It's not obvious at first that Charlie White and Katy Grannan, the photographers whose work features in LACMA's new two-person exhibition “The Sun and Other Stars,” belong together.
White's images fixate on how adolescence has been idealized — in making some of them, he's held casting calls where blond, slim, always white teens with hair and posture that conjure Disney Channel stars Ashley Tisdale or Ross Lynch posed in front of well-lit, gridded backgrounds.
Grannan's images, while just as intently posed, feature anonymous eccentrics she met on the streets of L.A. or San Francisco. One man Grannan photographed has a tattoo of a star on his cheek and a red blade arching down his neck, which makes it appear that he's bleeding. Another wispily white-haired woman in a pink parka with faraway eyes could be a character out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
But because Grannan posed her subjects in front of white walls and under intense California sun, her images, like White's, look as evenly lit and exacting as they would have if shot in studios with strobes and solid backdrops. And, also like White's, every detail of Grannan's images is meant to draw your attention to the subject, and only the subject.
White and Grannan became friends, in part because they care so much about their subjects, according to White. Grannan points out they would have been friends regardless, since they “hit it off instantly,” and it's hard not to love White, whose “intellect is ginormous.”
Whatever the reason, by the time in 2011 LACMA curator Britt Salvesen proposed to them a joint show, the artists were already deep in conversation with one another.
Grannan had known White's work since the late 1990s, but she didn't officially meet him until she came down from San Francisco in the mid-'00s to lecture at USC, where White teaches.
“If you look at earlier work of mine and Katy's, like from the late '90s,” White says, “you'll see how it has never deviated from the subject.”
In the last decade and a half, a lot of fine-art photography has deviated. Portrait photography and multipart narrative shoots have been more at home in W or Vanity Fair fashion features than in white-walled galleries.
But a series of staged images White made in 1999 shows people reacting to strange encounters they've had with aliens in Highland Park or empty Inland Empire streets. In 1999, Grannan photographed a series of nude, or nearly nude, young and adolescent women centered in sterile suburban living rooms.
“We were working in that regard,” White says of portrait photography, “but realizing that area of focus had moved out of the zeitgeist.”
What did enter the art-world zeitgeist in the 2000s was process-based work — so much had changed in photography, and in media, so quickly. We'd gone from analog to digital; printing possibilities had multiplied. And there was Photoshop, and webcams with which to take self-portraits, and websites where you could upload images instantly.
As if anticipating the Facebook era, Wolfgang Tillmans began taking photographs of everything and anything he encountered, from fruit stands and his friends to T-shirts. He also took photographs for advertisements, which he sometimes displayed along with his other work. The only thing that made something worthy of photographing, it seemed, was that Tillmans had noticed it.
In 2006, Walead Beshty exhibited images he had taken of the abandoned Iraqi Embassy in Berlin. Since he had let his analog film pass through airport X-ray machines, the images were blurred and streaked with purples and greens. Technology had obstructed the subject.
The weird thing about photographs like these is that — even though they probe the possibilities and failures of technology and self-consciously record how photographers' experiences in the world physically affect what they make — they still feel like they're mostly photographs about photography. You look at them and think about how they were made, how they work, how they compare to other photographs you've seen.
“There's a much bigger world out there, and plenty of places to find common ground,” Grannan says. “Photography is just a starting point.”
She's referring to her own conversations with White, and how they would have plenty to discuss even if they hadn't both been interested in subjects in the era of the process, but the statement resonates with the show as a whole.
In Grannan's photographs, the austerity of the sunlight, the careful framing — you never see the full figure, just the head and shoulders or sometimes part of the torso and a bit of leg — and the crispness that allows you to see the brutal details of each face all feel like they're trying to get at the bigness and strangeness of what and who exists outside the photo's frame.
“I envisioned these photographs as a procession of individuals with rich histories, much like the final scene in 8½,” Grannan explains.
That Fellini film ends with a crowd of characters proceeding along a beach, around a movie set. It's carnivalesque but also drawn out enough that you can pay attention to each character's individual quirks.
White, too, creates something of a crowd. In glass cases, he has laid out his research material — covers and clips from People and teen magazines, showing young Jodie Foster or Jessica Simpson — which he looks at in planning his own images.
Then the unnamed subjects White has photographed hang on the walls, seeming more of a contemporary moment than the celebrities in the cases, more aware of the camera and of the ideal they're aiming for with their parted blond hair, tanned skin and hands-on-hips poses.
“Both of us work in the present,” White says of himself and Grannan. “There's a time when the subject re-enters the picture, and that time is now.”