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