by Jonathan Griffin
For the past five years, Katy Grannan has been driving 100 miles south almost every week from her home in Berkeley on the edge of San Francisco Bay to Modesto in California’s Central Valley. Like other cities along State Route 99 – Stockton, Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield – Modesto is one of those places that tourists driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles pass through without stopping. The Central Valley is where, in the 1930s, John Steinbeck set The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange took her famous photographs of migrant sharecroppers. Both were beacons for Grannan during the making of The Nine, her first feature-length film, which will be screened in London next week.
South Ninth Street – known locally as The Nine – is Modesto’s most blighted area known for its cheap motels, drugs and prostitution. Her film features several of its destitute and desperate characters, who Grannan came to know while working on a series of photographs there between 2011 and 2013. When they asked her, “Why do you want to see drug addicts dying?” she told them about Heather.
Heather was Grannan’s childhood best friend. They lived in Arlington Massachusetts, a town on the edge of Boston that Grannan considered “unbearably boring” when she was growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s. She and Heather had parallel lives: they lived in almost identical houses, pretty clapboard cottages two doors apart on Spy Pond Lane, and they went to the same schools. They dealt with the boredom by getting into trouble. Nothing serious, says Grannan, just “stupid stuff”: running away, hitchhiking with strangers, occasional shoplifting. Of the pair, Grannan says that she was the more reckless. “I tended to tempt fate in a way that Heather did not.”
When she was about eight years old, Grannan’s grandmother gave her a Kodak Instamatic. She used it obsessively – taking mainly portraits of her friends and family. “It was a very controlled and comfortable way for me to navigate the world,” she says, “to be skirting around the outside and paying attention through the lens.” Photography was “a tether”.
At 18, Grannan went to do a liberal arts degree at the University of Pennsylvania, after which she took her pre-meds, planning to apply to medical school. One day in 1994, sitting on her bed, she picked up a copy of the New York Times magazine with a picture on the cover taken by Eugene Richards of the legendary photographer Robert Frank. Grannan read the article and marvelled at the black and white photographs from The Americans that Frank made on a road trip across the country in 1955 and 1956. “I was completely floored,” she says. “My life pivoted at that moment. I knew. I had no idea that one could do that.” She gave up her plans of becoming a doctor, and after a period of travelling, in 1997 applied – successfully – to study photography at Yale.
She and Heather had grown apart in their late teens, when Heather took up with a different, druggy crowd. She became addicted to heroin and very quickly ended up on the streets, working as a prostitute and HIV positive. Her downward spiral was surprising, but not totally unheard of in Arlington. Grannan knew a couple of people from her elementary school who’d ended up the same way and one of her cousins had lived for a time on the streets of Boston with Heather.
The last time Grannan saw her was 1993. Heather was walking with a cane and must have weighed, Grannan guessed, no more than 80 pounds. Heather said to her, “It’s funny how life turns out. I thought I’d be more like you and you’d be more like me.” “There is not a day that I don’t think about what she said,” Grannan tells me. “To see this person in her early twenties who I had known since before pre-school become a ghost of a human being is something that I can never forget.” When she went back to Arlington for Christmas or Thanksgiving, Grannan would go looking for Heather in the places her cousin reported recently seeing her. She never found her. Heather died in 2013.
. . .
At Yale, Grannan was a star student. In 1999 one of her professors, the photographer Gregory Crewdson, included her work in an exhibition at the Lawrence Rubin Greenberg Van Doren gallery in New York titled “Another Girl, Another Planet”. Of the 12 young photographers in the show, 11 were women. The exhibition was the talk of New York, and Grannan – along with others of the group – was featured in glossy magazines such as Vogue, Numéro and Harper’s Bazaar. “It felt like an out-of-body experience,” she says, “watching the whole fuss and hype and backlash.”
The photographs Grannan showed were from a series she called Poughkeepsie Journal after the local paper in upstate New York where she had placed an ad for non-professional models: “Art Models. Artist/Photographer (female) seeks people for portraits. No experience necessary. Leave msg.” Many of the responses came from young white women of a similar age and background to herself, whom she photographed in their unremarkable suburban homes.
For her next series, Dream America, she included men. “I started pushing the boundaries of discomfort, towards what was increasingly more risky, more uncomfortable,” she says. She took her models to secluded locations, into the woods or to a lake, and two years later shot another set of pictures near her childhood home in Arlington. “I was never scared, not really,” she tells me. “
Her intention, she says, was never to be critical of them, male or female. After all, these were people who were volunteering to be photographed, who chose how they wanted to present themselves, clothed or unclothed, reclining in undergrowth or even – as with the arresting Jada, Sugar Camp Road, Saxton, PA (2003) – semi-naked and knee-deep in a muddy bog.
There are many bizarre portraits from this period: a young woman lying in a shallow river, reminiscent of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, or another sitting in the dirt beside a country track wearing an orange-knit bikini. Not only are the photographs, on the whole, unflattering, they seem to reveal something about their sitters that they never intended us to see: a mismatch between their self-image and the image captured by the camera. Grannan knows that her work makes us feel uncomfortable, but for her that is what makes it interesting. “Portraiture can be interpreted as a kind of betrayal,” she says, “but in fact it’s fiction.”
. . .
Grannan, who at 46 is strikingly elegant, with pale green eyes, high cheekbones and fair hair pulled back, now lives in Berkeley with her husband John McNeil, an advertising art director. They have three children (two daughters, 8 and 14, and a son, 12), and they moved from Brooklyn to California in 2006, after McNeil was offered a job in San Francisco. Grannan, in any case, was finding the effort of balancing motherhood and her career in New York to be intolerable.
In California, her modus operandi changed, though it was hardly less risky. Instead of placing small ads in newspapers, she began to approach strangers in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and on Los Angeles’ Hollywood Boulevard, both downtrodden areas afflicted by social problems, and asked to take their photographs. She frequently chose a plain white wall as the backdrop – something that came to be her trademark, along with the harsh, bleached-out tones cast by the unforgiving California sunlight.“ I wanted to remove them from context,” she says of her subjects, “almost like an abstraction. You didn’t need to know where they lived – it wasn’t about that – it was really all about the person.”
Around this time, Grannan began to do something she had never done before: she developed friendships with some of the sitters and photographed them repeatedly. She became especially close to Gale and Dale, two middle-aged transvestites from San Francisco, and to Nicole, an attractive young woman whose problems with addiction reminded her of Heather.
The people to whom Grannan found herself drawn, particularly in her Boulevard series from 2008–10, were people struggling through the world, “whose inner lives,” she says, “are revealed in the lines on their faces.” If not necessarily homeless, they were part of a large urban underclass, people who scrape together a living and are ignored by society. “They know that people will not look them in the eye. They know that they are barely regarded as people. We live in a society that values fame, that values being visible, and equates being visible with having worth. What does it mean to be invisible?”
Throughout the Boulevard series we encounter people like the aging Marilyn Monroe impersonator who plainly want to be seen, who dress flamboyantly and pose confidently and unapologetically for the camera. These are individuals who are down but not out, for whom, says Grannan, “there was still that glimmer, there was always a sense of possibility.”
“I don’t understand people who say the work is exploitative,” she says. “My intention is the opposite. I wouldn’t spend my life taking pictures of people I was judging.” She does not see her work as being cruel; “I think the covers of W magazine are cruel, or the depictions of lives in Hollywood movies.” The idea that there are people in society who should not be photographed, who are beneath representation, is anathema to her. “Do you not ever go there? Or do you go there in the spirit of fairness, or even love? I think the best portraiture comes out of love.”
. . .
Grannan went to Modesto for the first time in 2009. She was looking for Nicole, who had disappeared – as she had before – from the Tenderloin. She knew that South Ninth Street is a place where people like Nicole often end up.
She knocked on doors of motel rooms, showing people photographs of Nicole and asking if they had seen her. She didn’t find Nicole, but she did meet many other people whom she later photographed for her series The Ninety Nine (which includes people from other cities along Route 99) and The Nine. By this time, Grannan says, “I was feeling out how to make a film.”
Although she rejects the terms “documentary” and “fly on the wall”, The Nine consists entirely of unscripted footage of people in their natural environments, going about their daily business. On South Ninth Street, where the homeless and unemployed spend their days shooting dice, shooting drugs and hustling for their next fix, that can make for grim viewing.
The Nine is remarkable for a non-fiction film about the depths of poverty and addiction because throughout it is not only watchable but also often profoundly beautiful. “The truth is that beauty and ugliness co-exist,” Grannan tells me. “The river does look beautiful on a sunny day.” People in Modesto go to the river to relax, to forget about their troubles, even though it is well known that dead bodies – usually anonymous women – are found in the water with sickening frequency.
Grannan’s personal involvement with her subjects made things difficult, too. As she came know the ins and outs of each person’s story, her sympathy became tempered with something else, something harder. “I worked very hard to keep judgment out of the equation,” she says. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be there if I was feeling critical. But I’m also probably not the bleeding heart that I was when I started.”
Where Grannan could help people, she did. She paid everyone for their time – up to $50 per hour of filming, or a week’s rent in exchange for a full day. Because of this, it seemed almost everyone on South Ninth Street wanted to be in the film, so she had to make choices. “I didn’t go there to try and save anybody – that wasn’t my purpose – but when people asked for help, I was definitely there for them.” But there were times when she felt taken advantage of, too.
. . .
Each person she encountered on The Nine had a tale of neglect or abuse that was as traumatic as the next. Grannan chose to let Kiki’s story stand for them all. Kiki is a transient addict and sometime prostitute whose resilience and optimism remains an inspiration to Grannan. “Kiki is a shining light,” she tells me. “She represents possibility and innocence in the middle of horror.”
Towards the end of the film, Kiki speaks directly to Grannan (who is behind the camera), in tears. When she was 11, she says, she discovered that her uncle was sexually molesting her baby nephew. She took his gun from where she knew he hid it, and shot and killed him. She does not regret it. Her parents abandoned her, signing over responsibility for her care to the state and, designated mentally unstable, she bounced between group care homes throughout her teens. Eventually she ran away to fend for herself on the streets.
While Grannan’s camera rolls, Kiki opens up completely. “You are the only family I have,” she says through her sobs. “I don’t want you guys to feel sorry for me, the only thing I want … just don’t leave me.” Grannan told me that she felt in that moment that Kiki was “about as brave as I’ve seen anyone ever be.” It was Kiki who confronted Grannan with the question that she was asking herself at the time: “What do I do when I’m done with this movie?”
Grannan doesn’t hide her friendships with her subjects, nor her pride in their achievements. She tells me that she speaks several times a week to Kiki, who only yesterday announced she is getting married. Nicole lives a couple of miles from Grannan in Oakland, sober and finishing school.
“We were all aware, at all times, that we were making a film together,” she says. “It became this common creative project. People really valued being seen and being heard. And someone caring.” It is a thread that has run throughout her work since her earliest photographs of strangers: the power of the camera not only to objectify but to dignify a subject as someone worth looking at.
First published: Financial Times, May 13th 2016 (or here)