In Derby (TBW Books, 2021), the late Ken Graves and his wife and photographic partner Eva Lipman reveal the little-seen world of competitive demolition derbies. Graves and Lipman’s black and white photos depict the events’ hardscrabble drivers and mangled cars, but avoid the dangerous crashes that derbies are known for. Instead, in lyrical compositions and rich tones, the series exposes the surprisingly tender and at times erotically charged moments that happen before and after impact, when human and machine bodies come into close contact.
The photos in Derby were taken in and around Pennsylvania in the mid-t0-late 1990s while Graves taught at Penn State and Lipman worked as a mobile therapist and social worker in the rural areas nearby. “I witnessed first hand the brokenness of their domestic lives, their isolation, hardships, and even emasculation,” Lipman said in a recent email to Hyperallergic. But the duo’s photos are not a simplified portrait of misery or suffering. On weekends, the carnivalesque chaos of the derbies “created a space in which everyone was equal,” Lipman reflected. “The boundaries between us and the drivers were erased. The drivers welcomed the attention, and felt safe opening themselves to the camera. They enjoyed being visible, performing their heroic feats, and were willing to expose their tensions and desires.”
Derby’s tightly cropped, sharply focused pictures capture participants up close as they socialize around, rest in, and steadfastly fix up the cars that they send into battle. Women are largely absent from these pictures, though they did attend the events: one photo catches a little girl in a polka dotted dress with a bright flash, her paper cup falling to the ground as she stands beside a mud-splattered, dented derby car. In another, a man and woman embrace, both clinging to the same tire on a fence post. But most of these photos — as with Graves and Lipman’s previous projects on boxing, wrestling, the rodeo, and the military — are arenas for exploring the male body within a homosocial ritual.
The shirtless, sweating men splayed across and against car hoods and dashboards in Derby convey a sense of bonded brotherhood and physical intimacy. “The familiarity of the place made for a space in which they experienced themselves as ‘real,’” Lipman explained. “This extended to an environment in which men felt free to bond, show affection, touch.” In one photo, a helmeted driver closes his eyes as if in prayer, while someone else’s hand rests encouragingly on his open window. In another, two topless youths crowd together, skin on skin, as they repair a rear car seat. The pictures show the battered cars to be a poignant nexus between the people who drive and watch them.
Despite their unusual subject matter, Graves and Lipman didn’t consider this an ethnographic or documentary project. “Ken and I never photographed thinking about documenting,” Lipman said on a recent phone call with Hyperallergic. “We were not interested in making pictures that would be literal. We would go into a subject looking for images that had a bigger, more transcendent meaning.” Together, Graves and Lipman’s elegant images suggest that the derby is tied up in emotions that might seem unexpected for such a harsh and violent sport: among the dust and banged-up cars, their pictures emanate a sense of commitment, pride, and even love.
Derby by Ken Graves and Eva Lipman is available online through TBW Books.