchange between sitter and photographer, always seeking to expose the performance on both sides of the lens. Her approach foils any easy comparison to Arbus, aligning Grannan instead with her early peers Dana Hoey and Justine Kurland, among other photographers who came of age in the ’90s. In “Boulevard,” one body packages itself for display only to be reconfigured by the lens of another. In turn, reportage is cast not as fact, but as an unstable process wherein social truths are divined only by negotiating ever-shifting layers of artifice, fantasy, and projection.

Franklin Melendez