Caroline Tompkins, Bedfellow

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Palm* Studios (here). Embossed hardcover with tipped-in back cover image, 22 x 27 cm, 128 pages, with 61 color photographs and an essay by the author. Design by Jamie Allan Shaw. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: I’m a heterosexual man. That’s a minor factor in most reviews but it comes into play with Bedfellow, a photobook which explores desire from the opposite perspective. Caroline Tompkins is attracted to men, an instinct fraught with a degree of apprehension and traumatic experience. Her frame of reference casts Bedfellow—at least for me—in a delightfully alien light. I can evaluate female attractiveness as a matter of routine. But when it comes to masculine appeal, I’m rather lost. Is chest hair good, or eye contact, or a projection of confidence? Are rugged men sexy? Are penises visually captivating? 

Bedfellow addresses this last question head on with several pictures of cocks. They appear sometimes as shrinking violets, elsewhere as heat seeking missiles. After browsing a dozen or so, I found myself projecting phallic forms onto otherwise benign objects. A darkened isthmus and erect cactus flower carried sexual overtones. Even a bulb of pulled skin or a taut pregnant belly assumed penile morphology. 

No matter how many penises I see or imagine—and I’m guessing Tompkins’ prick-count has me beat—my judgment remains unimpressed. The floppy appendages have always appeared more absurd than lascivious to me. Tompkins is more enthusiastic. “I love dick so much,” she explains. In Bedfellow, she comes to terms with their magnetism. Along the way she raises questions about animal attraction, relationships, fear, power, feminism, and much more. I may not be the right person to assess the results. If I commit glaring errors or oversights, as men of my generation often do, please forgive me. Mine is the traditional male gaze, which Bedfellow subverts in every way imaginable. 

Take the book’s opening photo for example. It shows Tompkins on her back, her calm return gaze belying the fact she is pinned to the sofa under a man. It’s an homage to Stephen Shore’s famous 1974 picture of Michael and Sandy Marsh in Amarillo, mirroring the vantage, expression, furniture placement, and uncertain mood with clinical precision. But this time the frame is flipped horizontally, and the gender roles are reversed. Tompkins takes the place of Michael Marsh while her partner plays Sandy. Coming just after the title page and before she’s given any explanation, the photo lays down an early marker: attention dear readers, the patriarchy has been canned, and not a moment too soon, for photo history already contains a sufficient supply of nude women. Photographs may be an ideal vehicle for examining sexual chemistry, often provoking an instinctual response. But it’s time to flip the formula. Bedfellow casts preconceptions under a female gaze.   

Tompkins lays the groundwork with an introspective and entertaining introduction. She sketches first person anecdotes of relationships, sexual partners, and her budding feminist awakening, all written with blunt honesty and the one-two timing of a stand up comic. “But I do love sex,” she explains. “I pay for porn. Can I write that off on my taxes?” Um, probably not. Later she deadpans, “I only look at the Find My Friends app to see if I have enough time to masturbate before my boyfriend comes home. Lord give me chastity, but not yet.” Describing a hookup: “I laughed so hard he got soft. I’ll never be one of those women that oozes pure sex because I’m too invested in being funny.”

Barbs like these keep the mood playful. Meanwhile, disturbing undercurrents broach with relaxed candor. Tompkins casually describes being stalked by former boyfriend—“For years later I would have a recurring dream of him murdering me”—and the routine of texting a friend after dates to confirm her safety. Women she knows “show the black eyes their boyfriends gave them. Pleasure and danger in the same fifteen-second clip.” Tompkins judges her own experiences with cool detachment. “One night stands are so magical,” she writes. “You can cum, or die, or both.” Later: “We had the type of sex you can only have in a toxic relationship. Poison that tastes like honey.” Male partners carry an inherent degree of danger it seems. While this might come as news to some men, women have long since internalized it as a simple fact of dating. 

Tompkins drives the point home with an early photograph of a scantily toweled model, his erect manhood jutting off kilter. It’s an aggressive image to begin with, and his expression lends a perilous edge. His stares into the camera suggestively, tonguing his upper lip. There might be a phone number written on his chest, but it’s hard to tell. In any case his intentions are well endowed. He is male lust personified, and merely the first of several horny dudes to appear in Bedfellow. Later photos catch men awaiting company in a hot tub, leaning back suggestively into couch cushions, conducting pants free video surveillance, flashing nude pecs in a tree house, and other provocations. When bored and lonely, it seems many men stuff hands down their pants in search of a playmate. They might aim for discretion but Tompkins is onto them. Her photos are not pornographically explicit but they carry the general whiff of softcore. Add a hexagonal star filter and some Barry Manilow music and parts of Bedfellow could pass for Playgirl spreads circa 1979. Men project an aura of ever-present availability. They can be flicked on like a light switch, sometimes without warning. 

Yikes, is this what it’s like to wander a male-centric world as a heterosexual woman? Perhaps so, at least for Tompkins. Ruth Orkin’s “An American Girl In Italy” photograph from 1951 comes to mind, with its crowd of leering catcallers. But Bedfellow’s men are more orderly and behaved. This is Tompkins’ story to tell, and she’s neutered her models into harmless fantasies. Her photos are carefully posed and lit, as if animal attraction might be pinned to a wall for study.

Sexual politics have come a long way since Orkin’s time, mostly for the better. But traces of menace linger. A photo in Bedfellow of a large man in latex hoodie and black leather mask is decidedly creepy. Truck balls hanging from a rear bumper are a disturbing throwback to good-ole-boy MAGA. Uneasy photos of leeches, a house fire, and brutalized rabbit corpse hint at the potential conflagrations—orgasmic or emotional—inherent in any sexual relationship. Two matching photos of male and female bodies serve as counterweights in the book, anchoring the entire sequence in basic anatomical structure. The woman’s torso comes first, then a photo of a curled up penis toward the end. Both are drenched in red light and closely cropped. It seems Tompkins has deliberately ignored eavesdropped male advice regarding “the perfect white balance for vagina color.” Good for her. If proper hues are “what men mean when they say they are feminists”, consider the color cast a strike against prurience. 

Tompkins intersperses inanimate scenes here and there. Views of a desert sunset, forested vista, fruit on the vine, and a rotting pear remind the reader that carnal relations are just one small cog in the great cycle of biology. Yes, perhaps. But that’s no reason to let your guard down just yet. Mating is risky, ask any praying mantis. 

Don’t tell that to the young boy who appears in one of the final frames. He’s knee deep in mud, hands sunk to the wrists. Perhaps he will become a male predator in adulthood? Or a caring partner? Who knows. For now he’s content to be soaked and dirty as he pauses a moment to look back at Tompkins. At the other end of the spectrum, Tompkins depicts senior subjects, a few caught mid-kiss. These are among a handful of loving couple portraits, one including Tompkins herself. All depict traditional male/female cis-het relationships. Although no gay or nonbinary partners are depicted, they do get a brief shout-out in the introduction as Tompkins recalls the joys of viewing male gay porn. “They have better kissing scenes,” she explains. “You get to see their faces when they cum.” 

Bedfellow does not beat around the bush. Tompkins’ debut monograph is a blunt portrayal in both words and photos. Its frank style recalls Cammie Toloui’s 5 Dollars For 3 Minutes (reviewed here). That book was also catalyzed by a spirit of frank certitude, and explored role play, power dynamics, voyeurism, and the female gaze from a nontraditional perspective. This is how it is, Toloui seemed to say, as if there was ever any doubt. Bedfellow too is authored from an assured stance. Tompkins addresses issues of abuse, risk, and dating perils through the lens of personal history. All are depicted from a slightly older, wiser position. She may have made adolescent missteps, but they are in the past. She’s come to terms, and mastered the material enough to create a monograph. “I’m in love now,” she volunteers as the intro closes. “Is there anything more annoying than that? It’s been six years and I’m still waiting. Waiting for the bottom to fall out.”

Collector’s POV: Caroline Tompkins does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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