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Katy Grannan: Poet of the down-and-out

There’s something disarming about Katy Grannan’s sun-bleached, strangely melancholy portraits. Taken against white stucco walls under the strong, unforgiving midday light of Hollywood Boulevard and San Fransisco’s Tenderloin District, Grannan’s images capture the strange and familiar, nakedly exposing their subjects as they have chosen to be seen.

It’s a narrative of a first encounter, imbued with the quiet tension of an exchange between strangers. There is joy and sadness at the same time, a dark undercurrent simmering beneath the bright, saturating sunlight. With their stark simplicity and extraordinary use of light and colour, each portrait has an arresting intensity. Each subject harbours a desire to be seen by the camera, but none of them make direct eye contact.

In the late ‘90s, an ad appeared in the local papers of New York: “Artist/ photographer (female) seeks people for portraits. No experience necessary.” Grannan let the respondents pose however they wanted, and collected a series of diverse and strangely alluring images that capture layers of identity and self-image.

Later, Grannan moved to Berkeley, where she continued to take photographs of the people she met, letting the subject direct the portrait each time. And for the past three years, these images have been building to create the Believers and Boulevard series, currently on display as the Happy Ever After exhibition at New York’s Salon 94.

Drag queens, celebrity impersonators, addicts, hippies and outcasts of all kinds populate Grannan’s collection. As Jerry Satz from New York magazine described, “She has become a sort of Charles Bukowski with a camera, a poet of the down-and-out who allows us to see these people as they see themselves.” There is something poignant about the way almost every subject has desired to show their true selves by being someone or something else- a different age, a different gender, a different person. There’s ambiguity in every image, an element of the surreal, and the result is both delightful and unsettling.

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is Katy Grannan’s portraits make you feel, but it’s something intense- and something that keeps on haunting you long after you’ve looked away.


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