Ken Graves and Eva Lipman’s Pictures of Longing and Repression

“Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances,” writes the poet Robert Hass. What he means, I think, is that intimacy is at least as much a matter of what we cannot touch as a matter of what we can. People reach for each other precisely because they are different—and therefore distant—from…

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“Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances,” writes the poet Robert Hass. What he means, I think, is that intimacy is at least as much a matter of what we cannot touch as a matter of what we can. People reach for each other precisely because they are different—and therefore distant—from one another, yet their ineluctable dissimilarity is also what keeps them apart. The photo book “Restraint and Desire,” published last fall, is a study of intimacy and its impediments: the tender images it contains portray longing (desire) when it is regulated by ritual (restraint). The book depicts perfectly ordinary exchanges in familiar, formalized settings: teen-agers dancing at prom, wrestlers writhing on the mat. Yet each of them represents an attempt to visualize the space that is both an obstacle to and a condition of love’s consummation.

The volume is the work of Ken Graves and Eva Lipman, a pair of married photographers who met while shooting a ballroom-dance competition in Ohio, in 1986. Graves died, in 2016, at the age of seventy-four, and the book concludes with a rending note from Lipman: “These pictures were made in collaboration with my partner in life and work, Ken Graves. I will forever be grateful for his love and generosity, his unfailing optimism, and for sharing with me his strange and unique world view. I miss him everyday.”

Thankfully, their joint vision survives him in forty-two fond, funny, and surprising photographs that make up “Restraint and Desire.” Touch is Graves and Lipman’s great subject: they are fascinated by the way that its possibility animates even bodies in isolation. In one picture, boys in military uniforms, perhaps praying or performing a drill, stand at regular intervals from one another. The camera sits between two of them and across from a third, as if the viewer is part of the boys’ severe formation—as if our bodies, too, are subject to the pressures of military geometry and the temptations of raw adolescent physicality.

Almost always, “Restraint and Desire” chips away at the authority of ritual by defying visual convention, venturing uncanny angles and jarring framings that endow prosaic acts with newfound strangeness. The majority of the figures that appear in the book are obscured in some way, either cut off by intrusive framings or eclipsed by objects or other bodies. Protruding appendages, attached to people we cannot discern, are a consistent motif. One photo shows a youth being bundled into a jacket by a barrage of disembodied hands; another depicts men standing behind columns, their arms spread out into “T”s. We see sleeves, arms, and the hint of fingers emerging from behind each pillar, but we cannot make out any torsos or heads.

Graves and Lipman have the rare gift of rendering an idioverse visible without compromising its integrity. The dedication of the book—“In loving memory of Ken Graves”—appears below a photo that’s more legible than the others—the kind of picture that might be posted on social media, or kept in a scrapbook. It depicts Graves and Lipman at a restaurant, smiling up into the camera and holding hands. And still there is an entire world between them.

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