Interview by Tabitha Soren
“I don't want it to be that familiar story
of blight and heroism or blight and pity.
It’s like going into Purgatory and trying to find
—Katy Grannan something shining, almost holy.” — Katy Grannan
Photographer and filmmaker Katy Grannan’s work is a spontaneous collaboration with places and their residents – from the East Coast to San Francisco, Hollywood, and California’s Central Valley. Grannan often grapples with the false promise of the American Dream and mythologized West. Her latest projects – “The 99,” named for the highway, and “The Nine,” named for a Modesto neighborhood – document the people of the marginalized Central Valley. She currently lives in Berkeley and is working on her first feature film “The Nine.”
Formerly a political journalist, most famously for MTV, Tabitha Soren is now a Berkeley-based visual artist and professor. Her 2013 photographic exhibit “Running” features anonymous people mid-run and primal, with a context-less instinct of fear and survival. Other work includes, “Uprooted,” “Panic Beach,” and “Fantasy Life.” For her current project, Soren follows aspiring baseball players through the Central Valley of California.
Tabitha Soren: Do you remember the first portrait you ever took, or maybe the first time you attempted to take a serious picture, an art picture?
Katy Grannan: I honestly never gave it a thought about whether it was art or not. I never aspired to be an artist. It was just that I always made photographs. Since I was a kid, it was the thing I loved to do. My unrelenting interest or need to photograph people was very, very early on. Making a life as an artist was not on my radar at all. Not in the slightest. I didn’t grow up in that kind of community. It never occurred to me.
Photographer and documentary filmmaker Robert Frank is famous for his 1958 photo book “The Americans,” a seminal collection of pictures taken on roadtrips across the US.
As a kid, the only thing that I knew I loved to do was make photographs. I really had no clue that it could be my entire life. I had no point of reference. I was planning on going to medical school. In fact, I had just taken the MCATs when I read a New York Times piece on Robert Frank, and then everything changed for me. I remember that Eugene Richards made the cover portrait.
It was a revelation – I read the essay, saw his photographs, and nearly hit the floor. The work was astounding. Before that moment, I had never thought it possible to entirely devote your life to art. It was exactly what I wanted to do, just to live my life in that way. That it hadn’t occurred to me before that moment is kind of funny today.
It was never about wanting to be an ‘Artist,’ or having some fantasy in my mind about what that looked like. It was all about the work. So I moved to New York and worked at a press agency called Saba, and I became immersed in a community of people who were doing exactly what I thought I wanted to do. I was in awe of these photojournalists who were entirely committed to their work and their life’s purpose.
I wanted to travel around the world, to get as away from home as possible, escape a kind of ordinariness that I associated with home. I realize this was a misperception, but that’s exactly how I felt at the time. I’m sorry this is a long-winded non-answer to your question.
“Growing up around a funeral home,
photographing people was a way
of memorializing them.
I was almost mourning every person.”
— Katy Grannan
TS: No. It’s a totally specific and great answer.
KG: At some point I realized that photojournalism wasn’t exactly the kind of practice I wanted for myself. I recognized that it was important for me to face a more mundane reality and the distractions we invent to bear it. Meanwhile, I did whatever – I was receptionist, had a temp job, whatever to make a little bit of money. Then I made my work at night and on weekends. Everything else was just a means to an end.
At some point I met a woman, a painter who had just graduated from Yale. She was the girlfriend of a friend of a friend. Anyway, she was so effusive about her experience at Yale and insisted that I at least give it a shot, because it had been so transformative for her. Her enthusiasm was contagious and it emboldened me to apply, even though I had never imagined myself in art school. I thought, “I’m not an art school kid. I’m not that person. I’ll be a fish out of water, but whatever, I’ll try.” So I applied and somehow got in there.
But I was certain I’d be told there had been a mistake. (laughs) That I didn’t actually get in. For the first year I was filled with so much anxiety. I felt like I was among artists but I was not one of them. Even to this day, when people ask a question like, “Are you a photographer or an artist that uses photography?” I couldn’t care less about that conversation. It smacks of protesting too much. I just make the work I make.
TS: I assume that, from that time to now, you have come into contact with many successful people who have similar stories of feeling fraudulent. Why do you think it’s so common for a talented person to believe in their work but also feeling like they may be fooling everybody?
KG: We know ourselves best, including our weaknesses, so that is a common thing. It’s this underlying, deeply innate fear that you’re going to be found out – that everything you know to be a weakness in the work, everything that you recognize or believe to be the breaking point, will be discovered and called out.
At some point, I became more comfortable with the flaws, the failure – they’re a necessary and often compelling thing in the work.
TS: I think that it’s interesting that, as a kid, [you photographed] profiles in front of Gingham wallpaper.
KG: That was fifth grade.
TS: So most of us in fifth grade – I was taking pictures with me curling my hair and maybe having a floor fan blowing on me and having my hair go back.
KG: I did, too. I did the model pictures. I tried to look like Cheryl Tiegs. Remember her?
TS: Of course. I was more of a Farrah Fawcett girl myself.
KG: I had her poster in my room.
TS: When you went to take pictures of others, you shifted gears into something with a theme?
KG: I never looked at it as having a theme. In retrospect, I can recognize that growing up around a funeral home influenced the way that I looked at every single human being in the world. Photographing people was a way of memorializing them – acknowledging their value and their mortality at the same time. I was almost mourning every person. In the back of my mind I was always aware that people, that life, kept moving on.
TS: You were kind of preserving them?
KG: Again, I wasn’t so aware of this at the time. I remember exactly when I realized I was photographing people almost as if they were falling into their graves. It was the Mystic Lake pictures where I was over them and it was if they were –
TS: Oh my God.
KG: – being sucked into or spit out of the earth. But again, (laughs) I didn’t go into it thinking, “I’m going to make these portraits of death.” It wasn’t that. But later it was so clear – yeah, I’m kind of doing that.
In retrospect, part of what I was doing was recognizing that a photograph would live on – it would have a life of its own. And this gesture of making a photograph was an act of tenderness or love that maybe I wasn’t comfortable enough to express personally, so the photograph was the communication.
TS: Do you feel like it also affects how you are drawn to subcultures of people who live their life on the edge, and have such an interaction with risky behavior – that their life could be shorter than it should be?
KG: Well it’s also a very personal story. My oldest friend in the world, Heather, ended up on the street – addicted to heroin, homeless, doing whatever she needed to do to make money. My cousin was on the street with her, so I knew everything that was going on, and I watched them both unable to stop this terrible momentum that eventually ended up killing Heather. She was my next door neighbor for over 20 years, the girl I went to preschool and kindergarten with. And then, at some point in high school, she went one direction and I went another. We bumped into each other as adults and she weighed about 80 pounds, walked with a cane, and looked like the shadow of her former self – physically and emotionally wrecked. But I’ll always remember her as my young friend – a really smart, beautiful girl with endless potential.
TS: You didn’t come from a broken home?
KG: No. My immediate family, not at all. It’s much more subtle, as I’m sure you know, being Irish Catholic, first generation and from New England – it’s a much more quiet, slow burn. (laughs) You don’t spill your emotions or your pain all over the place. You keep them very close to the chest. And it surfaces in other ways. But it’s there. It’s a more stoic kind of melancholy.
TS: But when you say you wanted to get as far away from there as possible, it’s not like you were escaping molestation or some hideous jail time?
KG: No. At the time, I perceived the sort of ordinary, mundane quality of home as almost not being fully alive. I understand it very differently now, though.
“My oldest friend in the world,
Heather, ended up on the street – addicted
to heroin, homeless, doing whatever
she needed to do to make money.”
— Katy Grannan
TS: When you’re making work, you’re also a mom. And even though you don’t live in the suburbs, there are parts of family life that are ordinary. It’s inescapable and so chaotic. I always feel slightly conflicted about you going out and shooting in Modesto and doing “The Nine” and “The 99” work because I feel like, oh my God – you’ve got so many balls in the air at home, and then you put yourself in this situation with these people who are now friends, but initially you had to get to know them. And there wasn’t as much of a comfort zone. And it’s more chaos and trouble and upheaval.
KG: I know what you mean, except I feel more authentic in Modesto than I do in Berkeley. In Berkeley, it’s more, I won’t say fraudulent… But there are aspects of it that feel like I’m having an out of body experience – impersonating an ‘adult.’ And when I’m working, I never feel that way.
TS: So the danger doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable?
KG: No. I kind of seek that out. I always have.
TS: And you don’t feel out of place when you’re surrounded by people who are in and out of jail or have serious, life-threatening addictions or are sex workers, even though you’ve never been any of those things?
KG: When my friend, Heather, and I ran into each other as adults, she said something to me that I think about every day. She stood there, crippled by her addiction and barely recognizable as my young friend, and she said, “It’s funny how life turns out. I would have thought I’d be more like you and you’d be more like me.”
I constantly think about this – about how easily our lives can take an unexpected turn, and that momentum seems unstoppable. Why did Heather end up that way and I didn’t? I think it was photography that saved my life. I found something I loved and it gave me purpose. Otherwise, I was also prone to doing lots of stupid stuff and tempting fate, just like Heather. I went to Heather’s funeral last year and her mom said to me, “It’s Katy! Heather’s partner in crime!”
TS: Meeting with strange men in the woods, or being in a hotel room with someone who owes a drug dealer money – has the danger ever come to fruition? Have you had an instance where you felt either physically threatened or someone was actually psychotic?
KG: Not really. Maybe once or twice.
TS: You’ve always been able to pull out the camera, take the picture, and not run out of the woods screaming, “Help!”
TS: You’re not reckless with this.
KG: I’m somewhat reckless. But now I have kids. I don’t want to get injured and I don’t want to die. I’m not playing those games anymore. I’m here to make something.
TS: Tell me, because I just feel like your plate is very full. I know how hard it is to make television, film, moving pictures. It’s more complicated in a technological way – more equipment, more to carry, more people involved. I know you’ve made a film [associated with] “Boulevard.” What was it?
KG: It was an installation, “The Believers.”
TS: That’s right. So you already made “The Believers.” And what was that, 20 minutes?
KG: It was a looping nine minutes. It was an installation using three screens, and the video was a continuous loop, which probably made it seem like 20 minutes.
TS: Was that thrilling to have another element in the mix – now you’re making a full-length feature?
KG: I wanted to encompass the totality of what was going on. To make something out of all the amazing, unexpected relationships and experiences that surround the pictures. It’s really the stuff of life, the memories that you cling to. Which is actually, funny enough, the ordinary moments. My motivation behind making the work, which had everything to do with uncertainty, was having faith in what might unfold. After working all this time, I really just reached a point where I thought, “Really? Is this all I know how to do?” This is getting a little –
TS: If I see one more white wall –
KG: Exactly. I’ve visited everywhere in the Central Valley – up and down the 99, to the border and up the coast, and I kept revisiting this one neighborhood. It’s a very small, peripheral neighborhood in Modesto on South 9th St. – locals refer to it as The Nine. I initially photographed a few people there for “The 99” work. I became friends with a few people on The Nine and they inspired me to make something new, to make another kind of portrait—a portrait of a place.
TS: A film portrait.
KG: Yeah. The film is called “The Nine.” I also needed to be a beginner again. I needed to risk complete failure. I’d been making photographs for so long, and “The Boulevard” and “The 99” work took quite a while to make. I was ready to unlearn what I knew.
I keep a quote by Philip Glass in my notebook that says “The work I did is the work I know, and the the work I do is the work I don’t know. And it’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.”
So, making a film was like setting up a nearly impossible task for myself. This was brand new territory for me, and I knew almost nothing.
TS: There’s a bit of flying by the seat of your pants.
KG: I’m always flying by the seat of my pants. Even though some of the work might look formally repetitive, the process is always filled with uncertainty. I’m always going somewhere I don’t know, finding my way around, never knowing who I’m going to meet. Usually I think, “There’s no way. I can’t do this anymore. It’s not going to work.” The process is full of variables and uncertainty even if the pictures formally look quite—
“I’ve visited everywhere in the Central Valley –
up and down the 99,
to the border and up the coast,
and I kept revisiting this one neighborhood –
locals refer to it as The Nine.”
— Katy Grannan
KG: And they are deliberate. But the making of them is filled with unknowns. And this kind of filmmaking is about responding to real life coming at you full speed. You never know how things will unfold, so you need to trust the process.
The degree of collaboration is greater, too. I’ve been working with Hannah Hughes, who was just out of college when she began helping me with the film. She’s a very talented photographer, so at some point I said here, take a camera and let’s film this thing together.
We’ve also collaborated with and relied upon an entire community – we’ve relied on their interest and participation for nearly four years. With this level of commitment and time and energy on all sides, there’s a lot of give and take. And nobody’s just giving and nobody’s just taking. That was something I thought was really important to address in some way—the complicated nature of the artist/subject relationship.
In the film, Hannah and I are addressed a lot and obviously our presence affects everything. I’m also asked direct, difficult questions regarding my intentions and our relationships. Am I there only in the service of my work? Of course, the answer’s no. I’m there because I’m deeply compelled – I see my friend Heather in every single person on The Nine.
And of course I’m also there to work. I’m making a film. I’m committed to this film, and yet I struggle with what to reveal or withhold – I don’t want to betray anybody. And at the same time, I’m making a film that embraces paradox and an uncomfortable complexity, because that’s what life looks like. It can be beautiful and horrible at the same time.
I want to convey all of the qualities about people that made me go there in the first place and inspired me to make this film. But I also don’t want to be false – I can’t be too polite because it’s not a polite place. People are way more complex and interesting than that. One of the women in the film, Kiki, told me how she thought I should make the film. She advised me to show what the place really looks like, not…
TS: Sanitizing it.
KG: Yeah. I thought it was such a brave thing to say. It’s something I’d really been struggling with. I don’t want it to be that familiar story of blight and heroism or blight and pity. And it’s not a film about addiction or what people do to make money. It’s a portrait of a complex place that’s also at times very familiar, even ordinary. The film uncovers what’s beautiful and resonant, and at times this seems like an impossible task. It’s like going into Purgatory and trying to find something shining, almost holy.
And you’ll recognize something of yourself in people, even though the world of The Nine might appear so utterly different from your world. Essentially, though, what we need and value, and what brings joy to our lives are quite similar – they’re the small victories. Not the epic drama, but the moments that are easy to overlook.
There’s a lot on The Nine that is utterly familiar. There’s also enormous hardship. More often than not though, there’s a lot that’s very wonderfully ordinary.
TS: There’s also a lot of resiliency in that community that I don’t think is apparent at first glance.
KG: Right. And they’re not hiding their lifestyle. They don’t have to pretend. Some people have returned to their families, but feel like they don’t fit in with that perceived normalcy, or with people they think are well adjusted, well behaved, polite.
They find The Nine to be their comfort zone because they don’t have to pretend. And there’s something to be said about that, having come from a much more stoic background where you don’t share your hardship with anybody – there’s this perception that you’ll be burdening people with your problems.
Another thing about the Central Valley is that it appeared to me to be without delusion. In the past, I was interested in a kind of delusion – delusion as a survival mechanism and an inventive reimagining of a person’s world. You can see that most clearly in “The Westerns” and “Boulevard,” which were made in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Central Valley could not be more different. I found it to be a relief in a way.
TS: You’re not able to delude yourself as easily there.
A naturalist, author and activist who worked to preserve the wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range.
KG: John Muir described the landscape as an endless carpet of flowers, abundant with elk and birds – an Edenic landscape. It doesn’t look anything like that now. It has it’s own quiet, expansive beauty, but it’s also been devastated by aqueducts, irrigation, pollution and poverty.
TS: It’s a dust bowl.
KG: So you’ve got to contend with what it all means, because it can often feel like history is unfolding someplace else.
What do you do with that? Maybe you just live your life. I think it could be perceived as sort of sad or without ambition. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. It’s just having the perspective that life can be meaningful and fulfilling almost anywhere.
California-born author and literary journalist, known best for her 1968 book of essays “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and 2005 novel “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
I didn’t realize what I was looking for, but I immediately fell in love with what I perceived as this absence of delusion and just contending with the day – the sun, the dirt, the quiet landscape. It’s not surprising that so many great writers have come from the Central Valley. It’s an incredibly rich landscape. It’s also a place that’s overlooked and ignored. Like Joan Didion said, it’s not the California that tourists come to see.
The Central Valley is often considered a place to pass through, which of course marginalizes and ignores what’s really there. It’s much more interesting and complex than it’s given credit for. As a place, it’s very similar to some of the people I’ve recently photographed, who’ve been marginalized and almost rendered invisible. Originally, I envisioned the work – both “Boulevard” and “The 99” – as this procession of humanity, an army of dissident soldiers, the broken, the outcast. My kind of people. I always thought of it as a Danse Macabre of the powerless.
TS: That’s interesting. When is the movie supposed to be done and out? When can people see it?
KG: We’re aiming for the fall of 2015.
TS: You going to take it to film festivals?
KG: Yeah. It’s a brand new universe for me but I’ve started working with a great producer, Marc Smolowitz, who’s helping me navigate that world. Up until now, I’ve only been concerned with making the thing.
TS: The other half is really necessary if you want an audience. And then the Central Valley won’t be anonymous anymore.
KG: I’d love to hear you talk more about what you do. You wonder why I add more chaos. Well, why do you add more chaos to your already chaotic life?
TS: It is not quite so obvious – my projects have not been so overtly in a community where everyone, on the surface, seems like they have a daily wrestling match with misery.
KG: But people are running for their lives in your photographs! Aren’t we getting at the same thing? Or at least we’re motivated by something similar?
“I envisioned the work
as this procession of humanity,
an army of dissident soldiers,
the broken, the outcast.
My kind of people.”
— Katy Grannan
TS: I go on road trips and I travel with baseball teams and we spend time in the Central Valley. These people can feel really hopeless – every single night it’s an audition, and they could be cut at any time. They have no money. They often stay with families in the Central Valley because they can’t afford an apartment.
There’s a hopelessness there sometimes too. But it’s not a life or death sort of thing. I feel like I’ve broken up some monotony for my baseball players, frankly, as annoying as it is to have a camera around all the time. Once they got used to it, it was actually more fun – it’s not just another game that they have to play.
KG: I mean obviously, as artists, we have our unique impulses and that’s what can make art interesting – you get the see the world through a very specific set of eyes and maybe understand the world in a way you possibly didn’t understand it before. That can mean feeling frustrated or uncomfortable or, for a minute, even irritated or pissed off.
Lars Von Trier
Danish filmmaker known for “Nymphomaniac” (2013), “Melancholia” (2011), and “Dogville” (2003).
Or maybe it’s transformative, and you face that discomfort and recognize something of yourself. Lars Von Trier said something about seducing the audience into facing uncomfortable truths.
TS: I think he’s succeeded at that. I can see why that relates to your work completely.
I was a journalist before and loved it because I was paid to learn about something new over and over and over again. I was a good enough student and researcher that I could become a temporary expert on a topic and meet my deadline. That’s very different if you’re making a documentary or making a film where you’re spending three years with a community, which I have never done. But I have worked on something over the period of a year.
I saw your project from a journalist’s perspective at first, which is “She’s getting a window into a subculture that either she doesn’t know, or the rest of the world doesn’t know, or that we don’t actually ever get to see.” Because it’s often dark and they’re on the other side of the tracks, so to speak.
Then, I think the difference for me, what interests me in art photography and art films instead of just nonfiction work is that I’m actually more interested in the emotional life of what’s going on. And so, in terms of my baseball work, [it’s been] 11 years. There was a huge transition where I just decided I’m going to have to stop faking that I actually care about baseball. But I really am interested in the trajectory of these kids, and psychologically what goes on, both in terms of becoming a product and becoming a successful baseball player. And then everybody else.
KG: And also what it means as a human being to have aspiration, to have a taste of success, and then to experience failure.
TS: And how you go from there.
KG: That’s all human experience. That’s the meta perspective. I think often times with art that’s located in the world, specifically photography, it’s often taken literally and misunderstood as journalism when it’s actually entirely subjective. And it’s also deeply committed to an emotional life.
Sacramento-born and raised writer, known for his 1982 novel “Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez.”
Work has to be located somewhere, even if it’s located in abstraction. Joan Didion and Richard Rodriguez wrote about Sacramento, but it’s really a literary landscape, it’s a setting for very personal and acute observations about life and what it means to be a human being. That specific landscape opens up an entire creative universe. So, I think that’s what you’re talking about as well. You’ve recognized what is actually at the heart of this very specific community that you keep revisiting. And it’s not your love of baseball.
I think in the Central Valley, or particularly in Modesto, part of what I’ve always tried to do is to make something very beautiful – and I don’t mean simple or just pretty and pandering – but how can I make something complex and very beautiful in a place that appears to be devastated.
The comparison that I make in my own life is that, since I was young, I’ve always found “real life,” the mundane stuff to be almost unbearable. At some point, I recognized that I was completely wrong, because that’s exactly where the magic is happening. So now it’s like I’m seeing familiar things for the first time.
© Katy Grannan, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco