New book of stunning portraits reveal the face of America from its Elvis fans to celebrities like Chaka Khan to its Southern churchgoers
- For over 30 years, Donald Graham took portraits for magazines, advertising, nonprofits and for himself
- His new book, One of a Kind, is a culmination of the photographer’s work and includes over 100 images
- The portraits capture Americans from all walks of life: from Elvis fans at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee to celebrities like Chaka Khan and Frances McDormand in Los Angeles to churchgoers in Little Rock, Arkansas
In the manicured and manufactured worlds of magazines and advertising where models are preferred, photographer Donald Graham has pushed ‘very hard to get real people’. ‘If they want someone who is a construction worker, I go out and get a construction worker,’ he told DailyMail.com. The results of his unorthodox approach can be seen in his new book of portraits. One of a Kind is the culmination of over 30 years of work and captures the faces of Americans from all walks of life: from Elvis fans waiting in line for Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee to celebrities like Chaka Khan and Frances McDormand in Los Angeles to churchgoers in Little Rock, Arkansas. And whether he has 15 minutes with former Vice President Dan Quayle, a few minutes with a Georgia farmer or hours for a shoot with Lenny Kravitz, the photographer is able to unlock a genuine moment. ‘I seek a photograph where the face is no longer a beautifully decorated and carefully arranged facade, but instead a canvas where the inner world of the person draws unique and complex stories into the face of each person,’ he wrote in One of a Kind, which is published by Hatje Cantz.
For over 30 years, photographer Donald Graham has sought out authenticity for his portraits: a genuine moment that reveals a flicker of someone’s inner world. Graham has made photographs for magazines, advertising, nonprofit organizations and for himself. His new book, One of a Kind, which is published by Hatje Cantz, features over 100 images taken during his career. Above, Elvis Fan, Memphis, Tennessee, which Graham told DailyMail.com was an important photograph for him. It was taken near Graceland while on assignment for the British magazine i-D, which is known for having a wink and a smile on its cover. The story, which was published in 1997, was about street fashion in the South
While there are those in the public eye who shy away from the camera or have publicists who offer small windows of time to photograph, Lenny Kravitz is not one of them, Graham said. ‘Lenny is an absolute joy to work with,’ he told DailyMail.com. The Grammy Award-winning guitarist had a string of hits in the 1990s including Are You Gonna Go My Way and Fly Away. The photographer spent over three hours shooting the rocker, who Graham called ‘open and honest’ and said had ‘tremendous magnetism.’ After the shoot, they went to Kravitz’s studio. Above, Lenny Kravitz, New York City, New York, an image that was published in 1998 for a magazine called Creme & Sugar
‘After the church service, we stood out front in the late afternoon summer blaze of Arkansas sun. I watched the little boy step up on the white background, clutching his Bible. “Do you want me to smile?” he said, staring wide-eyed at the camera lens. “Just be yourself,” Donald said. The boy’s face flooded with relief and he stood a little taller, gazing at Donald evenly. I held my breath as I watched them together, knowing it would be one of the best pictures of the shoot,’ Casey Woods, a journalist who was once Graham’s studio manager and casting agent, wrote in the foreword for the photographer’s new book, One of a Kind. ‘For me, this is one of my standout photographs that I’ve made,’ Graham told DailyMail.com about the above image, Boy With Bible, Little Rock, Arkansas, from 1997
Graham’s portrait series began with his mother. ‘She had multiple sclerosis, compounded by a severe stroke. She couldn’t move her legs or arms, her hands and face were contorted, and the only words she could say were “yes” and “no.” Yet, she lived with a gracefulness, an inner peace, and a smile that I found remarkable,’ he wrote in One of a Kind, which he dedicated to her. He found her gentleness of spirit despite the disease inspirational and gave himself a project: make an image of his mother that would show the complexity of the situation. Graham photographed her several times before he got the one he wanted. Above, My Mother, Seattle, Washington, which was taken sometime in the 1980s
Advertisers typically want models to portray whatever profession the campaign calls for, Graham explained. ‘I don’t do that. If they want someone who is a construction worker, I go out and get a construction worker.’ He said he pushes for real people because they don’t have a shtick. The photographer and Casey Woods went to construction sites in New York City, picked 10 to 15 workers and then the client chose which ones to feature in the ad campaign. ‘I’m really trying to get to know who a person is at their core,’ he told DailyMail.com. Above, Construction Worker With Tattoos, New York City, New York, which was taken around the year 2000.
Graham’s portrait series began with his mother. ‘She had multiple sclerosis, compounded by a severe stroke. She couldn’t move her legs or arms, her hands and face were contorted, and the only words she could say were “yes” and “no.” Yet, she lived with a gracefulness, an inner peace, and a smile that I found remarkable,’ he wrote in his new book.
He found her gentleness of spirit despite the disease inspirational and gave himself a project: make an image of his mother that would show the complexity of the situation. Graham photographed her several times before he got the one he wanted. ‘I had it in the darkroom on the wall,’ he said, adding that it became the standard for the portraits that followed. Graham took the image of his mother sometime in the 1980s and it was important step for him after resolving to become a photographer. He grew up in Seattle and went to the University of Texas at Austin on an athletic scholarship for swimming. He traveled in Europe and Asia after graduating in 1976. ‘I lived in a Zen Buddhist monastery for three months under a vow of silence,’ he recalled.
He was coaching swimming at the University of Southern California when he started to pursue photography as a career in 1983. Graham explained that he first took on sports assignments. In the run-up to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he was working for Sports Illustrated and taking photographs of athletics, like diver Greg Louganis, who would win gold that year and in 1988. But those commissions dried up after the Olympics were over. Graham then decided to move to Paris where he worked assisting several photographers at a studio, which was primarily known for its fashion shoots. He noted that he worked with Nick Knight, a British fashion photographer.
‘She’s a big personality,’ Graham said of the legendary singer Chaka Khan, a 10-time Grammy winner who has had numerous hits including I Feel For You, I’m Every Woman, and Ain’t Nobody. She was three hours late to the photo shoot, he recalled. But when the Queen of Funk did show up, it was ‘with a bottle of champagne in each hand.’ When her arms wide open, she announced, ‘I’ve arrived,’ according to Graham. The photographer has said he isn’t ‘interested in poses or performances for the benefit of the camera.’ He told DailyMail.com that he likely asked her to close her eyes and focus on her breath before he took the image above, Chaka Khan, Los Angeles, California, which was published in Interview Magazine in 1998
For a story about street fashion in the South for i-D Magazine, Graham spent a few days at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. ‘There’s a huge long line of people waiting to get into Elvis Presley’s house,’ he recalled. The photographer and Casey Woods, his studio manager and casting agent, set up a studio with a white background nearby. Graham then asked the King’s devotees if they would make a portrait with him, like the one above, Woman Wearing Stars and Stripes, Memphis, Tennessee, which was published in 1997. He noted that he probably took her picture where she was standing in line
On assignment for the New York Times Magazine, Graham photographed Dan Quayle while he was campaigning for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. Quayle represented Indiana in the House and the Senate before becoming the 44th vice president of the US from 1989 to 1993. President George H. W. Bush and Quayle ran for reelection in 1992 but lost to the Democratic ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. For the photo shoot in 1998, Graham was told he had 15 minutes and had his assistant watch the clock. As time ticked down, Graham wasn’t getting anywhere. ‘This is performance art,’ he recalled. ‘I needed to mix it up.’ He asked the former vice president, who is known for misspelling potato, a question and took the above image, Vice President Dan Quayle, while he answered. Quayle eventually dropped out and supported George W. Bush in 2000
Graham bought land in Taos, New Mexico in 2000. Through the building of his home, he met Vishu Magee, who was starting a nonprofit organization called MEN, which stood for Men Engaged in Nonviolence. Its aim was to reduce domestic violence as well as offer mentorship and counseling for youth at risk, Graham explained. The organization then became Nonviolence Works and the program is now called Taos Behavioral Health, according to its website. The local newspaper, The Taos News, published one of Graham’s portraits for MEN almost every week. He said he made 50 portraits a year for a decade. Above, Father and Son, Taos, New Mexico, which was taken around 2014 and was part of an awareness campaign for Nonviolence Works. ‘Having a son in high school is a life-changing experience,’ Graham said of the above image
Frances McDormand has won numerous accolades for her work, including three Academy Awards for Best Actress that includes the recent win for Nomadland. ‘There’s no pretense about anything Frances McDormand does,’ Graham told DailyMail.com. ‘She is herself to her core.’ He took the above portrait, Frances McDormand, Los Angeles, California, for Movieline Magazine in 1996. After three years in Paris, he then established himself as a photographer in New York City, working for a variety of American and European magazines like Time, Vanity Fair and i-D, and advertising for Levi’s, American Express and Visa. This became one path for the portraiture that is found in his new monograph.
For example, while on assignment covering street fashion for the British magazine i-D in 1997, he traveled to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. ‘There’s a huge long line of people waiting to get into Elvis Presley’s house,’ he recalled. The photographer and Casey Woods, his studio manager and casting agent, set up a studio with a white background nearby. Graham then asked the King’s devotees if they would make a portrait with him, and several of those photographs are in the book. Graham said one of them – Elvis Fan, Memphis, Tennessee – is important to him. Adorned with jewelry honoring the King, the woman’s eyes connect to the camera. She wears denim overalls but no shirt to exhibit her many Elvis tattoos. In another photograph, a woman sports the stars and stripes of the American flag – from her scrunchie to her earrings to her outfit – while standing in front of a wall etched with messages to the musician.
During another leg of that assignment in 1997, Graham and Woods convinced a pastor of an African-American church in Little Rock, Arkansas to let him photograph congregants after the service. He said he photographed about 30 to 40 people – one of whom remains memorable for Graham. The image, Boy With Bible, Little Rock, Arkansas, shows a nine-year-old wearing a white shirt and tie and cradling a Bible. ‘For me, this is one of my standout photographs that I’ve made,’ Graham said. The photographer said he found this image powerful and pointed out that the holy book’s binding is broken and notes jut out of it. ‘This isn’t a Bible someone is carrying around for show.’ While balancing his magazine, advertising and portrait work in New York City, Graham also scouted for a second place to live. Around 1999, he rented a home in Taos, New Mexico and fell in love with the town. He bought land the next year and after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he decided not to wait and built a home.
He then met Vishu Magee, who was starting a nonprofit organization called MEN, which stood for Men Engaged in Nonviolence. Its aim was to reduce domestic violence as well as offer mentorship and counseling for youth at risk, Graham explained. The local newspaper, The Taos News, published one of his portraits for MEN almost every week. He said he made 50 portraits a year for a decade. Back in New York City, Graham opened up his studio and would take people’s picture and then give them prints. ‘These are people that they would be literally picked off the streets,’ he said, adding that some of those portraits are also included in the new book. And then there were the images that were happenstance. Always prepared, Graham carries around a background with him just in case. For instance, while down in Georgia for a friend’s wedding, he saw a farmer at a market. The man agreed to having his photograph taken, Graham set up a gray background and the portrait was made. No matter what the circumstances are for the image, Graham wrote that he sees the portraits as a collaboration that takes trust to make. ‘There is a tendency to perform for the camera, whether that be to act powerful, alluring, or joyous. Instead, I seek to find something more authentic. I ask that people be themselves in the moment because that originates from a place of truth and then the resulting photograph has a chance to enrich our understanding of the complexities of the human condition.’
‘The portraits are a collaboration,’ Graham wrote in his new book, One of a Kind. ‘Building trust in order to make a meaningful image takes time. I have to dissolve self-imposed facades and move past each person’s routine of how to act while being photographed. There is a tendency to perform for the camera, whether that be to act powerful, alluring, or joyous.’ Above, Jaime, New York City, New York, a photograph Graham made for Paper Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue, taken sometime around 2002. Jaime was a well-known DJ at the time and Graham said he included the portrait in the collection because ‘it’s really representative of my experience of New York. She’s a New Yorker’
‘I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera,’ famed photographer Gordon Parks once said. Born in 1912, Parks bought a camera from the pawnshop and never looked back. He was the first African-American staff photographer for Life Magazine and would work for the prominent publication for two decades. He branched out into film and is known for the 1971 movie Shaft. Graham told DailyMail.com that the two were part of a panel and that Casey Woods had developed a relationship with the legend. This led to the above portrait, Gordon Parks, New York City, New York, which was taken sometime around 2000. Parks died at the age of 93 in 2006
Graham has been spending as much time as he can in Taos, New Mexico since 2003. He started photographing the locals and has several hundred portraits of the town’s people. Graham took the image above, Native American Brothers, Taos, New Mexico, around 2005. The history of the Taos Pueblo stretches back nearly 1,000 years, according to their website. ‘The people of Taos Pueblo have a detailed oral history which is not divulge due to religious privacy. The ancestors of the Taos people lived in this valley long before Columbus discovered America and hundreds of years before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages,’ according to the site
‘This is a personal favorite image,’ Graham said of the above photograph, Portrait Of A Young Woman, New York City, New York, which was taken around 2000. The photographer lived in New York City from the 1980s until 2012 and would have open studio days. ‘These are people that they would be literally picked off the streets,’ he explained. He took their picture and then gave them prints. The above image, ‘really exemplifies how I like to make a portrait of a person,’ he said. Graham now splits his time between Los Angeles and Taos
Always prepared, Graham carries around a background with him just in case. For instance, while down in Georgia for a friend’s wedding, he saw a farmer at a market. The man agreed to having his photograph taken, Graham set up a gray background and the portrait was made. Above, Georgia Farmer, an image that was taken around 2000
Alzheimer’s Los Angeles is a longtime nonprofit organization that supports families affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia as well as advocates ‘for quality care and a cure,’ according to its website. Graham’s wife, whose mother died of the disease, was on its board of directors and he proposed making portraits similar to his Men Engaged in Nonviolence series, he explained. The above photograph, Nestora, Queens Village, New York, was taken as part of that series around 2019. Nestora is his wife’s grandmother. ‘She’s an absolutely incredible woman,’ he said. ‘She’s just a hoot’