Driving around town last week, I passed a man rollerblading down the center of a busy three-lane road. Headphones on and singing, he happily interfered with traffic without concern, yet, to my surprise, there was not one honking horn or yelling driver to be found.
Having lived in San Francisco for just over a year, I have quickly become accustomed to occurrences such as these and the number of people that spend much of their lives in the streets. It didn't take long for me to dismiss many of the characters that I encounter on an evening walk with the dog or an afternoon shopping downtown. Although some could say that this city is accepting to a fault, the pervasiveness of the live-and-let-live spirit here also breeds an environment where particular communities are easily overlooked.
So, seeing Katy Grannan's new exhibition, Boulevard, at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, reminds me of my relationship with many of those who inhabit this city that I have forgotten. A beautiful collection of photographs documenting anonymous individuals in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Boulevard is teeming with information about class, race, gender and community in the simplest terms. Each photograph transforms the street into Grannan's studio, with an impeccable use of cinematic California light. Boulevard rings with the presence and intimacy of art's longstanding tradition of portraiture with a surprising attention to contemporary social and personal details.
Grannan's models range in class and background yet the portraits complicate narrative, time and place, leaving only subtle details of each character's past. In Anonymous, LA, 2009 (above), color and light draw attention to the distinct reds and pinks mirrored between her fleece sweater and the lipstick on her wrinkled lips. The texture of the sweater defines her class without saying a word - decisively narrating her tale through subtle color and material. The intricacy of each sunspot, thin, white hair and delicate eyeliner speak of desire - heightened details that reek of the futile longing for youth and beauty.
Yet, despite these gorgeous details, the most captivating element of these photographs is the models' expressions - balancing impeccable cinematic staging with reality. The character in Anonymous, LA, 2009 is both present and theatrical, instantly causing one to question the reality and fantasy present in the image. This boundary between the two worlds of fiction and non-fiction has been a longstanding division for the photographic medium, and Grannan's Boulevard only blurs this line further. The staging of the whitewashed walls, masterful lighting, and expressive, yet controlled faces only go to create more of a collapse between the individual and the character portrayed in each image. This affect is stunning and complex, directing the viewer to question the role of the artist in the individual's narrative.
The most captivating model in Boulevard, Anonymous, SF, 2010 (above), exists in a state of stillness and movement, pain and pleasure. The amazing detail in this character's face produces unparalleled mystery, reminiscent of the drama and enigmatic emotion in Goya's asylum drawings and paintings, such as Lunatic from the Calle Mayor, dissolving the lines between insanity and the sublime. Yet, the intensity of light selected for this series does more to draw attention to every minute element in the image, only heightening the power of emotional narrative through the lens of portraiture.
Grannan masterfully employs stillness and movement, finding a place of awkward gesture, uneasy posture and aggressive presence. The telling eyes of Anonymous, SF, 2009 (top) drive home the uneasy and uncomfortable nature of Boulevard, leaving the viewer trying to find space in the uncertain relationship between the model and the camera. Characterized by class and gender, Anonyomous, SF, 2009 articulates emotional context, hope and longing through simplistic expression and poise. Similarly, Anonymous, SF, 2010 (below) resides in this ambiguity, her uneasy stance, heavy makeup and costuming bluntly expose the seams of a culture obsessed with beauty, youth and age. Her character seems to be a testament to the American drive to "make it," impassioned and marred by the idea that anyone can be a star.
At the end of the day, one leaves Fraenkel Gallery considering the role of myth and fantasy in our own presentation of self - questioning how much of our identity is constructed by image. What Boulevard reminds us is that no one is to be forgotten, and that the photograph holds unparalleled power to uncover the lines between reality and invention, allure and disgust.