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.