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Kris Graves Projects, a Queens, New York-based photobook publisher with global reach, is the brainchild of photographer and publisher Kris Graves. Founded in 2011 after several DIY photo initiatives post-college, work as a photographer of the Guggenheim collection, and the founding of a photography gallery, Graves found his sweet spot in publishing, alongside his own practice as an imagemaker. In 2019, the company published a record 28 titles, and 14 photobooks are in the works for 2020. Focused on issues of race, equal rights, policy, social awareness, feminism, culture, and wealth, +KGP is an innovator in expanding the visibility of under-told stories. Here’s what he had to say about his process, collaboration, financial strategies and more.
A spread from Colorado City by Steven B Smith—part of the 2019Lost series
DUGGAL ART SCENE: In a recent talk, you mentioned that you prefer to publish works that are culturally significant projects that move people to think differently. What are your thoughts on the power of an image, or perhaps the power of a sequence of images, to radically transform a reader’s perception?
KRIS: I think that the sequence always has to start with a cover. People will not open your book unless there's an interest in the cover. So that's first; put one image on the cover and see if people want to touch it. Overall, sequencing is very important. But it's also extremely subjective, right? I can sequence something that I feel makes sense. But, if the viewer has a different mindset, then it's going to be different for them, right? So we try to personalize the books we produce and make books that make sense to me and to the artists. A lot of artists come to a project with an idea about how they want their book to look, so we kind of work it out together. But, some artists just come to me with 50, 60 or 100 photographs. I can talk about 2 books in particular.
Last year ,we made a book, Colorado City, by photographer Steven Smith. It's a small book and it was part of a set of books, the 2019 Lost series. He's an ex-Mormon who always goes back to the west to photograph because his family is in Utah. He sent me about 300 photographs of this small town on the border of Arizona and Colorado that included a lot of images of housing and changes in the town. It was a town that was founded by one radical Mormon preacher who had to leave the state of Utah to start a new town because polygamy was becoming illegal and he wanted to maintain a polygamous culture. He's now in prison for a host of reasons, but one thing he did was to kick boys out when they turned a certain age so that he could keep all the wives. When the boys turned 16 and became men, he would give them this questionnaire–survey that was really tricky. And then, he would have a legal right to kick them out when they came of age.
Something became clear to me after looking at a bunch of the photographs of homes that were never finished. I started wondering, why are all these homes temporary? Do people live in them? The answer was yes, people live in these temporary structures because they don't have to pay property taxes if they never finish a property. Also, they break down walls and build more rooms because the family keeps growing exponentially. This understanding made the work more interesting. I realized the book needed portraiture, so people would stop and think about the types of people who live in these spaces.
After going back and forth for a while, Steven sent me more images and it began to make sense–portraiture and the landscape together made the project work. The book opens up with the questionnaire. The next page is a story by Steven that illuminates the culture and the book. The book also includes found imagery and found portraiture. We had to figure out how to make something out of the initial group of images Steven presented and how to tell the story properly.
Another book we just released, Enough, by photographer Laurent Chevalier, features photographs of mostly Black neighborhoods and life in Brooklyn. Laurent came to me with an idea about structure that included images, poetry by Dr. Jamila Lyiscott, and sequencing. I just had to come in and refine the sequence. The three of us hopped on a call and went through every single image in the book, and additional images, to work out what images made sense for the book and in what sequence. That was a really great way to do it.
Print for sale from the publication Enough by Laurent Chevalier
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Part of your process as a publisher involves the sale of photobooks and 1-3 prints to cover the costs of publishing. How do you select prints to accompany a photobook? Do you save the best for private moments of discovery within the book? Or do you recommend offering the strongest print in a series?
KRIS: I think the artists I work with trust me to figure out what prints to sell. I might say, “This picture is really good.” It's probably not your best photograph in this set. But, what is best to me, in this case, is what has the best chance to sell. That's how we do it.
Subtlety doesn't sell in print form in a photobook situation, when you're trying to make a quick sale to help fund a project. The art world wants subtlety. I sell the photographs that are a little bit catchier. It's a different mix and if I can explain that directly to the artists, then we're good. I ran a gallery in DUMBO with my cousin, for two and a half years. We had a limited-edition print program and in that scenario, we sold the best works. Now, we only do print sales on our hardcover, larger books. On our smaller editions, we usually just do pre-sales of the book. Every hardcover book that we've made would not have been made if we didn't make print sales, because they just bring in so much more money, in a fast way. We select prints based on our histories in the photography business and the art business.
Print for sale from the publication Enough by Laurent Chevalier
DUGGAL ART SCENE: You have self-published some of your own photographic work under your imprint. What are some takeaways and lessons learned that anyone who wants to self-publish should keep in mind?
KRIS: Pre-order, so that you don't lose all of your money! If 50 people don't want to buy your project, do you really need to make a book? If 50 people who you know, don't want it, then why would you make an expensive book? If you have no following, then it's not time to make a book. You want a book when you can actually move it, or at least gain some traction by having it. I will work with an artist that has no following if I just want to be the first person or the only person that would produce the work. But, it's not on the artist to make that money. Those books are usually inexpensive. I’ve found a way to work with artists who are new or up and coming, because I make 8 or 20 books at once, so it cuts down on the cost of each individual book and they come in sets. If I have 2 popular people in the set, that means that those two are going to pay for 8, then I can do whatever I want with the rest. If 2 pay for 8, then 6 will give me money slowly over the course of a year, or year and a half. That's how I work.
For my personal projects, I have a team of human beings who I love and rely on for little critiques and who I think make good decisions. I have people who have been working with us for a long time, but I also have friends I just trust to tell me, “This picture does nothing for me.” I bounce ideas off of 15 people or so to see what people are responding to, what people don't like, and what people do like. I'm now working on a project myself that I've been working on for 8 to 10 years and I finally have 30 images to show, but I've made 50,000 to 100,000 images. So, it takes a while. The first photobook that I published of my work was Queens Affair, and that was in the year 2010. That was when I had the gallery. It was me and my friend, Eric. I took clean photography related landscapes, he did portraits, and the book probably cost three grand. It was fun. It was cool. It was easy. No one lost money doing it. So that was a fun project just to test the waters of publishing in the first place.
LOST II — a box set of twenty photography monographs by twenty artists.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, your passion for collaboration seems to drive your prolific publication schedule. What is it that you find most rewarding about working with others?
KRIS: I don't know anything else right now. I think I'm just interested in making these books. Working with every artist has been different. Although, last year we worked with about 28 different artists and that was overwhelming. But what I find most rewarding is that I get to work with amazing artists. Usually, they're pretty young, but I am also working with artists who have been around for 30 or 40 years. That mix is cool. It's always a little different. I get to learn about artists, how they operate, what they are aesthetically geared toward, or how they see education.
You can see an education in photography by looking at the way people make photographs. For me, looking at all these photographs makes me smarter, being a photographer, being a better publisher, and trying to figure out what is different about the work we want to support. I see now, looking back ,and I didn't even try to do it, but we made a lot of books with queer folk and that's cool. If I like the work, I'll just say, I really want to make this project. I've been letting things come to me. There's no planning.
The pandemic has definitely changed the way that I want to make books and the people I want to work with in the future. All of the books that I want to make have to be completely culturally significant. If it’s landscape, it has to be about, say, American issues of gentrification or environmental infrastructure problems. If it's portraiture, then it has to be really good.
What's my passion? I just keep it moving. I'm happy to make the work happen. And I think that's kind of enough for me right now.
A spread from Provisional Scenery by Kris Graves
Tune in to the +KGP Instagram Live interview series engaging with photographic artists and tastemakers. Details here: https://www.krisgravesprojects.com/news