Katy Grannan, Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2014, ink-jet print, 58 1/4 × 44 1/2". From the series “The Ninety Nine,” 2011–.

Katy Grannan, Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2014, ink-jet print, 58 1/4 × 44 1/2". From the series “The Ninety Nine,” 2011–.

Katy Grannan

Sherrick & Paul

Katy Grannan, Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2014, ink-jet print, 58 1/4 × 44 1/2". From the series “The Ninety Nine,” 2011–.

Katy Grannan’s photographs in “The Ninety Nine and the Nine” captured the bleak geography along Highway 99, a road connecting Fresno, Modesto, and other mostly unbeautiful, sometimes destitute cities in California’s Central Valley. Culled from two series that jointly provided the show’s title, these photos took us beyond the usual clichés of California as a land of broken dreams; there were no lonely palm trees here, or vacant swimming pools. In her series “The Nine,” 2011–, Grannan presents large-scale, grainy, black-and-white landscape shots of highways, scrubby hills, church walls, and parking lots. The human figures in these mostly depopulated scenes are dwarfed by the vast surrounding streetscapes, with the exception of Wanda Stands Alone Under 9th Street Bridge, 2014—a striking night view in which a pair of bare, muscular, high-heeled legs are illuminated against a mostly black composition. The legs are lit from the side, presumably by car headlights. This stark photograph, which wrests from its subject any agency over her own image, colludes in the traffic in women’s bodies that the work apparently documents. But its unusual framing, featuring an ocean of inky black, hints at another narrative, conveying featuring its shadowy depths all the sorrow and violence surrounding this vulnerable femininity.

The show’s most arresting images, interspersed among the three black-and-white tableaux, were Grannan’s portraits. “The Ninety Nine,” 2011–, a series of massive color photographs, portrays mostly anonymous subjects whose hard lives are etched into their faces. The profiles, shot against washed-out white backgrounds, evoke Richard Avedon’s celebrity portraiture (perhaps by way of Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl farmers). But unlike the pristine white studio backdrops of Avedon’s portraits, Grannan’s white backgrounds are made of stucco, concrete, and broken wood. Her photos capture moments of self-expression seized in inhospitable places, under a harsh noon light.

And, unlike Lange’s iconic Depression-era portraits, these giant close-ups monumentalize their subjects without quite ennobling them. In loud, vibrant colors, we see unusual tattoos, inexpertly dyed hair, pockmarked skin, and pancaked foundation on young and no longer young faces. In Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2012, the subtle beauty of sunlight dappling a teenage girl’s dyed hair contrasts sharply with the unsightliness of her blemished skin and overdone makeup. In another portrait, also titled Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2014, an indigent man whose lazy eye gives his face a riveting asymmetry wears a button pinned to his knitted hat declaring I’M NOT STRANGE / YOU ARE. Maybe any face becomes grotesque when you enlarge it enough, but these portraits reveal an abjection with all-too-apparent socioeconomic roots. The flaws magnified here are both poignant and freakish, expressive of profound human idiosyncrasy. And there is beauty here, too. In Anonymous, Los Angeles, 2010, a shirtless man at first repels the viewer with his extreme web of tattoos, including one of a scorpion that curls around one of his eye sockets. But further inspection reveals a perfect turn of light along his veins, a marvelous undergirding for the gallery of his illustrated skin. The artist lends a note of grace to a figure who has, perhaps, never had much of it bestowed upon him.

“The Ninety Nine and the Nine” offered a rigorous, rich, and disturbing look at impoverished life under the bridge, or across the highway. On Grannan’s website, one can find a stirring three-minute preview for The Nine, a documentary slated for release next year that promises to unite once again the artist’s keen formal eye with empathetic portrayals of her marginalized subjects. It will no doubt be moving to hear these subjects speak and to witness the dynamic reality of their lives, as captured by Grannan’s camera.

Rachel Teukolsky