Photo Books: The New Photographic Ritual

Moving down the aisles that are carved between each row of seats, the line slowly edges on. A choir of no more than three people — woman and two men — expel their voices gently and slowly, serenading the churchgoers as they inch forward toward the pulpit where they receive their bread and wine.

The communion is a ritual in Catholicism that occurs at the height of the mass. It exists in a ceremonial way to cement the beliefs of the Catholic church between those who gather at each mass. It is unremarkable and unsurprising yet it remains an event of significance. Catholics understand it’s importance and, like most rituals, it plays a pivotal role in helping those who participate to understand different traditions, stories and values. Traditionally, in a ritual, every person present must participate. The act of the ritual requires the whole necessarily because it carries the tradition and maintains the sense of community through interaction and representation.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a small library of photobooks. Few of them collect dust and are rarely viewed. The majority, however, are often spread throughout my house and office. I find myself continuously looking back to them, attempting to dissect what integral information I missed the last time. Maybe I interpreted something wrong, or I want simply to experience them all over again. Photobooks are more than just books of photographs that happen to go together or follow the same theme. There is a sense of narrative experience that is revealed within the pages of these books. It comes to life in the editing, the design, the paper choice, the ink; the physical things help to bring it to life-like wine or bread.

Sometimes I buy photobooks full of images I don’t – can’t – understand. Such was the case when Delaney Allen’s inaugural book Between Here and There arrived at my doorstep. The thick cardstock that forms the outside of the book with a typewriter font stamped onto the front cover is peculiar enough but the images inside perpetuate that sense. A snapshot-like image of a girl, blonde haired and ecstatic with bulging black sunglasses leads the viewer in. A close-up image of water with light refracting through it creates a rainbow while flares and dust settle around the edges. A cave; light peaking gently out of the far-end carries the viewer through the narrative. Of course, you must allow these images to lead you, to let them consume you and take you on the journey and to tell you the story they want you to tell. Further enhancing this effect are emails between Delaney and his then girlfriend. They break the flow of images but not in the way you would expect. Finding them hidden between caves and oceans they carry the narrative while forcing the viewer to maintain their own sense of curiosity and to form images in their own head of the events described. The combination forces you to question whether the images in your head were ever in the book.

Surely it can be understood, then, that the importance of the single image in this book is a moot point. There is no one single image that stands out rather, a collection of images that form an entirely new world. This new world that I so eagerly live in – one that I can escape to whenever I want – is the only point worth discussing. It is not a world given to me but one that I create of my own volition and is a direct product of the ritual nature of the photobook. My persistence in tracing back and forth the images as they relate to each other, trying desperately to understand what story they tell and how they relate to me. By sheer participation I have joined them in the collective act that is the photobook as ritual. My role as the viewer allows this story to be told and to be lived, to transcend the confines of when it occurred, if it ever did.

Photobooks have not always been as common as they are now. Yes, photographers made them, but they persisted to be a sacred element in the trajectory of the photographer’s career. The accessibility and availability did not exist for the amateur, hobbyist or emerging photographer to make a photobook. Recently, however, we have seen the rise of photobooks and zines in many forms. Photographers are frequently self-publishing large monographs of long-term works, approaching boutique publishing houses to produce limited zines and small-run books, or simply reigniting a DIY ethic where Xerox machines and home printers transform into a workshop for homemade books and zines. The photobook adds an unexplainable element to the significance of the image in our lives.

Photographers don’t, and haven’t been able to, heighten the significance of the photobook all alone. The collaborative nature of the format – the designers, editors, publishers, printers and audience – ensures that it is ever-evolving. Furthermore, the inclusiveness that the photobook provides is a glimpse into the ritualistic nature that it embodies. All of the participants of the bookmaking process work together to understand the narrative, to allow it to exist on a fundamental level that transcends just photographs in a book and rather, provides a platform for them to be understood and to live in the real world. Photographers look to books as the final form of their projects. The image in book form provides an interaction that every single person who comes in contact with it, regardless of their role, will interpret differently. This allows these images to live almost forever. Like a ritual, the photobook suspends in time the ideas and narratives expressed by the images, allowing them to be absorbed by viewers forever.

In celebration of such extraordinary and widespread publishing efforts by photographers, the Aperture Foundation, in October 2015, published a manifesto of self-publishing titled Self-Publish, Be Happy. This book serves as a bible of sorts for those who live the DIY ethic and endeavor to make their own photobooks (a relatively new concept given technological advancement and increased accessibility to professional-grade printers). Even still, the celebration of self-publishing isn’t to say that a photographer should completely avoid the traditional route for publishing a major body of work, but instead, this book showcases some of the many methods of bookmaking and speaks to the fact that each project demands its own methods for expressing its ideas.

Photographer Stacy Kranitz’s images live within the pages of her latest publication, Speak Your Piece. This book is much more a representation of a place than it is attempting to tell a set story. The typical boundaries of a book don’t exist. Kranitz experiments with the relationship between text and images but in an unexpected way. Many of the pages do not feature images at all which, at first, seems an odd choice but the lack of images and instead flourishing amount of text – all taken from a local paper with a column that shares the same name as the book – allow the viewer to define their own relationship in much more abstract terms. It leaves the viewer attempting to decipher who these people are and a craving overcomes you to know them. In a single quote, it is impossible to know them but it allows a brief glimpse into their lives and the things that make them tick. The simple act of you reading their letters – letting them speak their piece – allows them to move past the confines of time and space, enhancing their voices in a way that puts you there, with them.

The shared experience fills you with a sense of place. The looking over and over again at the images and text within these pages places you within them. It makes me think back to being told stories as a child. We were told these stories in a commanding way, as if they were biographical accounts of someone’s lives, but once they were told they were left and they simply existed. We discussed them, changed them, lived within them. I’d argue the same thing happens when peering into the lives of Stacy’s subjects who live between the pages of her book; although you read the stories as told by the subjects, the incompleteness forces upon you the duty to fill in the blanks, forming your own stories as you go, in fact becoming a part of the story.

Living within the image is a common trope in speaking about photography but it holds true at every turn. Staring long enough at a photograph prompts you to make up your own stories about them, as if you are there in the picture, not as a camera but as a part of the scene. An effective ritual does the same by placing you within the context of it – the story and events that it represents.

The first time I looked at Bryan Sheffield’s book, Lord God, I thought it was simply a record of trees across the United States. Sure, it is that. It is also a celebration of them, of nature, of the beauty of it but in a mysterious way that only Bryan could convey. The flash-lit images thrust you into the personal space of the trees. If it’s possible to find a candid moment in the life of a tree, he does it. The journey these images take you on is like no other. The viewer is sharing their existence with these trees each time this book is opened.

I’d imagine the only way to explain the mystery of looking at this book is by comparing it to a walk through the forest. Slowly, you move down the path, between the trees and bushes. The cool autumn air brushes your hair across your face but you remain unmoved. Your hands caress each trunk as you pass by it. These trees have been here for years; growing, living, stretching out across the landscape beneath the earth in web-like formations that go on for hundreds of feet. It’s like they are all connected to each other and in that moment of reverie, you too are connected to them. The forest speaks to you. Even if you decide to look up and away from the trees printed in ink back onto themselves, it becomes impossible to ever leave that forest because it grows deep inside your mind.

Within the confines of a printed book or zine, images take on a life of their own. The viewer interacts with them differently. Upon gallery walls, surely the viewer takes in the images in just as substantial of a manner, but there remains a separation between the viewer and artwork. The physicality of the image in printed form and our ability to truly interact with it lies only within the confines of a photobook. The viewer controls how the images are absorbed, experienced, the pace, the meaning, the story. More and more, this is becoming a viable option for photographers wishing for their projects to truly live within this world.

While the photobook industry has admittedly become oversaturated with books and not all of them holding deserving bodies of work, the importance of this medium cannot be ignored. The celebration of the book has changed photography’s role as an art form into something more experiential. The book has woven photography into the fabric of our lives. These books fill the shelves that line the walls of our homes, sit in piles upon coffee tables in living rooms around the globe, and sit forever open in our minds.

We live with this art in ways that are impossible as simply a single image anchored on the wall (or even embedded on a screen as a digital apparition, for that matter). Moreover, the true ritualistic nature of the photobook is proven in its transcendence of time. Each time we pull apart the pages of these books we again experience the story and it becomes a part of our consciousness.

You can find the archives of Alex Thompson’s column here.

About the author: Alex Thompson is a documentary photographer living in California’s Central Valley. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His work focuses around environmental issues and the social consequences of environmental degradation. His work has been featured in publications like LA Weekly and The Guardian US and he is currently working on long-term projects documenting the effect of extraction in Wyoming and life in communities along the SF Bay-Delta. You can find his work at or on Instagram @alexthompsonphoto.