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Issue 200

The Quiet Dignity of Kris Graves’s ‘Self-Portrait: Iceland’

‘These are images that can move me to tears’

BY Thomas Chatterton Williams in Fan Letter | 18 DEC 18

Kris Graves, Self-Portrait, Iceland, 2016, archival pigment print, 41 x 51 cm. Courtesy: the artist

There is a quiet dignity that suffuses the portraiture and landscape photography of the Queens-based artist Kris Graves. In 2016, he flew across the US documenting the locations where unarmed black men and boys – from Eric Garner in Staten Island to Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Michael Brown in Ferguson – were killed by police, as though they had no claim to the physical space they’d been inhabiting. These were mostly inner-city scenes – ironically, the kind of spaces we’ve been conditioned to think of as where black people belong – which he captured at times when they were eerily devoid of all human presence. These are images that can move me to tears.

But I’ve grown wildly enthusiastic about another set of Graves’s work, which takes the premise of belonging and turns it on its head. Race, after all, works in tricky and surprising ways. Skin tone doesn’t just pretend to serve as shorthand for what is inside a person’s heart or head; it also seeks to tell us where in the world that person should be. Graves has always travelled widely and, in the course of his travels, he’s begun to photograph black people in spaces, often scenes of great natural beauty and wide-open expanse, in which we do not typically imagine they belong – if we stop to imagine them at all.

Here, we see a tranquil young man floating in the azure sea, off the coast of Aruba; here, we see the photographer himself giving the finger to the riders of the Confederacy whose ignominy remains etched across the face of Stone Mountain, Georgia. And there’s his mother, Susan, gazing out at the snow-capped peaks of Oregon into Washington, at the terminus of a Manifest Destiny that was not conceived for her pleasure. And here’s one of my favourites, Graves’s self-portrait, in Iceland, in 2016. He’s dressed in all black and wearing a ski mask – in another context, would you cross the street to avoid him? – standing against an overcast sky and the most inhospitable cliffs, as if he’s emerging from the cold water. He’s exactly where he should be.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is based in Paris, France. He is the author of the memoir, Losing My Cool (2010), and a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. He is currently working on a book about how we construct race.