The latest season of photography in London has offered a wide survey of the staged, indulgent, gratuitous and earnest throughout galleries and museum spaces. At the V & A, Diane Arbus was appraised once again as the outsider, her psychology central to her craft while, on the walls, her photographs related something of the people that were to become her preoccupations. The pictures offered a clear archaeology of the time in which she was working. The visibility of late1960s conflicts, the endless on-screen footage of battle, of dissent and patriotism must have moved Arbus. How else could she work with singularity and formal risk, both in the street and the private spaces of the people who made up her understanding of America?

Katy Grannan’s Model American is an approach towards a contemporary America. Unlike Arbus, there is no sense of overt violence or physical extremes. It is a changed country, perhaps fractured, this time quietly troubled. This is the first major collection of Grannan’s work, and it’s a challenging one. Parallels to Arbus are appropriate in that the photographs appear remote from the photography that holds contemporary currency. This book marks her work as a singular and astute observer in a complex time. This is an America where war has returned but is managed and remote, where the civil division between rural and urban create separate states, where the retreat into the private spaces afforded by dislocating work patterns and the internet can create isolation, fractured identities, and the briefest of intimacies.

Grannan works with portraiture. A former student of the Yale School, her photographs have been made in a climate of highly choreographed dramas. Beyond the risk-taking of reportage or long-term documentary projects, the last decade has regularly seen the foregrounding of the visual tapestries of Jeff Wall, for example, or the twilight domestic fictions of Gregory Crewdson.

Yet while these are elaborate and highly stylised productions, Grannan’s work has nothing of the indulgence of melodramatic narrative. Somehow, she is able to move out into the nervous territories of silent America.

She photographs people she doesn’t know, engaging in brief liaisons that map an imperfect and aching country. It is an emotional trespass, urgent and then gone, and it speaks of these times. Whether indoors or in the unkempt lanes of small towns, her photographs are emotionally complex yet formally direct.

Looking at these pictures, there is a clear sense of temporary intimacies. Often, the writer Richard Yates, who worked in a similar territory, created a quiet space within narratives for the complexities of emotional life, evoking tension but needing to say very little. Grannan comes close to this. Bodies betray imperfections and are often youthful yet pale. Her sitters are regularly unclothed or in states of undress. In Poughkeepsie Journal, strangers are incongruously naked against their domestic spaces, and appear awkward in their own rooms. Homes are sparse, almost empty environments of mock brick cladding, timber and laminate, somehow without warmth or softness. Occasionally natural light is overlaid with flash, the sitters becoming remote inhabitants in a world of uncertain scale. The pictures relate a sense of isolation – there is little sense of community and rarely together-ness. The work is anchored by journal extracts that relate something of the photographer’s position in the development of the work. It could be insignificant, yet it becomes everything, suggesting the hidden and painful dramas of a very real American life. The work becomes layered, multi-vocal, and particularly successful in Sugar Camp Road, where subjects flail, falter or repose awkwardly against the richly coloured bushes and creeks of their homeland. It’s impossible to look at these bravely structured and compelling portraits and not feel wider American tensions.
Model American conveys the strength of a singular voice in an era that appears to reward mediocrity. The work has legitimacy, and a sense of truth – a truth that, like silence, often comes after the crowds have gone.

Ken Grant