The recent exhibition “The Ninety Nine and The Nine” at Sherrick & Paul featured 14 images from two series by photographer Katy Grannan. “The Ninety Nine” includes color portraits of people from California towns like Modesto, Fresno, and Bakersfield. The Nine features black-and-white portraits that show Grannan’s subjects on the streets and among the desert scrub in these places they call home.
Grannan’s color photos are the most compelling. In them, her subjects float against sun-blasted backgrounds that offer no clues to their identities or circumstances. The effect is reminiscent of Avedon’s minimalist portraits of models and moguls framed against white backdrops. Grannan’s close-ups are presented as huge prints, and in the best images her subjects crackle with an electric presence.
Grannan was raised in Arlington, Massachusetts, a small town visited by Paul Revere on his famous ride. It’s the place where the first spreadsheet software was created, and today Arlington enjoys a six-digit median household income. Grannan now lives in Berkeley, California, where the median household income is comfortably above that of the U.S. overall. Grannan has an MA from Harvard and an MFA from Yale.
I mention Grannan’s privileged life and education to bring balance to the press release description’s of her subjects in this exhibition: “… fringe communities and individuals populating California’s Central Valley … inextricably associated in American history and mythology with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl … the contemporary human embodiment of a notoriously desolate, unforgiving landscape…”
Context is everything when we’re talking about art, and when that art consists of massive, light-flooded photographs of poor people taken by a comparatively wealthy and famous artist, questions about exploitation have to be answered.
I’ve read other articles that compare Grannan’s show favorably to “The Europeans,” Tina Barney’s display of portraits of wealthy Old Worlders at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Actually, the shows have a lot in common: they both present huge, detailed prints that often impress viewers in and of themselves. Each show is the work of a privileged woman. Perhaps the only difference between the two shows are their subjects: Barney has always taken portraits of her moneyed peers, while Grannan transforms her poor and desperate-looking subjects into monumental objects with high dollar price tags.
Grannan self-consciously follows in the geographical footsteps of Dorothea Lange, but that’s where the comparison stops. Lange was a photojournalist and portrait photographer hired by the Farm Security Administration to take documentary photographs of Dust Bowl refugees during the Great Depression. Her images are among the most important photographs taken by any American, and upon publication their impact resulted in emergency aid being sent to refugee camps in the West, literally saving lives threatened with starvation and disease.
Lange’s photographs of poor people in the Central Valley communicated their human dignity and the circumstances of their suffering. While many apologists for Grannan’s work claim that her subjects are made “heroic” in her lens, her visions only bestow a patronizing kind of heroism that recalls the “noble savages,” long-suffering laborers and magical Negroes that Hollywood invents when it struggles to tell dramatic stories about people it doesn’t understand.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Grannan is currently making “The Nine” into a documentary film about her subjects. Here’s hoping it will give these people a chance to tell their stories on their own terms. Here’s hoping Grannan—and the rest of us —will listen.
“The Ninety Nine and The Nine” was on view March 5-April 25 at Sherrick & Paul in Nashville.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.