CultureZohn: Katy Grannan On Highway 99

You remember John Ford's film The Gapes of Wrath, the dust, the trucks, an early 20th century version of the Leftovers living in their camp without the right wristbands to get into the safe place. You remember the iconic images from The Family of Man, the Museum of Modern Art's legendary exhibition and book, especially those of Dorothea Lange who also focused in particular on the California migrants whose lives had been upended by the depression.

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Images by Dorothea Lange

Photographer/filmmaker Katy Grannan revisits these themes in Hundreds of Sparrows, her new show at Salon 94 Bowery. Though she's previously been compared to Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, Grannan has departed from the urban subjects of Boulevard, her previous work to hit California's Highway 99 (especially around Modesto) in our now arid and suffering Central Valley. These folk are the "other side of the American dream," every bit as parched as the cracked and desiccated soil they live on.

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Katy Grannan courtesy of the artist and Salon 94

Modesto's water-ravenous almond crops depend entirely on irrigation. I once spent a month working on an organic orange farm in Chico at the northern end of Highway 99. I baked honey wheat bread, sewed dresses out of empty flour sacks and got up in the middle of the night to change direction of the trenches so that the irrigation channels could be re-directed. Organic was a euphemism for "We have no money to modernize."

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Katy Grannan courtesy of the artist and Salon 94

Now most people take Route 5 through the Central Valley, so Highway 99 stands as a road for local travel and forgotten towns.

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Katy Grannan, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94

Grannan moved to California three years ago from the East. She is blonde and radiant, but she seems to have dived headlong into the darker side of California, one that Joan Didion explored so accurately in her essays and that Marisa Silver fictionalized so keenly in her novel Mary Coin. As in Boulevard, here on Highway 99 we find the faces deeply craggy, the intimations of extreme poverty, yet the attempts at self-beautification in spite of it all: tattoos, sexy printed dresses.

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Katy Grannan, Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94

George Lucas went to high school in Modesto and American Graffitti was set there. You will not find teenagers at the drive-in in Grannan's work. Rather, it's almost as if climate change had taken on human form.

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To learn more about the Katy Grannan exhibition at Salon 94, Bowery Hundreds of Sparrows, November 04-December 20 , go here.

To remind yourself of The Grapes of Wrath, go here.

To remind yourself of the work of Dorothea Lange go here.

To learn more about Marisa Silver's novel Mary Coin go here.

To read Joan Didion's essays go here.