“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.
I never want to see another picture that purports to show the “real” identity of a particular group or class of people. The art market is crowded with portraits or supposed “real-life” snapshots meant to represent the “true lives” of rural Americans, or forgotten communities in Kamchatka, or teenagers in Prague, or nomads roaming South American deserts. Despite how important such imagery can be in illuminating forgotten or ostracized populations, they often lean toward voyeurism and, at times, exploitation. Kris Graves’ imagery is an exception.
Graves invites his subjects to be part of the image-making process in an attempt to challenge not only the notion of portraiture, but also the representation of blackness in contemporary photography. Graves does this by asking his subjects to choose the light by which they are illuminated. Some choose blue light. Others red. Some choose light from above, others from the side, brightness highlighting features they wish the viewers to see and shadows obscuring features they might want to hide or de-emphasize. The subjects in the photographs, then, transform from objects to be observed (or even consumed) to subjects in charge of shaping how they are represented. The result is not only intimacy, but vibrancy. Graves’ photographs are filled with not only light and color, but life.
Of course, handing over the decision-making for some aspect of an image is not novel; Graves is not the only photographer to pass some degree of control to his subjects. But in this era of heightened discussion of race, identity, and cultural appropriation, Graves choice of relinquishing what is perhaps the most important aspect to a photographer’s work—light—to the subject is more than just bold. It’s beautiful, and it provides pathways for the viewer to rethink their own negotiation of issues of race at a time when many other routes have been simply shut down. Graves opens our world, and he does so by relinquishing control, not clinging to it. Would that others in the public sphere do the same.