Katy Grannan: Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2013, pigment print on paper mounted on plexiglass, 55 by 41 inches; at Salon 94 Bowery.

This exhibition, titled “Hundreds of Sparrows,” presented work from Katy Grannan’s ongoing photographic project documenting the (often transient) lives of residents of California’s Central Valley. Since the late 1990s, Grannan has been among a number of photographers, including Justine Kurland and Robert Bergman, whose work concerns unseen or overlooked American communities. Two historical touchstones for Grannan are Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus, the former of whom photographed some of her most iconic images in or near the valley. The work in this show was made over the course of four years (2011-15), while Grannan was shooting her first feature-length film, The Nine, which involves many of the same subjects and will premiere in 2016.

The exhibition offered a selection of black-and-white and color photographs in sizes ranging from large-format to small. Four single-channel videos played in viewing alcoves at the center of the gallery. While many of the works in the show have an almost mythic dimension, others present frank tableaux. The video Nana Eating a Popsicle, Modesto, CA (2015), for instance, shows a woman sitting on a bed in an unremarkable (motel?) room cast in diffuse bluish light eating an ice pop. She nods her head when hip-hop is heard playing from a car outside, and turns when a loud group of kids walks by the window, but resumes eating the pop, unbothered.

In the large black-and-white photograph Deb and Pam Play, Tuolumne River, Modesto, CA (2013), two women are shown wading in the water. Both are middle-aged; one of them, dressed like a teenager, in a plaid mini skirt and with her hair in ponytail, clutches a plastic bottle, while the other leans forward with a determined expression, a cigarette in one hand and the other clenched into a fist. A cat in the foreground of Cheryl Makes an Offering, Budget Courtyard, Modesto, CA (2014) inspects a scattering of cat food, while three sphinxlike felines recline in the background. A woman, presumably Cheryl, seen from only the shoulders down and wearing a black dress with a crackled cross printed on its front, stands with her arms slightly outstretched in a posture evoking a Catholic idol. Several other black-and-white photographs depict feral cats who tumble around, nurse kittens and rub against one another—a sort of analogy for the wild side on which Grannan’s subjects walk. 

Five portraits titled Anonymous, Modesto, CA are familiar. The style and format (color photographs measuring 55 by 41 inches) and pathos are consistent with Grannan’s “Boulevard” series (2011), which was shot in and around San Francisco and Los Angeles. In one of the Modesto works, from 2013, a woman in a tropical-print bathing suit looks like a warrior. She squints into the distance, her long reddish hair blowing back, her torso adorned with tattoos, including an illegible name written on her left breast. In many of Grannan’s portraits, including this one, the stark sun highlights the subjects’ physical imperfections (blemishes, wrinkles, bruises, scars), making them seem at once hardened and vulnerable.

Many of the photographs were taken in interstitial spaces: stretches of grass alongside highway medians, river banks, alleyways and vacant lots, and this attention to the peripheral makes the figures’ physical presence especially potent, and, at times, jarring. Grannan’s figures are, as Linda Nochlin has said of realist subjects, “in the timeless realm of dignity, bound firmly by posture, pose and action, to their own time.” Like fallen demigods, they roam a liminal space between earthly concern and the flight from it.