Ken Graves and Eva Lipman, Restraint and Desire / Derby

JTF (just the facts): Two books published in 2021 by TBW Books (here). Restraint & Desire: hardcover with black gilded pages, 9.25 x 10.5″, 90 pages, 39 duotone plates, with brief text by Eva Lipman; Derby: hardcover with dust jacket and silver gilded pages, 9.25 x 10.5″, 60 pages, 28 duotone plates. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Partnerships are not uncommon in conceptual photography. Examples come easily to mind: Broomberg & Chanarin, Onorato & Krebs (reviewed here), Wysocka & Pogo, Dolezal & Shipley (reviewed here), to name a few. But straight photography has been traditionally structured as an individual endeavor. The artist finds a subject, points the camera, and looks at the viewfinder or ground glass—in past decades tasks might extend to processing or darkroom work. It’s hard to perform any of these actions in tandem, so this approach has been a rather lonely one. One thinks of Ansel Adams toting his huge view camera into the wilderness, or Vivian Maier hermiting along the streets of Chicago, or more recently Donovan Smallwood (reviewed here) picking his way through Central Park. All solo actors. The symbol of individual photographer as brilliant auteur has been somewhat mythologized, at least in documentary practice.

In this context the married team Eva Lipman and Ken Graves were an anomaly. They pursued individual photo careers initially, and both were quite successful on their own. But beginning in 1987—after a chance meeting as they both shot the same dance competition— they teamed up as dual creators on several projects. Almost all subsequent work was co-authored under both names. It’s impossible to determine who performed which chores behind the camera or afterward, or if it even matters. Their logistical reticence was by conscious design, as outlined in the text to their 1993 project Proms: “Demanding a suspension of individual ego, we challenged the traditional role of photography as a solitary vocation. …We consciously engage in an invisible dialectic in which collaboration itself is integral to our aesthetic. The viewer is to forgo asking who took which photograph.” Their dual process could be described as roughly matrimonial, a lifelong partnership of two people subsuming individuality to the greater whole. 

Lipman and Graves enjoyed a brief heyday on the photo circuit in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Proms was exhibited as a series, and published later as a MagCloud zine through Blue Sky Gallery. They made the book Ballroom in 1989, and their museum show Restraint and Surrender (the title foreshadowing later work) produced a catalog in 1994. A series called The Making Of Men focused on various male rituals found at boot camp, bars, rodeos, sports, and derbies. Then, following an all-too-typical pattern in photo careers, they faded from the limelight. The team produced little of note, at least for public consumption, until Ken Graves surfaced briefly with a book of early photographs called The Home Front, published by Mack in 2015. Whether by chance or karma, this individual effort shorty preceded the end of their partnership. Ken Graves died of a stroke the following year. 

Eva Lipman, now 75, has been saddled with the archive ever since. A connection through Mimi Plumb led her to TBW, and now the gorgeous twin set Restraint & Desire and Derby. Edited by Paul Schiek, these monographs delve into the Lipman/Graves back catalog from the 1980s and 1990s. Some familiar photographs reappear from earlier projects—especially The Making Of Men—along with a raft of previously unseen work. All have been thrown into a pile to be reconsidered from scratch, then repackaged in the form of two new books. Roughly speaking Restraint & Desire collects wide-ranging impressions from rites of passage. Derby is a more tightly focused project, with photos made at demolition derbies. 

Perhaps the idea of a single monograph occurred to TBW. Their somewhat contrarian choice to publish dual titles seems a deliberate homage to the partnership of Lipman and Graves. They worked as a pair, and so do these books. They share some traits: size, paper stock, monochrome palette, reproduction quality (excellent), design, and color scheme are similar. But there are subtle differences. One has page edges gilded with black ink. The other is gilded with silver. Silver and black themes are reinforced in the cover graphics, also related but unique. Restraint & Desire is a hardback with embossed title, while Derby has a dust jacket with image abstracted past recognition. Derby carries a short dedication to Ken Graves, while Restraint & Desire includes an actual snapshot of the couple, and an extended colophon. Neither book has captions, essay, or much in the way of supporting context. The photos in both are sent into the world to operate on their own, and each book can do so if needed. But these titles would prefer the company of each other. Like an old married couple they come as a set, minor differences long since overcome. So it seems logical to review both in one essay. 

That said, let’s split the couple into separate rooms a moment to consider each one in turn. Restraint & Desire (just one book, yet it can’t seem to shake the pairing theme) collects photographs from galas, gatherings, sporting events, bars, and training regiments. Generally speaking, the subjects might be youth on the cusp of adulthood, or adults in the throes of initiation. The exact situations are indeterminate, and the book offers no explanatory text. Men with crewcuts in the shower must be military recruits, but an adjacent photograph of boys in a bunkhouse is less certain. There are couples engaged in horseplay, footballers kneeling, teens in formal attire, a boxer in the weight room, and so on. Some ritualized passage to another state of maturity is implied, but the hint is tenuous, and the reader is left adrift to sort it out on their own. It’s here that the strength of revisitation flexes its bare chested muscles. All of these photos belonged to various projects at one point, and they might have remained in separate boxes forever. But TBW has joined them decades later by strange logic in ways that could not have been foreseen during exposure. 

Alec Soth joked in a recent YouTube review that “Heads & Hands” might have been an alternate title of Restraint & Desire. I’m glad that TBW settled on the better moniker, but Soth’s point is well taken. Heads and hands occur throughout the book as repeating motifs. One or the other anatomical part appears in nearly every photo, often together, as in picture of hands measuring a soldier’s hat size, for example, or in a photo of a doctor with stethoscope to a boxer, his hand dwarfed delicately by a massive neck. Many shots depict heads or hands on their own. Fingers interlock as subjects hold hands with others while dancing, exercising, or sharing a quiet moment, while a formation of naked men in a shower brings the viewer’s attention to clean shaven scalps. These two body parts, heads and hands, are perhaps the most expressive and humanizing of body parts, easily signaling undertones of camaraderie and emotion. Below the surface lurks restraint, desire, and latent eroticism. Perhaps Lipman and Graves recognized bits of their own relationship reflected in these passing contacts? If so, the book does not vocalize. Instead the cues are visual, and somewhat subtle. 

The companion book Derby contains photos of heads and hands too. But here they dance around the primary subject: automobiles. All of the work was shot attending demolition derbies—a sort of mechanical death march, involving repeated collisions until just one car can move—but the actual crashes are not shown. Instead, Lipman and Graves worked the fringes. A precisely framed shot of a T-shirted cowboy face near driver’s head is a stunning juxtaposition, and a natural draw for the viewer. If included in Restraint & Desire it might have been tightly cropped for mystery. But the composition here steps back for wider context, and the picture’s grist is the surrounding windshield, hood, and car interior.

In other photos, men pop forward from the driver’s seat or stare blankly across the track. In comparison to Restraint & Desire, the framing has loosened up, allowing the storyline to step forward. In the culture of smash-up derbies, Lipman and Graves found a treasure trove of male ritual, competition, dirt, bonding, and utter destruction. A man in a filthy jumpsuit chained to his muddy car, for example, seems the embodiment of some truly twisted pastime. Perhaps he’s trying to pull or lift a chassis? The task is unclear but the mood is captured perfectly. Other photos show worn tires, chain link, busted glass, graffiti. There are few women about. Altogether it’s quite a scene. Lipman and Graves must have had a field day, and it’s surprising that this work has never been collected as a single project before now. 

Whether shooting dances, sporting events, soldiers, or car wrecks, Lipman and Graves (who can tell which performed which process?) employed similar technique. They must have been smooth talkers to inveigle their way into these private rituals, teen dances, male bonding, and such. Once on site, they favored night scenes or interiors, allowing bold flash to both illuminate and shape subject matter. With few exceptions, almost every photo in both books is artificially lit. Foreground subjects pop, while backgrounds fade. This technique was helpful shooting candids, to highlight fleeting moments which might be lost amid chance events. 

Even more helpful was the team’s acute awareness of gesture, juxtaposition, and cropping. Ken Graves honed this awareness as a candid street photographer in the 1970s, as evidenced in The Home Front. Where Lipman picked it up I cannot say. As a team, they were a finely oiled machine, with a feel for vantage points, ready to seize incongruities in a split second from the flow of life. A photo of dance couples arranged just so near a bench, for example, or two boys diving into a backseat mirrored by an old muffler, appear effortless in their candid magic. As anyone knows who has shot shifting scenes and dynamic situations, such photos are not effortless. In fact it is nearly impossible to pin down a perfect composition without one thing or another misplaced. Their editing has weeded out any such frames. The result is a stream of winners. Although neither book can be properly categorized as street photography, there’s a good deal of the genre in their DNA.

Together these two publications feel like something of a throwback to an earlier era and also to earlier photo archives. They are also overt homages to an earlier life, that of the late Ken Graves. He is memorialized briefly at the end of each book. It’s Restraint & Desire which has the slightly more expansive note. “I will forever be grateful to him for his love and generosity,” writes Lipman, “his unfailing optimism, and for sharing with me his strange and unique worldview….I miss him everyday.” One suspects he would be proud and happy with these tandem publications, a fitting symbol of his lifelong partnership with Lipman.

Collector’s POV: While Ken Graves and Eva Lipman have had numerous gallery shows over the years, it doesn’t appear that the duo has consistent gallery representation at the moment, nor do they appear to maintain their own website. As a result, interested collectors should likely reach out to their publisher TBW for further follow ups and current information.

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