These two books showcase the rituals that make us human

From "Derby," published by TBW Books. (Ken Graves and Eva Lipman)
From "Derby," published by TBW Books. (Ken Graves and Eva Lipman)

I think I’ve said it before, but one of the best parts of my job is that people will send me work that I’m not familiar with, and that will open up all kinds of vistas I didn’t know were there to begin with. That’s also one of the things I love about photography itself — how it can illuminate previously unknown things or introduce us to the myriad mysteries of life.

A couple of months ago, I received a package with two books by photographers I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t familiar with at all. The books are “Derby” and “Restraint and Desire” — both by Ken Graves and Eva Lipman and published this year by TBW Books. I was immediately struck with curiosity.

Another interesting element is that the books carry joint authorship. After digging a bit, I found out that Lipman and Graves worked together for more than three decades, sharing artistic credit for their images until Graves died at age 74 in 2016.

Neither “Derby” nor “Restraint and Desire” contain much in the way of words. And that’s just fine by me. As I’ve said here on multiple occasions, photography is a language in its own right. Often, I don’t pay much attention to the writing in photo books anyway. But this time, because I wasn’t familiar with Lipman and Graves’s work, I wanted to know a little bit more. So I reached out to Lipman, who graciously sent me some much appreciated and illuminating words about their work.

It turns out that Lipman and Graves began working together four years after they first met while seeing each other working individually. They were interested in many of the same things, so they often bumped into each other. Lipman says:

“In Art we were soul mates. We rejected the notion that photography had to be a solitary endeavor. Choosing to photograph as a single entity we shared artistic credit, blurring the lines of authorship. We were both teacher and student on a journey. Ken was the dreamer working from imagination, willing to sacrifice theme for a vision less subject driven. I remained faithful to the immediacy of events and people, searching for coherence and universals in the particular.”

Both “Derby” and “Restraint and Desire” reflect the above personality traits as well as their seamless ability to work as joint authors.

Of the two books, I was initially drawn to “Derby,” probably because I’m from Midwestern stock, and it is a visual exploration of demolition derbies. On top of that, the photos are exquisite, as is the book’s production. Over and above the depiction of somewhat familiar scenes, there is a focus on rituals of masculinity that are fascinating to take in. While on the surface “Derby” is a book about demolition derbies, it’s so much more. It’s about how those rituals serve to reinforce our identities.

When I first looked at “Restraint and Desire,” I saw a book that was far more open-ended. Whereas “Derby” seemed to focus on one subject, “Restraint and Desire” floats through multiple subjects — high school dances, boxing matches, football games. But on second glance, it’s a continuation of Graves and Lipman’s interest in social rituals. Again, the subject is the vehicle to talk about something bigger. The more I look at “Restraint and Desire,” the more I like it.

There’s so much going on, all melded together through repeated gestures and rituals that say a lot about our humanness and impulses for the things we desire. Desire can be such a powerful thing, and yet sometimes we find ourselves holding it at bay.

No review can get to the bottom of what any work is about completely. And that’s the case here. There’s a richness of material in both “Derby” and “Restraint and Desire.” They are fertile grounds for multiple readings. Like onions, you can peel each one back to reveal more and more layers. What unites both of them is their examination of the rituals that make us human — feelings and traits ranging from lust and desire to compassion and vulnerability. Time and again, in picture after picture, you can pick up on these things, whether it is the look in the eye of a man draped over his car or the intimacy of touch, the gestures of hands.

“Derby” and “Restraint and Desire” are beautifully evocative books that showcase Graves and Lipman’s working relationship, not only with each other but to the resulting work. The following text comes from the publisher’s website about “Restraint and Desire,” but I think in a way it describes the photos in both books:

“With a profound visual sensitivity, Graves and Lipman collect human gestures that betray the complex interiority of their subjects. Hands often act here as the protagonist — grabbing, touching, reaching — entering and exiting the photographs like a visual metronome. Lust, fear, boredom, exhaustion and a myriad of feelings beyond the realm of language are all on display through the discerning glare of their camera and its flash.”

You can learn more about the books, including how to buy them, on the TBW Books website, here and here.

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