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Ordinary but still important

Katy Grannan takes photographs to honor the humanity she shares with her subjects.

January 15, 2006|Lynne Heffley

KATY GRANNAN'S photographic portraiture of volunteer subjects is often compared to the art of Diane Arbus.

An unsettling alchemy of danger, voyeurism and the mundane, Grannan's first published collection, "Model American" (Aperture), features 75 portraits from five key series of the San Francisco-based artist's work.

The people Grannan approaches to serve as models are strangers, yet they often become her collaborators, she says in a recent interview via e-mail. They choose to be nude or clothed; some choose to be overtly sexual; some want posing suggestions, some don't.

An illicit feeling is inherent in the resulting photographs. These are, after all, strangers, not professional models, stripping down in her home or in the woods, "yet what we are doing is quite innocent -- we're making a photograph."

"Robbie, b. 1994," one of the book's jarring works, shows a preadolescent boy, shirtless, propped on one elbow in a tangle of ferns and flowering plants, his sullen gaze giving him a feral quality. The reality is more prosaic, Grannan explains: Robbie and his brother, Jessie, who are the subjects of another portrait in the book, simply weren't in the mood for the session.

"And I had to come to terms with the fact that I am imposing a way of seeing onto my subjects -- the point of view here is deliberate and forceful," Grannan says.

"Tim, b. 1981," the nearly monochromatic cover photo, is Grannan's perception of her model's "androgynous, languid beauty." In it a dark-skinned man wearing a woman's vintage yellow bikini bottom reclines in the steel gray shallows of a lake.

The disconnect and passivity of "Brother and Sister, Red Hook, NY, 1999" seems off kilter yet "probably reflects their momentary interest, then ambivalence about being photographed."

In fact, Grannan explains, her subjects often appear angry, challenging, remote or melancholy because poses must be held long to accommodate her slow, large-format camera on a tripod. "Even if we begin with smiles, two hours later, we're somewhere else."

The nature of a photograph, she observes, "can be unrelenting and particular. The scrutiny, the details, can be tough. But that's where I find the beauty -- it's complex, sloppy, contradictory and remarkably, unexpectedly ordinary."

Approaching her subjects with empathy is essential. "I begin by finding common ground and then take a step back and observe, see. In this way pictures weave in and out of truth, fabrication, shared histories and psychologies, though they ultimately probably point right back to me."

Grannan hopes that viewers of her work -- on display at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco through Feb. 25 and at New York's Greenberg Van Doren Gallery through Feb. 4 -- will feel that same empathy.

"People, all of us, need to feel that we matter, that we are visible. I photograph people as a way of paying attention."

-- Lynne Heffley

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