Another Woman Who Died in Her Sleep
Greenberg Van Doren
Katy Grannan, "Nicole (Afternoon II), Lombard Street, 2006," (2006.) Archival pigment print on cotton rag paper mounted to plexiglas, 40 × 50 inches (101.6 × 127 cm) Ed. 6 + 2 AP. Courtesy Greenberg Van Doren Gallery.
In Another Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, San Francisco area-based photographer Katy Grannan depicts the same person, Nicole, in various Northwestern landscapes and interiors. Grannan worked with Nicole for almost three years and established a comfortable intimacy with her subject. Her pictures show a woman thriving on the opportunity to reinvent herself shot-by-shot. There is no naiveté here and Nicole, whose personality is unquestionably complex, is always aware of the camera’s presence. The ever-seductive model, she offers an array of dramatic poses, expressions, and, at times, costumes that display a self-conscious theatricality. Her sense of exhibitionistic nihilism conveys the impression of a woman not in full control. Though she might not be close to a nervous breakdown per se, Nicole appears to have seen her share of worldly abuse. The exceptional quality of Grannan’s works is based on her ability to capture this sentiment not through photographic documentation but by allowing her subject to play with and transform herself for the camera.
In most pictures, Nicole wields her sexuality with an aggressiveness implying self-mockery and even self-hatred, rather than self-confidence: half dressed, breast exposed, arms hidden behind her back, her shirt cutting into her flesh. Her orange-blond hair, the exaggerated whiteness of her skin, almost translucent in the bright California sun, and cherry-red lips feed into a stereotype that is as much “white trash” as it Hollywood glam. Yet, these features magnify her overall vulnerability, making her seem as fragile as a rape victim. She appears in a tight red bodysuit, her legs bare, sprawling on a cement parking lot; nude on a beach; pregnant, or later, postpartum in a hospital bed, holding her newborn child Star with an expression of introspection and defeat. Throughout the series Grannan’s photographs are far from erotic. Instead, they capture the true nakedness of a conflicted soul. This exposure of a woman’s frailty can be at times hard to take, though it is the most intriguing, and perplexing, aspect of this body of work. Nothing horrific is shown, and nothing is revealed about Nicole’s life during these three years beyond the birth of her child. Why do these obviously staged scenarios seem so brutally honest and at times devastating?
Sure, Grannan’s photographs are intimate in the sense that they capture the sitter in intimate circumstances. However, with each frame, Nicole seems more obscure. In fact, the depictions of her are so varied that at first one is surprised to learn that they all portray the same individual. Rather than capturing various nuances of Nicole’s personality, Grannan collects different versions of Nicole as staged by Nicole. The photographs reflect the theater that unfolded before the camera, not Nicole’s inner life. With each scenario, Nicole slips further away from our grasp. Nevertheless, it is through the variability of Grannan’s pictures that lures us in and even sparks our compassion.
In Lady into Fox, another series concurrently on display at Salon 94, Grannan focuses on Gail and Dale, two middle-aged transsexuals, who are also best friends, portraying them individually and as a pair. The world of Gail and Dale seems less harsh than Nicole’s. Romantic escapism suffuses these portraits, depicting their subjects in long dresses and long flowing hair amidst the sandy dunes of Northern California, or in their bedroom, dreamily gazing into the distance. Despite the obvious difficulties that Gail and Dale have endured as members of a sexual minority, Grannan’s photographs portray two men at peace with themselves and their surroundings, where they have created their own unique refuge. It does help that they have each other to share their experiences, whereas Nicole is on her own (except for the one instance where she holds her baby, perhaps the only person in her life who needs protection more than she does).
All three of Grannan’s subjects are living the American dream of reinvention. They share an awareness that being photographed and documented means to be visible and re-confirmed, and Grannan tells their very different tales with sophistication and decisiveness.