The West in American culture has many meanings and associations tied to it, competing, but also combining to form that indelible image in the national consciousness. California, alone, stands at the center of that image, it being the golden Shangri-La that was the goal of so many settlers. Without it, and the discovery of actual gold here, the settlement of the western half of the United States would have been different, most likely.
Many of the images of California are tied to the movies, music, television, images of Los Angeles where all of those industries at one time congregated en masse but have since begun to disperse for various reasons. Too, other images of California are tied to the northern regions, particularly the Bay Area, where San Francisco, Berkeley, and Silicon Valley reside, along with their respective legacies of bohemianism, progressive social values, and the birth of the internet and modern tech worlds. Collectively they are also known as the place where so many booms have occurred in the last 165 years, a cycle familiar to those who have lived here long enough to witness more than one of the busts that inevitably follows. Such a perspective is necessary to see the pattern, but never mind, since that is another subject entirely.
I bring it up only because there is a current boom happening here in the Bay Area, and yet all of the effects associated with it, the shifts and changes in social attitudes, the population influx and displacement, and in particular the wealth being lavished about, have had little to no impact on the third image of California, the one mentioned only in passing now, it being so old that not only is it overshadowed by the other two in glamor and allure, it is treated as a piece of history not worth knowing by the those who continue to migrate here in search of the other two.
This third vision, and third region, I speak of is The Valley. Not the San Fernando Valley of pop culture, but the great Central Valley of California, the Garden of Eden where some of the most fertile soil on earth is annually cultivated to feed the nation. The reader may think they have been through it, having made the monotonous drive in either direction between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin, but they would be mistaken. Beyond seeing endless rows of cotton, tomatoes, almond orchards, the cattle yards whose odor can be detected through the air conditioning a hundred miles before you lay eyes on them, and stopping at a few rest stops clinging to the side of Interstate 5 (I-5), drivers of that highway are really only skirting the valley, stopping just long enough to gas up and eat before keeping going to whichever vision they are headed to. Those endless fields acting as a hedge row that obscures the view to the interior.
To enter this place, to see its towns, experience its people, there is another road one must drive – CA-99. Stretching from just below Bakersfield, where it emerges out of I-5 as it drops down out of the Tehachapi Mountains that border Los Angeles, and its unceremonious termination into Highway 36 just east of Red Bluff, CA-99 is the artery to which all of the ‘Valley Towns’ cling – Chico, Yuba City, Sacramento, Stockton, Turlock, Merced, Modesto, Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield. Most of the towns are indistinguishable from each other, except by size, and except that Sacramento is the largest and is more complex because it is the state capital. But, they are all ‘Valley Towns’ still, just as they were when Joan Didion coined them in the middle of the 1960s.
This area was first really settled by non-native populations after the first boom – the Gold Rush of 1849 – had busted, and was further settled again in the 1930s by refugees of the Oklahoma Dustbowl. This second migration, its persons, their living circumstances, and their working conditions were captured by Dorothea Lange, among the most famous of the photographers hired by the Federal Government to document the conditions of the depression on the common man. In fact, the most famous photograph of the depression ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936) was captured by Lange, an image of a family of migrant farm workers who had originally come from Oklahoma.
It was this body of work by Lange that provided inspiration for Katy Grannan to create her most recent bodies of work, ‘The 9’ and ‘The 99’. On view now at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco under the title ‘Katy Grannan: The 99’ both sets of work deal with the harsh realities of living along the highway in the heart of the most prosperous state in the nation. To create these works, Grannan spent three years photographing the land, the towns, and the people that make up this part of the world. The series are easily distinguishable from each other, ‘The 9’ consisting of black and white land/townscapes, ‘The 99’ of color portraits. Both confront how we portray California and the West in different ways and on multiple levels, with results that are inconclusive and fraught with contradiction.
The land/townscapes of ‘The 9’ seem at once readily familiar to us – images of vast black and white vistas of land hemmed in by the distant mountains that edge The Valley on two sides, images of people seeking shade and shooting up along riverbanks, under freeway overpasses, images of towns where the buildings look as if they could succumb to the elements as easily as the people walking through them during the high noon sun, the temperature easily over a hundred degrees. These are images that we also know from film and photography, but they do not resemble exactly what they recall, the effects of contemporary photographic methods evident in their execution. Regardless, however, they are of a world that is as foreign to most as the surface of the moon.
The photographs on view are largely taken in and around the town of Modesto, but they could represent any of the Valley Towns other than Sacramento. The tenuousness of the towns to the land around them is palpable in Grannan’s images, it being heightened by her use of stark tones to depict her subjects. The choice to not use color in capturing her land/townscapes is telling. Draining the color out of the compositions simultaneously eliminates any possibility of sentimentalizing the scenery, while also removing them from the everyday experience of our technicolor reality. In this, Grannan has avoided the pitfalls of the romantic western landscapes of the 19th century paintings and of 20th century color photography and cinema, imparting an otherworldly severity to these scenes.
Grannan is not the first, nor likely the last, photographer to work in California, or The West for that matter. Among the most well-known bodies of work done about The West was created by Richard Avedon in the late 1970s. This iconic series depicts its subjects against stark white backgrounds in harshly lit black and white images, revealing every crack, crevice, wrinkle, and blemish their bodies had to offer. When it debuted, it was attacked variously as exploitative, a falsification of The West, some questioning what a photographer from the east would know about life there and why he would want to go.
Grannan’s series ‘The 99’ is, in some ways, a re-telling of a story that Avedon wrote, though there are enough differences to prevent it from being a complete rehash of the other work. However, the similarities between the two are, at times, discomfortingly the same. Both photographers were born in the ease and educated there, though Avedon lived there all his life and Grannan now lives in Berkeley. Both chose to use the same compositional format of a stark white background to depict their subjects against, though Grannan sneaks in the mild hues of the sky into some of them. Both chose to photograph in three quarter length to close up portraits, but from there they diverge.
Avedon’s portraits feel as if he just stumbled upon the people he chose, dropped a white background behind them, had them stand still where they were, and snapped the shutter after calling their attention to the camera lens. Grannan’s subjects behave in an altogether different way, ranging from impervious to impassive to outright posing. Furthermore, Grannan’s sitters are photographed under beautiful light, though these people will never be considered beautiful by the standards of classical beauty, and as such she attempts to impart an element of allure on her sitters, bordering on romanticism. Avedon chose harsh lighting to avoid this or any hint of sentimentality in his work, and succeeded in revealing a human element of his sitters that is missing from Grannan’s work.
Perhaps the most pervasive theme throughout ‘The 99’ is the heavy Christian overtones in the work. Several of the poses are ripped right out of Christian paintings – mother/daughter echoing the Madonna/child, male figure posing in the guise of Christ painted by Caravaggio, a photograph of hands painted on the wall of a church bearing the stigmata – all of it wrapped in the message of Christian suffering. It hangs there, infusing the work with one more element that is incongruous, yet the picture itself holds them all together. It might seem unusual to some to find this heavy element of religion, but in a world where the poverty rate ranges from 13% - 25%, where the crystal-meth drug use, among other ‘recreational’ substances, is rampant, where there is little to nothing to do, where wages are menial for any job and the work is back breaking, the church, along with its neighbors the liquor stores and pawn shops, is one of the only fixtures in the lives of these towns and people. It is likely the only place of social gathering outside of the local watering-hole, its services are always in need to make up for what federal/state assistance cannot provide.
The other strong feeling running through these portraits is the passivity of the subjects. They almost never look at us directly, their cares and attention elsewhere. They know we, the viewer, and Grannan, the photographer, are just strangers passing through, here to see, judge, and return to where we came from. Life isn’t changing for them, the changes wrought by the economies of Los Angeles or Silicon Valley having little or no real impact on the livelihoods of the residents in the Valley Towns, where teen birth rates are high, where shade is always in short supply, where the edge of civilization is close enough to be felt even if one is not looking at it.
In light of all of this, where do Katy Grannan’s photographs fit into the picture of this place? Does she succeed in the task she set out to accomplish? Will the publication of these photographs transform the lives of the subjects? Will the exhibition of these photographs in the heart of San Francisco, a city experiencing its latest boom, effect the people who view them? What meaning do they impart, what truth do they reveal? Whose truth is it? The answers are and are not there, ambiguous, mixed up at best, like so many things in California. These photographs are another piece to add to the growing number of parts that combine into a bigger picture of this place. How they inform the whole is another question, one, like the others, that cannot be readily answered.