Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, 2008. softbound, saddle-stitched with illustrated dustjacket. 46 pp., 23 color illustrations, 12x15". $25.00
The Westerns photographs by Katy Grannan, published by Fraenkel Gallery, 2008
Katy Grannan has always been drawn to "lost souls" as subjects. In her
earlier work, she allowed her subjects to find her through indirect means
such as classified ads and word-of-mouth (Model Americans, Aperture
2005). With The Westerns, Grannan has taken the initiative and sought out
the desired individuals, approaching people in public that spark her
interest. This new approach seems to have granted Grannan more control over her gamut of models, and allowed her to form extensive relationships with several of the individuals in the book.
Fraenkel Gallery's execution of the catalogue is an excellent compliment to the work. Although awkward in the oversized soft-cover jacket, the large scale and shallow binding allow the spreads to expand across the entire page giving the reader an uninterrupted and intimate experience of the photographs.
Many of the images in The Westerns are similar to Grannan's previous work--the subjects being allowed to self-consciously present themselves to the lens. Mimicking the long slender forms of models with their pale, unrefined and graceless bodies, the subject's poses speak of calculated performance while their faces lack confidence. Grannan does not return the favor of their efforts. She allows her camera to dominate their sprawl, the lens rises above their position and makes the subject reminiscent of a specimen – a person desperately attempting to act out their desires, to be seen, to be singled out, or to be recognized. Hips thrusting and skin stretching in the bombardment of California sunlight.
Grannan speaks briefly on the California sun in the book's only paragraph of artist text, "A lifetime in the northeast makes me suspicious of so much sun, but out west, there is no hiding from it." Even in the interior shots her subjects are covered in this light, which sometimes seems to pin the subject down. Although blanketed in the light, their pale skin shines in protest, attempting to keep their flesh pure, while struggling to be seen in the strange world of the western coast.
The Westerns seems to have an unofficial second set of photographs that focuses specifically on two subjects, Gail and Dale, a pair of middle-aged, transgender individuals, and it is here that The Westerns distinguishes itself. Gail and Dale's photographs take on an entirely different context and story from the other works. They have a confidence that surpasses that of
Grannan's other models. Mentioned as "best friends," these two act in
tune, knowing characters in their poses, creating dreamscapes that are
reminiscent of a Cindy Sherman film still. With exaggerated gestures, they
reiterate their directives through performance for the lens. Their garb and
poses seem to come from a parallel existence, stuck in an era that has
either been long forgotten or never existed at all. These photographs are
the most animated and intimate of the work in The Westerns as Gail and Dale feed off each other and seem to be the more self-aware, granting Grannan some freedom in exploring their self-presentation. She obviously took great joy in composing these shots, adding lively color and light, while rendering their flesh in excruciating detail (which is only amplified by the
monograph's size). There is great respect shown to the friends, and to
their struggle establishing a place in a world that views them as unnatural
or beyond the acceptable norm.
Like Diane Arbus's voyeuristic approach, this exploitation of the 'Other' does
not escape its own essence. With The Westerns, Grannan tries to alleviate these problems by allowing the models to represent themselves not only through the style of their emotional expression, but by offering more private and intimate glimpses than found in her other works. However, sexualized intimacy should not be confused with romanticism, as the images teeter between the two quite precariously. Without this dynamic, Grannan would have failed to elevate the photographs beyond clinical documentation and would have destroyed what is a beautifully humanistic presentation of her subjects.