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.