The Extraordinary Within the Ordinary:
Gary Grenell's "Five Blocks to Green Lake" March 2-30, 2000, at Photographic Center Northwest by Trilby Coolidge, Ph.D.
Shopping in my neighborhood, preoccupied a bit with the errands needing to be done, brings me into contact with others who are simultaneously travelling through the same space. I stop at the comer, watch the oncoming drivers, listen to the on-the-job training the bank teller is receiving as I wait in line, dodge the perambulator a young woman is pushing towards me, hear the door as a customer exits the dry cleaners, move rapidly towards a youngster whose little bike with training wheels is fast approaching the street, judge the distance to a rather large puddle and decide to yield to a trio walking abreast, pass several individuals sitting and reading the newspaper as I head straight for the counter to order my coffee beans. Clearly, the fact that I accommodated these others who were travelling the same sidewalks and shops as I was without bumping into them meant that I had seen and heard them - yet what have I really noticed about them? This often-asked question took on new meaning for me the other day when, in the course of my shopping, I suddenly recognized a man walking towards me, holding the hand of a small boy: he was the subject of one of Gary Grenell's photographic portraits.
Gary Grenell's recent solo show "Five Blocks to Green Lake," which recently placed in Santa Fe Workshop's "Project Competition," consists of black and white portraits of individuals whom Gary encountered in his neighborhood of Green Lake. In this more or less ordinary part of the city, Gary has captured an astonishing variety of humanity. For example, one portrait is of a late middle aged, somewhat overweight couple having a picnic. The man is sprawled on his back, wearing shorts and sporting calf-length black socks. The woman props her chin up on a cupped palm. They are positioned facing away from one another, yet touching. You see his hand lightly resting on her body, and you sense their history and intimacy.
Another photo features an elderly woman, looking a bit tentatively at the camera from behind her picket fence. In her face you see her question: "Why me? I don't do anything, I'm not special" . A third depicts a man in his 50s or 60s, a bit stocky in the abdomen, wearing dated clothes, with groomed hair gracing his full, slightly lined face. He sits at the edge of the lake. You sense his full life, the Depression, his family, marriages, deaths, celebrations, hard work.
Technically excellent, these photos have a quietly compelling quality to them. I would characterize this as "the extraordinary within the ordinary". That is, with a few exceptions of individuals in unusual, foreign dress, the subjects of the photos are quite ordinary-looking people. At the same time, however, their expression, pose, clothing and other aspects provide clues to their personalities. I found myself curious about them, wishing to know more about them, and, as my descriptions suggest, already making assumptions about them.
Gary concurred with my attempts to describe my complex responses to his show. He likened the subjects to patients: each is unique, "a gem", and worthy of our respect. Thus, he considers his life-long interest in photography - and his focus on portraiture - to be naturally compatible with his profession as a psychoanalyst. In both endeavors (and, I might add, in the endeavor of looking at Gary's portraits), one is called upon to focus on the uniqueness and depth of the individual.
Gary began taking photographs as a young child, with a Brownie. The works of W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Diane Arbus have had a strong influence on him, as have the traditions of street photography and environmental portraiture. Indeed, the fact that these photos are of "real people", and are uncropped as well as unmanipulated in the darkroom, compels us to reexamine our assumptions about what "real life", and "real people" in particular, is truly like. The fact that the portraits are in black and white further adds to this tension of the extraordinary in the ordinary. As Gary put it, these static, black and white images of human beings tell the viewer (who, of course, is also a human being): "This is not reality, there's something about this that is different from what you ordinarily see. "
All in all, I found myself thinking about the real complexities of individuals, their "gem-ness", and how often I have, unknowingly, crossed paths "in the real world" with an ordinary person and failed to notice this. The irony of recognizing one of Gary's "extraordinary" people, who would otherwise be completely "ordinary" to me in my preoccupied state had I not seen Gary's show, only highlights this.
Reprinted from the “The Alliance Forum”
The Newsletter of the Northwest Alliance for Psychoanalytic Study
Interview with Gary Grenell by Katherine Knowlton, Ph.D.
This is another in the series of occasional interviews with members of the Alliance community who are also artists.
In the hallway outside his office, I begin to see Gary Grenell's creative work even before he and I meet to talk. The wall is hung with black-and-white photographs taken in Brazil on a trip with his father to visit the exchange student their family had hosted thirty-eight years before. The pictures feature people in everyday circumstances, including some very simple, gritty living conditions. Most subjects stare out, unselfconscious and unposed, with the ease I have always credited to the photographer's ability. Somehow he has managed to point a camera at these people, some of whom may have never been photographed, and yet he has stirred no disquiet, no self-protectiveness.
In fact, the people looking out from the photographs are the ones who seem to be observing. They have the authority of the watcher, not the reactiveness of the watched. The other remarkable aspect of these pictures is their visual subtlety. They have shadings and textures I did not know a camera could capture, yet these do not demand attention as much as reward it. You could pass by the series unaware, thinking only that they were portraits taken in a foreign land. Or you could stand and study any of them, seeing more and more.
Once in Gary's warm, attractive office (the phrase "professional digs" comes to mind), I experience the enrapturing quality of his work again, as we talk and pore over images taken since he became "quite serious" about photography in 1970. Time and again some question or line of inquiry comes to mind only to be happily supplanted by the next picture and all it evokes.
He got his start in photojournalism as the lead photographer for his high school yearbook and newspaper in Los Angeles. He admits to being heavily influenced by the photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand, and books such as 1he Family of Man (Steichen, 1955). He points out that his two passions, photography and psychology, have had many parallels. For example, the humanistic psychology movement of Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and others paralleled the deeply humanistic photography of Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier- Bresson. The two interests "were brought up at the same time," and Gary developed an early bent not toward the design or narrative aspects of photography, but toward what it could suggest about the human condition.
More personally, he experienced photography as a way to interact with the world and to overcome youthful shyness. "Photography was a transitional space, a way to be involved but with a little bit of protection, which I really did need."
"Photography has the camera," Gary continued. "Psychoanalysis has the structure of the therapy as an intermediary that allows a certain type of engagement. There is this apparatus involved that allows one to explore the limits and keep on exploring. The more you know a space, the more you can pay attention to the nuances and subtleties within that space."
His early exploration with a camera was quite literal. At sixteen he started ranging all over Los Angeles, looking for "the decisive moment," the revealing, even astonishing photographic glimpses of folks in places "people don't usually walk. I've walked a in a lot of funky places."
His work shifted slightly from photojournalism to street photography, a genre in which one is not narrating a story. "It's about the relationship with the subject and the street. It's a fairly cursory relationship, albeit one-sided." He began to perfect his practice of capturing whatever he found. One of the haunting images from this time is of a construction worker coming out from behind a half-demolished wall. Gary heard him approaching and was able to anticipate the shot, but he had no way of knowing the man's rangy toughness would fit so dramatically with the demolition in progress.
Gary's work matured into environmental portraiture, with no artificial lighting, no set up requiring more than a few minutes. The parallels to psychoanalysis come up again. "There is a decisive moment in both. You have to have a sense of timing when your intervention is going to be well-received, and then it's kind of artistic. You have to work to the level of the artistic." The classes he teaches at Seattle Psychoanalytic Society and Institute are classes in analytic technique. And his love of black-and-white photography has to do in part with its technical aspects: "What I like about black and white is that the tonal range is more evident. When you look at a color photograph, you think reality. When you look at a black-and-white photograph, the absence of color denotes it as fictive. Black and white is like a dream. It's not meant to be the real world, but to show you something different. And I'm very interested in dreams. My interests in photography and psychoanalysis interpenetrate constantly."
Perhaps partly because of the challenges and possibilities of darkroom work, he has cultivated an editor's careful eye to complement his fluid responsiveness to opportunity. Now when he walks on photo safari he looks at the world differently. "I'm scanning and looking for humor, the decisive moment. There are many days I've gone our and not released my shutter. I won't release my shutter unless I know it's going to be excellent."
And the images are excellent. Even to my untrained eye they look impossibly precise yet somehow unfussy, artful yet spontaneous, subtle yet accessible. Gary notes that he briefly considered making his living as a photographer, but explains laughingly, "Psychology is useless as an avocation. I can always do photography as a hobby, bur if I do psychology as a hobby, I'll lose my friends."
These days, Gary photographs people where he finds them, mostly now at Green Lake, trusting his well developed skills and his unconscious artistry. "If I arrange something," he says, "it is whatever can be done in forty-five seconds. I can consciously anticipate about 80 percent how the photograph will appear. Then there's 20 percent that's preconscious." As an example, he returns to a classic, unforgettable image he caught years ago in London.
In it a photographer stares back at us from an awkward perch on a stone building, his face obscured by his own raised camera. He is poised above the only other person in the picture, a pedestrian whose head is the only thing showing above a stone wall. Gary points to the disembodied head that balances and completes the other figure so perfectly. "I may not have been aware of him, but I may have waited. You can't be aware of everything. And sometimes it's what makes the picture."
Over the years, his art has been influenced in part by his work as a psychoanalyst. "For a while I was interested in photographing the under-privileged, but not anymore. It feels exploitive to me. When I was sixteen I didn't care that deeply about people's pain. As an effective photographer, you have to disarm your subject as you do your client. You have to make it clear: I come in peace. I'm not here to hurt you. Now, if I'm going to be photographing somebody down and out, I'm going to be sure they get something out of it. I think a nice photographic portrait is respectful, and if they get a copy of a respectful portrait of themselves, we both get something our of it. It can't be where I'm gaining something and they're gaining nothing."
This brings us to the most recent recipients of his work, the subjects of his show "Five Blocks to Green Lake," on display October 2-30 in the lobby of Seattle City Hall. He found all of his subjects within five blocks of his home as he walked to the lake, around it, and back. He started the project in 1993 and has some eighty-five pictures to date. Twenty-eight are in the City Hall show. They reveal his delight in people and in mastering technical challenges, like the real trick of "preserving detail in your whites and still having detail in your shadows."
These pictures are more unabashedly funny and affectionate than the previous work he has shown me. One entitled "Green Lake Gothic" shows a couple "fresh off the boat" from Russia. It placed in the Photo Review magazine competition in 2005. Somehow his signature breadth of grey tones is especially apt with the sturdy, Soviet-style stolidness of the couple. They are funny, if one thinks of discovering them at Green Lake. They are also real, uniquely themselves, people who have been through a great deal. It is warming to think they might have their copy of this picture, matted and framed as Gary presents them to his subjects, up on a wall where they live.
Finally, I ask about the differences between photography and psychoanalysis. He begins the answer there, but returns to their parallels:
"Photography is a visual medium, and the visual aspects of psychoanalysis are much in the background or played down. In photography there are relational aspects, but they're not the most prominent thing. It's a brief relationship that lives on, and once the photograph is made it takes on a life of its own. The photograph becomes 'the third.'
"In a sense, both relationships live as internal objects. The photograph takes on symbolic, even mythical meaning, over time. And even after we terminate with our clients, that relationship persists. But both are creative expressions. I am able to be myself fully in both. Therapy helps me be more accepting of people, and that has helped my photography. To have empathy, you have to have a way to identify. For a photographic subject to be engaged, you have to have some identification, too. You must approach them as I'm like you. we're two peas in a pod. In both, I follow my passion to be engaged with people and affected by people. They make me come alive to something beautiful, something lasting."
Silently I think how well these words describe his photographs. Here is something beautiful, something lasting. He has shown me the prints, but I will go to see his show at City Hall.
Steichen, E. (1955). The Family of Man. New York: Museum of Modern Art/ Simon and Schuster.