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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review Restraint and Desire By Ken Graves and Eva Lipman Reviewed by Odette England "Awkward social greetings. They’re part of how we navigate today’s world. Pre-pandemic, the rules and cues for social contact seemed clearer. Now we’re in limbo. Should we offer a hand to shake or smize and wave? Nod, wink, elbow-bump? Air kiss, air hug, air pat-on-the-back? Some enterprising folks even created 'I Shake Hands' stickers to help ease the tension. .."

Restraint and Desire by Ken Graves and Eva Lipman.
Restraint and Desire
By Ken Graves and Eva Lipman

TBW Books, USA, 2021. 90 pp., 39 duotone illustrations, 9¼x10½".

Awkward social greetings. They’re part of how we navigate today’s world. Pre-pandemic, the rules and cues for social contact seemed clearer. Now we’re in limbo. Should we offer a hand to shake or smize and wave? Nod, wink, elbow-bump? Air kiss, air hug, air pat-on-the-back? Some enterprising folks even created “I Shake Hands” stickers to help ease the tension.

Making contact, looking someone in the eye, and establishing rapport through physicality. All come to mind in reviewing Restraint and Desire by Ken Graves and Eva Lipman. Not only for the photographic subject matter but also the different tensions that scaffold our relationships.

Take for instance the phrase look, don’t touch. Something we all heard as children, have on repeat as parents, and see on aggressive little signs in museums, galleries, and stores. As my grandmother liked to say, “we look with our eyes, dear, not our fingers”. It’s a tense phrase for both parties. One has a desire to touch, the other wants to restrain it. What’s so wrong with touching? As babies, we learn the world through our hands (and mouths). Imagine trying to tell an infant, look, don’t mouth. Of course, there are limits. My daughter used to try to eat my prints if I left them lying around.

Communication tension.
Uniforms are codes. Authoritative visual statements. Linked to words like trust, power, aspiration, and identity. Two sailors stand facing the camera, their eyes closed, arms outstretched in front of them holding their neckerchiefs. Who is inspecting whom? I imagine the men under the careful scrutiny of a senior officer, just as the camera observes them. The photograph, any photograph, is always communicatively ambiguous.

Competitive tension.
There are lots of images of football games, wrestling, and boxing matches. Nipples, biceps, blades, and ridges tease my retinas. It’s bare skin season. These games demand contact. Sweaty, forceful, wanting contact. Even the person offering a towel to the athlete makes indirect contact. Is there really such thing as a non-contact sport? Are we not in contact with something whenever we play, vie, or spar? Whenever we photograph?

Note: I take a break from writing this review to play Scrabble with my husband. He sets down DESIRE for which the point value is seven points. RESTRAINT is worth nine points. Oh, the irony.

Conflict tension.
Military and conflict go hand-in-hand. A deranged form of intimacy. There are few places where one must exercise restraint more than in the military. It’s not lost on me that the term Armed Forces incorporates the word ‘arm’ As in, part of the human body but also weaponry. Which relates oh so conveniently to photography. As Gordon Parks once said: “You have a 45mm automatic pistol on your lap, and I have a 35mm camera on my lap, and my weapon is just as powerful as yours.” The photograph of a man having his shaved head measured for military headwear is intoxicating. The woman taking the measurement, arms locked, keeping her tape taught, stands out of frame. Through her ringed middle and index fingers we glimpse a crescent of the man’s right eye. His eye line pointing about thirty degrees east into her chest cavity, or perhaps at her waist. But he’s not really looking, he’s vacant. He is laser-focused on everything boiling in the pit of his gut.

Familiar tension.
It can happen when a friend zips up our too-tight dress, or helps us to put on a necklace that in the photograph looks like a choke rope. When messing about with mates we decide to contort ourselves into and then out of some kind of storage locker or sleeping compartment. When a man leans in to kiss or lick our shoulder; an impending wetness denied by the empty plastic cup on the table we spider-clutch.

Social tension. Parties, urgh. High school dances, double urgh. Social minefields, more like. Events at which we present ourselves as objects of desire. There are photographs where balloons reference breasts and vice versa. Where the camera flash startles tuxedo-shirted teenage boys performing a chicken dance or sniffing each other’s armpits. Possibly chest-bumping, which is a thing. A young girl biting the knuckle of her right index finger; her left hand resting in the palm of her unsmiling dance partner. Behind them, a boy mid-bow to his partner, collaging a prim-dressed debutant further back. Two poufy-satin-dressed girls, one adjusting her stockings, the other bending and stretching while their male counterpart smokes a cigarette behind a tree. The tension is palpable, in the eyes and jawlines especially.

Sexual tension. It’s all about twoness (maybe Threeness?). Lips and mouths and titillation. Lots of bodies fused by suggestive gestures. Like the long plume worn on a hat that tickles the eyelids of a waiter whose lips remain pursed. On the next page, a male arm groping upward from the lower left of frame, sticking his four fingers into gaps between the buttons of an otherwise neatly unformed male body. A man photographed from behind, flanked by two women who are so harshly cropped from the scene that we see only parts of their hands, teeth, necks, and wrists. Like a rooster clutching two pre-packaged hens, or how to cut a chicken into eight pieces in less than a minute.

Writing about sexual tension leads me to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1870). A series of intimate, sometimes forceful prophetic texts through which Blake shares his personal feelings and beliefs. The book’s pages come from etched plates filled with prose, poetry, and illustrations, which Blake and his wife Catherine colored by hand. One of the best-known quotes from the book is: Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.

This quote is apt in context of Graves and Lipman’s work. It’s even present on the book’s cover. The word RESTRAINT is horizontal, across the lower back of a male figure. He stands in front of a woman, hands clasped behind his back, his body almost eclipsing hers, save her arms which are behind her head. It’s a position known as the catapult position, which suggests aggression and dominance (though, one can’t help but think of a police officer shouting, “HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD!”). The shape of her arms mimics an open mouth; the man’s head her gobstopper. On the back of the book, the word DESIRE is now vertical, the backbone of the male figure. Desire, the backbone of narrative, the foundation of drama, at the heart of what compels our want to know what will happen next.

Blake taught his wife Catherine to read, draw, and color. The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that Catherine “believed implicitly in his genius and his visions and supported him in everything he did” and that, even after his death, “she lived chiefly for the moments when he came to sit and talk with her.” Graves and Lipman too were collaborative, creative, romantic, progressive souls. As Lipman says, “our work reflected back to us, like a mirror, the intensities and power dynamics of our shared life together.”

The tensions present in the 39 duotone plates in Restraint and Desire offer striking examples of how we can see with our hands and touch with our eyes. We can hold, shake, support, grab, and reach them. They emphasize the potency of photography’s social qualities and its role in forming interpersonal relationships between subject and viewer. They show us sensual, raw, explicit, and explorative forms of touch. This book is a welcome reminder that sometimes we can know something or someone through touch in ways that defy words. We call it ‘magic’ or ‘poetry’ or “I just know.” Instead of letting it be, without language. Perhaps because it’s a tense place to rest.

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Odette England 
is a photographer and writer based in Providence, Rhode Island and New York. Her work has been shown in more than 100 museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces worldwide. She has two photobooks out this year: Dairy Character, winner of the 2021 Light Work Book Award; and Past Paper Present Marks: Responding to Rauschenberg, her collaboration with Jennifer Garza-Cuen, which received a $5,000 Rauschenberg Publication Grant.