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Inside One of America’s Only Black-Owned Book Publishing Houses

Inside One of America’s Only Black-Owned Book Publishing Houses

Photographer Kris Graves shares his journey to create a space for artists of color in a historically exclusionary industry.
© Ruben Natal-San Miguel

“I don’t consider myself a book publisher,” says photographer and educator Kris Graves, the mastermind behind KPG Projects, one of the only Black-owned photography book publishing houses in the United States. Adopting the position of “collaborator”, Graves works with artists including Zora J. Murff, Ruben Natal-San Miguel, Wendy Red Starr, Griselda San Martin, and Zun Lee to create affordable, limited-edition publications that tell stories that go untold by the art world and book publishing.

Though the world bore witness to the largest Civil Rights movement in history last year, hiring practices are notoriously slow to change. A 2021 analysis of 34,301 professional photographers working in the United States shows that nearly 70% are white, 15.1% Latino, 6.4% Black, 5.8% Asian, and 0.3% Indigenous. Equally revealing is the fact that over the past decade, non-white photographers have only secured a 3% increase in market share. Invariably, the hiring gap reflects larger discrepancies in the industry. A 2019 study of 18 major U.S. museums revealed 85.4% of the works were by white artists, with just 9% Asian, 2.8% Latino, and 1.2% Black artists.

© Zun Lee

Book publishing historically shares the same biases; last year The New York Times asked, “Just How White Is the Book Industry?”, and came up with the resounding figure of 95 %. Although they only surveyed fiction titles, the survey casts a light on an industry long known for its monoracial hiring practices. With homogeneous environments literally controlling the narrative, it is rare to see a publishing program adopt an inclusive approach to storytelling. This is the path Kris Graves walks.

Make Some Noise

In a world where seeing is believing, we are led to think that a photograph represents an objective truth rather than a subjective construct. The proliferation of visual tropes and stale clichés — to say nothing of stereotypes and derogatory archetypes — weighs heavily on the way we see and think, narrowing our perspectives and reinforcing limitations on our minds through repetitive exposure.

© Hayley Austin

While artists of color have perspectives and life experiences that can help us confront the challenges facing the United States today and imagine new solutions, most struggle to gain access to industries that have historically excluded or marginalized them. Like Malcolm X, who famously said, “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it,” Kris Graves understands that the most powerful way to make space is to do it yourself.

In 2020, Graves launched Monolith Editions to exclusively showcase work by artists of color from all disciplines that address issues of race, identity, equity, gender, sexuality, and class. “I’m making this work because I think it should be seen and people should know these artists,” says Graves. “I like to stand in the same community as these artists, helping them get into collections, exhibitions, and other opportunities because it’s really hard to build a career on your own. The people we work with are deserving of huge careers but not everybody gets that.”

By Any Means Necessary

© Griselda San Martin

After becoming interested in photography during high school, Kris Graves was hooked, and transformed his passion into a multi-faceted career. While working full time on photographing the collection at Guggenheim Museum, he began renting a space at New Century Artists, a co-op gallery in Chelsea, in 2006. In 2010, he opened KPG Gallery in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood just as the area was becoming a destination for art collectors.

But Graves didn’t follow the established path. “We didn’t run the gallery like a gallery,” he says. “We wanted to show art we liked, so it wasn’t about selling. I realized pretty early on that I didn’t want to keep trying to sell $5,000 pieces to people. At the same time, I was getting into books and would rather sell a $40 book to someone I know that can afford it.”

© Zora J Murff
© Grant Ellis

In 2011, Graves established KPG Books and began doing just that — teaching himself every facet of the art book publishing industry. A decade later, Graves is still running the enterprise as a D.I.Y. affair, creating extraordinarily crafted monographs which he personally packs and ships himself. A true artisan, Graves approaches books as affordable art, rather than mass produced commodities. He brings to light stories that might not otherwise be told by publishing houses who live and die by the P&L (profit and loss sheet).

“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” journalist H.L. Mencken famously observed the true power and limitations of the First Amendment. For Graves, publishing is a means — not an end. With KPG Projects and Monolith Editions, he adopts a collectivist approach. Although art making can be highly individualized, Graves uses book publishing to celebrate and uplift artists from all walks of life, making their work available to wider audiences by keeping them at an accessible and affordable price point.

My Alma Mater Was Books

© Nydia Blas

Whether exploring Alina van Ryzin’s intimate portrait of self-discovery at Bryn Mawr College, bearing witness to Griselda San Martin’s poignant pictures made at the Mexico/U.S. border, or reveling in Grant Ellis’ vibrant images of the Mississippi Delta, each book published by Kris Graves offers an insightful foray into a world that’s largely been marginalized, misrepresented, or simply ignored by the mainstream media.

Take Revival, by African American photographer Nydia Blas, which focuses on the lives of Black girls and young women. “Nydia makes great portraits of the community, and she did it in a non-sexualized way,” says Graves. In a culture where Black girls and women are alternately hypersexualized or desexualized, Blas’s photographs capture their beauty, mystery, and majesty without centering or erasing sex, but simply allowing them to be the full expression of feminine complexity.

© Alina van Ryzin

That complexity is expressed throughout Graves’ books – even in something as deceptively straightforward as street portraiture. In Harlem, photographer Ruben Natal-San Miguel creates a kaleidoscopic collection of flamboyant characters overflowing with style and flair. “Ruben has been photographing Harlem and everywhere else in New York City for over 25 years,” says Graves. “He’s always on the street and knows his community. It can be really hard to make portraits on the street of people but he’s made it simple. He’s an excellent photographer.”

Being in community with artists for decades, Graves sees their influence on his work. “Every book I make is because I know those artists are such amazing makers and I probably take a little bit every time I make my next photograph,” he says. “I just keep looking. That is the most important thing.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.

© Wendy Red Star
© Nadiya Nacorda
© Isaac Diggs

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