”The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.“
My first encounter with the portraits that make up Katy Grannan’s Boulevard left a scar. What is most evident and affecting about them as a group is unquestionably the unrelenting sharpness of light, the muscular contrast thrown off by figures bathed in such bright white luminescence… So little besides these people pierces the frames of her portraits that the near snow-blind brightness becomes a sheath, or at times a shroud in which she envelops each subject. I say subject, but the intimate and powerful photographic embrace in which she depicts each individual must make them sitters. They have indeed been discovered and photographed on the street, but each image evinces such trust and understanding between photographer and subject that the portraits evoke the encounter as a sitting and not a snapshot – as a collaboration in which nothing has been stolen, so much as shared. Each portrait feels like the crystallisation of a fleeting, intense, electric connection.
“The photographic image presents the encounter neither from the perspective of the photographer nor from that of the photographed; it is an image obtained from the encounter itself.“
The portraits left a mark in part because of the depth of generosity that characterises them. These are unquestionably people living at the margins of our glamourous jamboree, trudging or wandering along streets far distant from the bright lights of California’s main stage. They are also unquestionably descendants of a long trail of dreamers and dream-seekers who have made it to the outer limits of the American West. But when one imagines how these portraits must have been made, against the perpetual din of traffic, between delicatessen, bus stop and highway, it is clear that something was offered without hope of reward or promise of grace – offered simply in keeping with the virtue of affirming that I too was here, and am grateful for the recognition. Grannan’s sitters offer themselves up unprepared, in the harsh light of the day, and proffer both their identities and their eccentricities with such frankness as to make any cynicism seem capricious.
Formally, the portraits recall Richard Avedon’s famous, and for some infamous work in the book In The American West. This reference, and the instinctual, reflexive turn toward it is an unavoidable and perhaps Pavolvian response. But it seems to me Avedon’s work is a poor measure for the nature of Grannan’s photographs. Both works share an unbridled fascination with the intermarriage of the mythical American West with the certain strangeness that it elicits and attracts, and also with the wealth of fractured hopes and aspirations that it has left in its wake. Both works seeks to somehow illuminate the landscape of the West in the bodily traces of those who have sought it, or found themselves living in it. But Avedon’s brilliant white frame is a stage first and foremost for himself and his work, works as a stage principally for an Avedon image, while Grannan’s white frame is of and in and from the places in which she has found her sitters – is of the West she has been seeking.
I would argue that a finer measure of the spirit of Grannan’s work is the portraiture of Robert Bergman, whose pictures were aptly described by David Levi Strauss in his comparison between Bergman and Robert Frank: “What Bergman’s photographs have in common with Frank’s is that they are intuitive recognitions rather than formalist constructions. Both of these artists go looking for something in the world and discover “otherwise ignored qualities of the person and the environment” and “hidden moments of feeling.” When we look at their images, we are put in the place of this recognition. The distance collapses. It is not epistemological, but phenomenal”*. The textural surface of the environments in which Grannan’s portraits were made, when fused together with the visceral severity of the light, relays back to us something of the deep intensity of the moment from which the photographs were made – gives the portraits an emotional depth of field.
The title “Boulevard” evokes notions not just of the protean Hollywood of early 20th century cinema, but also its seamier side, its soap operas and broken dreams, embraces at once the idyll and the inevitable reality. That being said, a boulevard is also a stage for a city — as Haussman’s reconstruction of Paris attests, it is a public space in which the theatre of life’s many varied idiosyncrasies can be enacted, a meeting place to which all inhabitants can lay claim. Grannan’s photographs embrace this aspect of the boulevard’s history as a site for the theatre of the street, and make a whole of California’s bright light and its stuccoed white walls in order to invite into her frame those who have not and likely will never make it into Culver City.
Writing in her brief epigram to the book, Grannan talks about having encountered a woman named Malaysia – an individual who may be pictured in the work, or may not – and she states that “[t]here are many like her: boulevard phantoms. The city drives by without seeing them, though someone like Malaysia is hard to miss. She is walking alone, and her skins sparkles with glitter and sweat. The sun will show you. Ruthless and indiscriminate, it reveals these ghosts, people left with nothing but aspiration and delusion. They thought it would be different here but reality is crueler and far lovelier.” To the extent that Grannan submits to a romanticism about the American West, it is one born of a deep and clear-eyed affection for the unrelenting persistence of those who live in some shade of variegated neglect at its outer extremes – for those whom that shade renders invisible. Her photographs proclaim with frank and compelling lucidity that she is aware of the desperate inequities that traverse the distance between the American Dream and the realities of the American West.
It is, in fact, from the oscillating relationship between visibility and invisibility that these portraits derive much of their vigour: they are portraits of people whom one might notice but likely take little account of, portraits of individuals who are very often striking and whom – as pedestrians in a heavily motorised part of America – one would spot more readily but scarcely recall two days later. We might recall a faux chinchilla wrap, or a bright red scarf, a profusion of tattoos or a shock of white hair, but have little sense of the forcefulness of character that made them remarkable to begin with. Grannan insists upon their right to be seen, and on her determination to remember them. This insistence is generous but not naive – it inverts their anonymity at the same time as it preserves their privacy, as the titles to each photograph attest.
The portraits develop great memorability for having extracted these individuals from the hubbub of an ordinary day, and slowed down our appetitive gaze to a frequency at which that which is charismatic in Grannan’s sitters can be harnessed in the collaborative moment of the portrait, and the traces of an array of choices made in construction of the picture can begin to disclose character. Our energies are folded in on each individual by the absence of extraneous detail, by the brightness of the picture plane, by the elaborate, graceful, always individual arrangement of their figures within the frame. Some of the portraits remind me of the lumpen gracefulness or ethereal fragility of Lucian Freud’s sitters, but set against a backdrop of brilliant white some of Grannan’s sitters have the character of a wound or a punctuation mark: they can be recalled whole, as though the human body were also a code, a symbolic figure, a form already pregnant with meaning.
“I wanted to photograph people who had been rendered invisible – and they might be industry casualties, anonymous, but no matter what their circumstances are they’re still subjected to that relentless light. They’re the ones that most everyone else is passing by in their cars. (…) So I’ve been walking around approaching the few people I see, and if they agree we make a photograph together on the spot and they appear exactly as I’ve met them, and it never takes us long to find a sunny spot on that ubiquitous white stucco wall in West Hollywood. There’s probably no better place for this street theatre than in LA. The people that I approach are usually really enthusiastic about being photographed, and they’re really generous. They’ll spend an hour, sometimes an entire afternoon hanging out with me, working with me and telling me about themselves and where they came from them and what’s happened to them in the city.“
— Katy Grannan, speaking at “Myths of the West: Photographers, Filmmakers and Writers” at the Museum of Modern Arts, New York, 31st March 2009.
Anonymity makes for the perfect bedfellow of photography. That may appear at first blush to be something of a contradiction, and it is a notion that stands diametrically opposed to the manner in which the majority of photographs are made and used in our public and private worlds. But these portraits make common cause with the idea that identity is a slippery thing, and that pictures can often serve both to disclose character and to conceal identity. Malaysia may be one of the sitters photographed in Boulevard – but we would know no more from the mere knowledge of that fact. These pictures, the fruit of a brief collaboration between two strangers, do not seek to redress any sense of injustice at the anonymity of some as it contrasts with the overweening celebrity of so many others in our lives. It is in fact the very absence of biography that encourages in us a willingness merely to look, to be drawn into a momentary engagement with a group of people who persist at the periphery of the biggest stage in modern Western culture. And it is in looking in this way, photographically, with a sensitivity to form and gesture, that we discover again the common fact of an abiding beauty in one another. Portraits such as these make a virtue of curiosity.
Richard Misrach once said that “something about a great photograph is a surprise”, and surprise is at work in so many of the portraits in this work. It is in the calmness of a pastor exhibited by a man vividly clothed in body art, his nipples pierced; it is in the doubt of a young man whose lip instinctively curls toward a sneer, his abdomen inked with the words “EAT ME”, one half of his face haughty and the other unsure. But it is also in the remarkable power of concealment that characterises others of the portraits, in the way that some sitters choose almost to leave the frame, to disregard the lens, and in nearly dismissing themselves from our sight come alive as individuals.
Grannan has worked previously with impersonators and street performers and other charismatic types generally to be found swirling at the margins of great American myths. This has involved and in fact invited the performative act from her subjects, has required an incitement from the photographer to the subject to enact themselves, a gesture that is met with the portrait’s capacity to depict not merely their character, but very often the character of their alienation. In Boulevard, somehow the limpid translucence of the white wall lends vigour to the individuality of Grannan’s sitters, encourages from each a singular silhouette. But this also has the effect of bringing us closer to them, closer to the vivid beating core of these stark rich images. At length it seems clear that what separates us may be no more than a dream sufficiently broken.
In the closing lines of the Philip Larkin poem “An Arundel Tomb”, in which the poet writes about encountering a tomb in which a couple have been sculpted in their final embrace, Larkin uncovers not merely in the embrace but in our eventual intrusion upon it some sense of our intrinsic community – of our common selves. The substance from which Grannan’s portraits draw their force is community, it is the bright, generous and pin sharp embrace between her and her subjects that is evinced in each image. Boulevard reminded me of the closing lines of that Larkin poem, particularly in the manner in which all portraits eventually prefigure death and the passage of time – it made me wonder what one might make of these pictures some sixty years from now…
” And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”