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Book Review Journey to the Center of the Earth Photographs by Tiane Doan na Champassak Reviewed by Britland Tracy “What was your favorite book growing up? This was a question posed over dinner by a multi-hyphenate novelist at an artist residency I recently attended, comprising mostly Young Adult writers who ponder the adolescent reading experience in ways that I, a child-free visual artist, do not..."

by Tiane Doan na Champassak. 
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZK557
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Photographs by Tiane Doan na Champassak
the (M) éditions, Paris, France, 2024. French, 224 p pp., 56 photographs, 6½x10¾".

What was your favorite book growing up? This was a question posed over dinner by a multi-hyphenate novelist at an artist residency I recently attended, comprising mostly Young Adult writers who ponder the adolescent reading experience in ways that I, a child-free visual artist, do not. The question intrigued me as it inspired a round-table discussion among accomplished adults — New York Times bestselling authors, screenwriting professors, award-winning composers, graphic novelists — reminiscing over Star Wars and The Babysitters Club with what I can only describe as high-brow earnestness. The obvious fact I had failed to realize until that moment was that childhood stories brand our psyches forever, that what we devour ravenously and repeatedly are one of few choices we are free to make for ourselves at a young age. These fictions can enhance an already enchanting upbringing or salve a bad one. Whichever respectable titles you announce as a respectable adult performing cultural literacy before other respectable adults will never hold a candle to that one book — you know which one — that transformed protracted afternoons into timeless portals a decade or five ago.

For artist Tiane Doan Na Champassak, that one book was Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth — the tale of a German mad scientist who, in search of volcanic tubes extending to the center of the earth, joins forces with his nephew and a subterranean tour guide to dive through Mesozoic strata, prehistoric creatures, and otherworldly phenomena by entering an inactive volcano in Iceland and erupting back to Earth’s surface through an active one in Italy, with all of the requisite lessons and gambles along the way. This literary expedition is punctuated with fifty-six illustrations by Édouard Riou, and together these pictures and words entered the canon of early science fiction.


Champassak’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, recently published by The(m) Éditions, is in conversation with Jules Verne in as much as it is with the artist’s boyhood self. In it, the photographer sets out on his own journey — not to the center of the earth, but to Laos, home of Xe Bang Faï, one of the world’s largest river caves most easily accessed via kayak spelunking. He documents this geologic wonder on color film and returns home. He then superimposes his pictures over Riou’s illustrations; fifty-six photographs of the river, alternatively processed with unspecified “unusual substances” which alchemize a diaphanous grotto into aqueous abstractions. Was Xe Bang Faï the “center of the earth” for the artist, his own dreamt odyssey realized in adulthood? I can only imagine so.

There are a few entry points into this hefty tome of a Hero’s Journey-turned-artist book. To begin, I should mention that its narrative text is entirely in French. It is, in fact, a perfect facsimile of an early edition of Verne’s Voyage au Centre de la Terre, published in the late nineteenth century in the heart of Paris and presumably mimicking the version Champassak first encountered in his youth. So, if you are a lapsed or aspiring francophone, wanting to level up from Le Petit Prince but not yet ready to delve into Colette or the grammatical Mount Everest that is Proust, alors, ce livre est pour vous.


Language lesson aside, this reconceptualized version of Journey to the Center of the Earth is a sumptuous visual object; relatively narrow and long, and hardbound in a satiny emerald green. It is substantial, like an imperial object anchored to a grandfather’s bookshelf. The titular front matter is debossed into the jewel-toned cover; an elegant invitation to touch. Each C-print of the river cave is only partially adhered to its corresponding illustration, which allows for a tactile game of hide-and-seek and serves as a reminder that découpage was invented by the French. The pages are matte, textured, and studded with a constellation of ink blots and blemishes, while the photographs that appear every couple of turns provide a counterpoint of saturated, velvety sleekness. If you’ve ever dabbled in papyrophilia, been seduced by stationary too good to use, used the term “chromatic variation”, “cotton rag”, or “GSM” to describe paper in casual conversation, then might I suggest that you peruse the backlog of The(m) Éditions titles. They are a consummate book lover’s book maker.


Finally, the images: a scavenger hunt of gemstones, brilliantly incorporated into the text and thus easily overlooked as their own sparkling objects. Celadon and cobalt and charcoal swirl and bubble to the photographic surface in a variety of liquified forms, obscuring the mysteriously delineated human silhouettes that occasionally appear like tiny Matisse drawings in a midnight swimming pool. The photographs invite imagination and wonder by suggesting more than they describe, and while they could be renderings of a Laotian river cave or underground volcanic tubes or even the walls of Lascaux, that is hardly the point. To encounter this book is to return ever so briefly to a childhood fantasy, but better, with twice the number of pictures.

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Britland Tracy is an artist and educator from the Pacific Northwest whose work engages photography, text, and ephemera to observe the intricacies of human connection and discord. She has published two books, Show Me Yours and Pardon My Creep, and exhibited her work internationally. She holds a BA in French from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Colorado, where she continues to teach remotely for the Department of Critical Media Practices while living in Marfa, Texas.

Book Review You Don’t Look Native to Me Photographs by Maria Sturm Reviewed by George Slade "Start at the very beginning. The titular “You” addresses an individual, a group, and in an oblique fashion the reader. The cover repeats the title twice — You Don’t Look Native to Me — and includes matching silhouette busts of someone who might have braided hair, who might be looking away from us, and who is definitely obscuring the word “don’t” in the second iteration of the title..."
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=IZ246
You Don’t Look Native to Me
Photographs by Maria Sturm
Void, Athens, 2023. English, 112 pp., 8¾x11½".

What’s in a name? Be it Lumbee, Littleturtle, Jacobs, or Locklear.

Start at the very beginning. The titular “You” addresses an individual, a group, and in an oblique fashion the reader. The cover repeats the title twice — You Don’t Look Native to Me — and includes matching silhouette busts of someone who might have braided hair, who might be looking away from us, and who is definitely obscuring the word “don’t” in the second iteration of the title. Ergo, “you look native to me.” (The picture source of the silhouette appears about halfway through the book; they are indeed a pony-tailed figure with an earring and necklace, wearing a vivid sweater, looking away and off screen to the left). Duality is a phenomenon to bear in mind while absorbing this book.

This is a fascinating and provocative volume. Photographer and interviewer Maria Sturm’s work is eloquently presented by the edit, concept, and design team João Linneu and Myrto Steirou. There are no captions. You will find explication and dates, however, if you read the excerpts of transcriptions interspersed between the photographs. The conversations must be read to flesh out the visual narrative.


While the photographs feel very quiet — stilled lives, one could say — the verbal exchanges humanize the imagery and articulate the impetus for Maria Sturm’s project. Amidst the pervasive pensiveness more animated photographs include flames, a female dancer (seen in a sequence of shots), a mural of a rearing horse, and two women laughing together.

“Orality shapes origin stories.” Kaya Littleturtle’s words from April 2017 close the book. Littleturtle’s voice resounds throughout the transcript. It may even be appropriate, or accurate, to identify her as a heroine, a leading character in the book; judging from the words she speaks, and what others have to say about “Kaya,” one might link the voice to the recurring figure of a woman throughout the photographs. This individual appears first behind a heart-strewn storm door, then holding a phone displaying an image of a drum, fixing her hair, dancing in the above-mentioned sequence, and tucked in close to another slightly taller, maybe male figure. Collectively she emerges as a standard-bearer for a tribe, the Lumbee of North Carolina, that has been both recognized and slighted. Its creation and destruction myths seem conjoined with U.S. legislation from 1956 that inexplicably defines the Lumbee and withholds privileges accorded to other tribes.


Who are the Lumbee? Evidence is present throughout Sturm’s book. Sovereignty is perhaps a more important topic. According to “Chris” on October 25, 2016, what Sturm is depicting “is not about color, or look, what you’re capturing is about sovereignty and the definition of sovereignty.” He continues: “Sovereignty is not the people discovering who they are. Sovereignty is Indian people discovering what sovereignty is to them. And when they discover it, they have sovereignty. It’s like a mirage.”


Let’s allow the 1956 House of Representatives a word about Lumbee identification. “Tribal legend,” “a distinctive manner of speech,” and “family names such as Oxendine, Locklear, Chavis, Drinkwater, Bullard, Lowery, Sampson, Jacobs and others” are cited as fundamental to their recognition. In the same stroke of the legislative pen, however, the “Act” proclaims that “Nothing…shall make such Indians eligible for any services…and none of the statutes of the United States which affect Indians because of their status as Indians shall be applicable to the Lumbee Indians.” The hand that giveth also denieth.


Visually, the quandary could be summed up by two photographs that appear on adjoining spreads. The first being the previously mentioned image of someone (Kaya?) regarding a cell phone showing an image of drummers. Turn the page, and the second image is another over-the-shoulder shot, this one depicting a man regarding himself in a mirror, perhaps reflecting on a new, very close-cropped haircut. On one hand a view into the distance, echoing that of the silhouetted cover figure, that nonetheless looks backward at tribal tradition, followed by a more narcissistic self-regard, looking inward at “me” in the now.

The duality of looking Native is the paradox beating at the heart of Sturm’s project. Voice and vision collaborate in the mission to ascertain origins and forge identity.

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George Slade, aka re:photographica, is a writer and photography historian based in Minnesota's Twin Cities. He is also the founder and director of the non-profit organization TC Photo. georgeslade.photo/

Image c/o Randall Slavin
Book Review As I Was Searching (For Another) By Selina Kudo Reviewed by Brian Arnold "I want to start by saying that I’ve been unable to learn much about artist Selina Kudo, short of an installation she composed for the Tanks Art Centre in Australia in 2022 (a conceptual piece about backyard trampolines)..."

https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZK479
As I Was Searching (For Another)
By Selina Kudo
Bad News Books, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, NZ, 2023. English, 60 pp., 7x9½".

I want to start by saying that I’ve been unable to learn much about artist Selina Kudo, short of an installation she composed for the Tanks Art Centre in Australia in 2022 (a conceptual piece about backyard trampolines). When I googled As I Was Searching (For Another), the artist’s 2023 work with New Zealand based publisher Bad News Books, I didn’t find too much more information, but there is a brief quote from the artist about the book on the publisher’s website:

“Through each frame, I embarked on a journey to find something elusive, the nature of which I could not articulate at the time. This book encapsulates moments of subtle introspection and fleeting connections that were made while living in Japan. The images echo a quest for both self-discovery and a sense of belonging within the intricate tapestry of Japan’s everyday life.”

There is no text in the book to explain the pictures except that they were made between 1991-2000, so this quote is all I really have to work with.

I’ll be honest and say that I find the artist’s statement on the Bad News Books site to be a bit bland, kind of I like saying I photograph the everyday things most people don’t see, or I photograph human impact on nature. That said, however, I find As I Was Searching (For Another) to be a delightful little book. It’s only 60 pages, made with risograph prints, and in edition of 99 copies. The pictures present a clear, concise, and simple narrative. The book begins with a photograph made through an airplane window showing two flight attendants and ends with a picture of two stacked suitcases (a lovely framing to the story); in between, we see conventional pictures of Japan (some in unconventional ways) – Mount Fuji, carp swimming in a pond, kimonos, rice paper dressing screens, and iconic city streets are all depicted here. The charm of the book comes from a feeling I can only call naivety, a sort of innocence abroad story, fully articulated by the clear but crude risographs used to illustrate her story (again confirming my conviction that how pictures are made is essential for understanding them).


Through the course of the book, we do learn a little bit about the maker. Kudo’s pictures do embody a feeling of self-discovery, as articulated in the statement marketing the book, but this appears as a process tempered by equal parts alienation and warm acceptance. Kudo seems to be fully enthralled in a phenomenon that I like to call the glamour of strangeness, that intoxicating thrill of discovery found while traveling the world. We also learn some more intimate and personal things about the artist, specifically an early stage of pregnancy (the ultrasound is reproduced in the book) from which I can only deduce two things (I recognize that I might be totally wrong). First, the artist learned about her pregnancy in Japan. But I also like to think of this picture functioning metaphorically, suggesting the seeds planted by a seemingly banal experience in Japan run much deeper than the deceptively simple pictures suggest, rooted deep inside her and reshaping her sense of self.


I don’t want to say too much more about As I Was Searching (For Another) but will encourage you to try and get a copy if you can. Despite such minimal production, the book is a lovely object. The paper cover and taped binding might seem crude, almost like a notebook, but lend the book an intimacy that seem essential for understanding Kudo’s intentions. The embossed gold foil lettering gives it a little bling, and the small edition a temptation for a rare look into a private world of an Australian experiencing Japan.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.
Book Review Witness Mark Photographs by Klea McKenna Reviewed by Sara J. Winston “If Klea McKenna’s spiritual practice is her creative work, Witness Mark, published by Saint Lucy Books, serves as a gospel for the ritual of process..."

Witness Mark By Klea McKenna.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZK434
Witness Mark
Photographs by Klea McKenna

Saint Lucy, Baltimore, MD, 2023. 230 pp., 8½x10½". 

If Klea McKenna’s spiritual practice is her creative work, Witness Mark, published by Saint Lucy Books, serves as a gospel for the ritual of process.

“I think that conceiving of art projects is a way to prescribe myself an experience that I need to have. I tell myself a thing needs to be made, and then the path to make it requires me to do something which is often strange or inconvenient. In retrospect, I realize that thing didn’t really need to be made, I just needed to do that activity. I imagine that for people who have gurus or listen to oracles, that they might be told: you need to go to this place, at sunset, and sit for this long and observe this quality, as a mediation. My art practice does that for me.”

Witness Mark catalogs a decade of McKenna’s camera-less analog renderings, from 2013 through 2023, taking readers on a journey through five bodies of work: Rain Studies, Web Studies, Faultlines, Automatic Earth, and Generations.

Intermittently there are images of McKenna, both in the studio and the field. To see the artist, who has powerfully dedicated her book to her “daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s daughter,” absorbed in the act of the intense physical process of making, adds to the marvel and importance of her physical self in her creative process.


It is a wonder to follow the genealogy of McKenna’s making. To know McKenna’s work is to be aware of a beauty, technical sophistication, and complexity of seeing that is unlike any other. The language of silver gelatin prints, embossment, and rubbings holds distinctive memories that are effusive in their sensuousness — aspects of a print’s materiality that are hard to reproduce in a book become tangible in the way the book is assembled and sequenced.


Rain Studies’
images saunter across the gutter; Web Studies' go full bleed; an installation of Faultlines and Generations emerges as a delicious reproduction of a photographic relief seen beyond the book’s width as an unexpected gatefold. The surprises of the book's content pull the reader deeper into McKenna’s studio and psyche.

The materiality of each unique photographic object — often large-scale, embossed, silver gelatin prints, intended to be seen on the wall — would seem impossible to replicate in book form. Yet, through image, text, and a unique book construction, we are given a different vantage into the ways that these works convey the emotion of their careful meditative making.


The image reproductions are thoughtfully interspersed with insightful texts by experts in the field, including Corey Keller, Leah Ollman, Vanessa Kaufman Zimmerly, and McKenna herself. I find the artist’s own diaristic writing, Darkness / Light / Touch, to be most profound. The entries are powerfully non-linear in time and evocative of the emotional landscapes that underpin everything included in the volume. These pages are produced on a matte peach paper, in contrast to the bright white glossy paper stock of the rest of the book, and are situated nearly in the center of the volume. They call out to the reader’s senses, refusing to be overlooked.

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Sara J. Winston is an artist based in the Hudson Valley region of New York, USA. She works with photographs, text, and the book form to describe and respond to chronic illness and its ongoing impact on the body, mind, family, and memory. Sara is the Photography Program Coordinator at Bard College and on the faculty of the Penumbra Foundation Long Term Photobook Program.
Book Review Dead Ringer Photographs by Yael Eban & Matthew Gamber Reviewed by Blake Andrews “It’s no secret that the world is awash in photographs. The current image glut fills every conceivable vacuum, mostly via screens. This may seem like a condition of the times, but before this wave came an analogue precursor. The early 20th century enjoyed its own photographic Big Bang, as cameras, film, and print technologies became widely accessible and affordable for the first time..."

Dead Ringer. By Yael Eban & Matthew Gamber.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZK521
Dead Ringer
Photographs by Yael Eban & Matthew Gamber
TBW Books, Oakland, CA, 2024. 120 pp., 95 plates, 9x12".

It’s no secret that the world is awash in photographs. The current image glut fills every conceivable vacuum, mostly via screens. This may seem like a condition of the times, but before this wave came an analogue precursor. The early 20th century enjoyed its own photographic Big Bang, as cameras, film, and print technologies became widely accessible and affordable for the first time. Small photographs, postcards, and drugstore snapshots spewed off in all directions like primordial particles. The aftershocks still reverberate today in flea markets, albums, garage sales, and basement boxes.

These physical materials have provided the grist for numerous found-photo curations. Anonymous snapshots have been collected into books of all shapes and sizes, and the pace seems to have picked up with the new millennium. But to date none have yet taken the approach of Matthew Gamber and Yael Eban. Both authors have extensive experience as photo archivists. Together they’ve spent the past seven years scavenging anonymous snapshots from various sources.

So far so good. But their collaborative book Dead Ringer offers a twist on the found photo genre. Unlike previous curations, this one is organized into pairings grouped by origin. Each set features multiple prints spawned from a single negative. These identical twins (plus a few triplets and quartets) were separated at birth, then made their way through the world over the course of decades. Through the remarkable efforts of Eban and Gamber — how in the world did they track down and match all these snapshots? — they’ve been reunited. Pictures respond to destiny, the photo version of quantum entanglement.


As one might expect, some twins bear closer family resemblance than others. In the book’s opening pages, the pairings are literally dead ringers. With no introductory text, initial mountainscapes and city skylines pose a quandary to the reader. What exactly are we looking at and why has the same photo seemingly been printed twice? The riddle resolves in the pages to follow, as minor physical artifacts begin to delineate clear differences. One print is slightly larger than its twin. Another shows handwriting. Another print seems to have been left in the sun too long, for its colors do not match its sibling. Just as with human twins, events gradually leave their marks. The singularity devolves to individuals.


For readers, these minor tics and baubles prove to be quite stimulating. After we’ve been put on alert to look for small differences, they seem to crop up everywhere. Photos sport punctures, tears, stains, notes, commercial banners, and more. The eye moves between pairings searching for discrepancies, and Dead Ringer becomes a treasure hunt not entirely dissimilar from the act of photography. In the words of Todd Hido, it’s “one of those rare books that forces you to stop in your tracks and set aside all distractions in order to deeply look at the details of the images contained within.”


Dead Ringer’s
no-frills design lets the photographs do most of the work. It’s an open-spine body wrapped in an unbleached paper dust jacket. If the cover had a separated-at-birth twin, it might be a brown paper grocery bag. The photos are reproduced at actual size and finish, paired across double spreads with scars intact. Broad white pages provide plenty of room for detailed snooping. After all the photographs have been digested and decoded, Clément Chéroux chimes in with an anecdotal afterword. “Photography….seems to have been born under the sign of Gemini,” he notes in a roaming digression that broaches genetics, overshadowed twins, Talbot, Benjamin, and Arbus. Coming after an entirely visual feast, the essay is a nice intellectual dessert. It fits the photos so well they might have been separated at birth.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.
Book Review Pharmakon Photographs by Teju Cole Reviewed by Cheryl Van Hooven “With its startling bold cover of cryptic and elongated black letters printed on a dark blue cover, Pharmakon, Teju Cole’s most recent photobook, reveals its full title only upon unfolding the cover’s flap. It’s in that gesture that we are brought into dialogue with Cole’s strategy of withholding, giving nothing away quickly or easily, even baffling the effort to identify..."

Pharmakon. By Teju Cole. 
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZK529
Pharmakon
Photographs by Teju Cole
MACK, London, UK, 2024. 200 pp., 8½x11".

With its startling bold cover of cryptic and elongated black letters printed on a dark blue cover, Pharmakon, Teju Cole’s most recent photobook, reveals its full title only upon unfolding the cover’s flap. It’s in that gesture that we are brought into dialogue with Cole’s strategy of withholding, giving nothing away quickly or easily, even baffling the effort to identify.

Regarding his choice of title, Cole said, “Something about being in Greece brought back to mind that ancient double-sided concept (poison and cure) which opened up my thinking about the wide-ranging photos and helped give language to a previously unnamed intuition.”

Pharmakon opens with a disarmingly conventional photo: a landscape through the car window, rearview mirror in the frame. This simple black-and-white image sets up a presumption of travel, perhaps an investigation into place or geography, but the enigmatic, often abstract, color images that follow could be anywhere, and indeed are from many disparate locations: Europe, India, Chile, Canada, the UK and US.

Provided with no captioning, we are dropped into the realm of indeterminacy. Assuming all visual matter is associative, it’s still the authority residing in individual experience that makes meaning unique, and Cole is asking each reader to form their own understandings of his images, stories and juxtapositions.


“One of the pleasures of putting a book out into the world is that each person who gives it time will come up with their own particular forms of emphasis. . . a joy to the person who's made the book because it’s out there in the world living its own life.”

A master of how words and images interact, Cole employs twelve short stories to connect to human experience, albeit anonymously. Interspersed among the photos, his stories evoke an undertone of unease, peril, or even dread. They complicate our experience with the photographs inserting a hum of danger. Meanings expand. Privy to anxious exchanges, we are brought in as silent witnesses. However, Cole is neither naming nor explaining; again, nothing is truly revealed.


With one exception, the stories are extremely condensed, most at only half a page. That brevity and the surrounding white space sets them on visual par with the photos, maintaining a smooth aesthetic continuum.

Wide fore-edge margins press the vertical pairs of photos in close relationship, and a similarly unusual but disciplined use of white space energizes the synergy of the book’s components. The high production values one expects from Mack: dreamy printing, sewn binding for lay-flat viewing, substantial paper weight, and a subtle tactility all contribute to the dichotomous beauty and mysteries held within this deeply considered and intriguing book.


Pharmakon
abounds with mystery. Resolutely indeterminate photos, mute landscapes, undecipherable graffiti, and the motif of travel to unnamed places all create a context in which even the most straightforward pictures are infused with ambiguity.

In Cole’s universe, these are less acts of obfuscation than attempts to provoke questioning. What are we really seeing? How do we create meaning? How is a typical carte de visite image redefined by being placed between impenetrable pictures? Without signs, how are we to know where we are? Does it matter?


From multiple readings, one gains a strong sense of the author. Quietly but forcefully he emerges: photographer, writer, the artist of beauty, gravitas, telling stories which stir the dark murmur resonating through the photographs.

Pharmakon cannot be considered separately from the happenings in the real world: war and dislocations, the crisis of mass migration; when asked about that subtextual context, Cole said “…I think that reading suggests itself. But I'm also hoping that many years from now, there will be something resonant about the book … so that people quite remote from us can come to the work and find that it speaks to them.” No doubt it will.

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Cheryl Van Hooven is a photographer and writer based in New York and often working in the California Mojave Desert. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Public Library, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints & Photographs, Imagery Estate Winery Permanent Collection at Sonoma State University, among others. She is currently working on a photo/text book.