Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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Inversely proportional: thoughts on the future of the photobook

December 17, 2009

In honor of the passing of the great Larry Sultan, all the images in this post are from the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan. This was the one that showed me the possibilities of the photobook.

This post is late in the game, but I hope it can be part of the networked blog discussion about the future of photography books started by Andy Adams of Flak Photo and Miki Johnson of liveBooks’ Resolve blog. I have been away from blogging and many other things normal people do thanks to an intense few months in graduate school. I want to weigh in on this subject, which, having been a photobook editor at a trade publishing house for ten years, is dear to my heart.  This experience will also reveal my biases, no excuses.

I havent read much of what the other bloggers have had to say so far, so as not to get buffeted by the winds of the discussion as it is in the moment. I suppose that is not so much in the spirit of dialogue, but after I post this I hope to read up and catch up. I expounded on the  topic of self-publishing and the future of photobooks in an interview Casey Gollan conducted with me at the Hey, Hot Shot! blog. I don’t want to be redundant with the points made there, but some of them bear repeating: for one, it is not primarily production quality, which will continue to improve, that holds the key to how photobooks evolve away from traditional publishing models. I think it is distribution, in its meaning now and probable future implications, which is the main consideration. By extension, distribution will be the key to how all books evolve in the future.

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan.

There is a wide assumption that distribution is all about how the consumer will find books in the future, but that is only one half of it. The other half is obviously, How will the author/photographer find projects worth publishing, balancing the effort it takes to make a good book under any model vs. the number of consumers ready for it on the other end? The answer suggests a certain leveling: the “emerging” photographer can go his own way and create a fairly well-printed book with an unremarkable design and “publish” it to the tune of the few dozen contacts and fans from his MFA program and Flickr friends.

But what about the “established” photographer? Even if this is her first publishing venture, will she be content with this model? Will the institution or gallery who hosts her high-profile coinciding exhibition be content with a self-published catalog that costs nearly twice as much as other comparable photobooks, due to the economies of manufacturing on an ultrasmall print-run scale?

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan.

Here Im suggesting that for all the duress the print publishing industry is under, a certain kind of patronage can keep the presses running. Those author/photographers for whom “a book” is not a single-minded goal, but who value all the aspects that come through the process—high-level creative collaboration, materials and production factor exploration, the reputation and history of the publishing house, fraternity with that publishers other artists, and yes, distribution—will be the ones making books with publishing houses.

Another point to reemphasize from the HHS! interview is that a huge drawback in the print-on-demand model is the lack of collaboration. Sure, never leave your workstation and youre still a blogger, music producer, filmmaker, etc. You are also a book publisher: the romance of the solitary genius. Whats lost here? The combination of differently specialized people bringing their expertise to bear on a project in the making. I assert that most books are multiauthored; from concept to object, several people—individually but interdependently—control the creative variables of the book.

The team that creates a book includes, but is not limited to, the author, editor, designer, and production person—and the manufacturers. Those Chinese guys that get slagged so much? They provide the majority of the color printing nowadays, and they are pretty brilliant at it. The point is that with mass-manufactured objects, which is what books are, sole authorship doesnt exist. Contemplating the book as product of an inspired photographer/editor partnership ignores the process of how the book was created in its materiality (though I will say—again revealing undeniable bias—the role of the editor is largely invisible, and often unacknowledged; thanks to Marc Feustel over at eyecurious for his insightful post on that very issue).

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

So for the next few years at least, I see a matrix of inversely proportional considerations in the trad publishing and the self-publishing models: I would chart them on x and y axes here for you, but I am a crap designer, so just viz it in your minds eye if you will.

Model I: The swarm. Increased access to self-publishing is inversely proportional to the consumers facility in finding books. In this case we see a market surge in photobooks, available through more sources (mostly photographers own web sites) than conventional distribution now offers. In the past a publisher’s list has been a scannable roster that  projects the publishers identity and is usually a handy guide to consumers who want a certain kind of book. In this model, the market is atomized and increasingly glutted; a subject search online is the principal way to find books, sucking any joy from the process. Or, someone undertakes a curated distribution center/online self-published book retailer, which helps the consumer browse books, but also helps establish and underscore a gulf between a trad-published book (even small run titles) that you find at, say, photo-eye, and the kind of book that for some reason doesnt seem to meet that standard.

Model II: Conquest of default formats, features, and materials. This graph is plotted with an increase in access to self-publishing on one axis and a decrease in variety of design and production features on the other. That is, the ascent of self- and print-on-demand publishing services coincides with the decline of exploration of the manifold materials and production possibilities afforded by most print vendors. I mean stuff many people will never noticedeckled edges, foil stamping, gatefolds, alternating stocks, thermoreactive inks,  and numerous other optionsbut which I believe make significant psychological impressions on them. These are not options that the top print-on-demand services offer. Will they some day? In principle, why not. Id love to go shopping—build a book online with a big menu of esoteric production options. However, even in bulk each of those features costs exponentially more than conventional ones, and in a small or on-demand run, the numbers are mindblowing.

These features are today exploited by the few clients who can afford them, and will in turn charge accordingly on the purchase level. They are largely available to the elite publishing stratum who work with the minority of manufacturers who can afford to offer them (through volume discounts from the batch buys which can keep supply chains open to specialty materials). Fewer publishers equals fewer experienced production managers, and therefore a decrease in exploration of the production and design opportunities overall.

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

Or maybe I am dead wrong about all this. In which case we could see Model III. The punk era of books finally arrives (this is pretty much the bright side of Model I). Increase in self-publishing begets a scrappy new stratum of publications, unleashing the creative potential of artists previously locked out of traditional publishing. This could be the cusp of a kind of golden era, where all kinds of artists, naïve to the traditions and conventions of the photobook, create a boom in coarse but fascinating publications. The market begins to resemble the chapbook section of City Lights, or a record store. This would be a flowering of outsider talent that really comes from the ground up, not self-conscious production and design slumming, like the newsprint formats of  Grant Willings Svart Metall or Alec Soths Last Days of W., or Ari Marcopouloss photocopied The Chance is Higher, or Michael NorthrupBeautiful Ecstasy, compulsively guttered by the excellent designer Paul Sahre (all of which I love). The brand concept migrates from the publisher to the photographer, and as with so many things we find new filters for an increasingly atomized scene.

And through it all, books with pictures of  dogs and cats continue to drive sales.

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The artificial infinite

August 21, 2009

Michigan&Delaware

SUCCESSION and uniformity of parts are what constitute the artificial infinite. 1. Succession; which is requisite that the parts may be continued so long and in such a direction, as by their frequent impulses on the sense to impress the imagination with an idea of their progress beyond their actual limits. 2. Uniformity; because if the figures of the parts should be changed, the imagination at every change finds a check; you are presented at every alteration with the termination of one idea, and the beginning of another; by which means it becomes impossible to continue that uninterrupted progression, which alone can stamp on bounded objects the character of infinity.

(Part Two, Section IX)

ChicagoMonoliths3

ANOTHER source of the sublime is infinity; if it does not rather belong to the last. Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime. There are scarce any things which can become the objects of our senses, that are really and in their own nature infinite. But the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so.

(Part Two, Section IX)

Chicago_Architecture_20

Upon this principle of succession and uniformity it may be asked, why a long bare wall should not be a more sublime object than a colonnade; since the succession is no way interrupted; since the eye meets no check; since nothing more uniform can be conceived? A long bare wall is certainly not so grand an object as a colonnade of the same length and height. It is not altogether difficult to account for this difference. When we look at a naked wall, from the evenness of the object, the eye runs along its whole space, and arrives quickly at its termination; the eye meets nothing which may interrupt its progress; but then it meets nothing which may detain it a proper time to produce a very great and lasting effect. The view of the bare wall, if it be of a great height and length, is undoubtedly grand; but this is only one idea, and not a repetition of similar ideas: it is therefore great, not so much upon the principle of infinity, as upon that of vastness.

(Part Four, Section XIII)

From A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke (Harper & Brothers edition, 1860). Photographs © Alex Fradkin.

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Grant Willing: Svart Metall

July 31, 2009

claw

Grant Willing’s ongoing photographic series Svart Metall is a meditation on the ineffable qualities of an unsubtle musical subculture. “Svart Metall” is Swedish for black metal, and if you want to know more about that let me Google that for you. Though its sonic qualities are challenging even for some metalheads, its Nordic atmospherics and paganistic themes are arguably evocative for a diverse range of artists.

Grant created this body of work as his thesis at Parsons, and won “Best in Show” in the 2009 Photography Thesis Exhibition. He published it in an edition of 1000, also entitled Svart Metall, available through his site and Photo-Eye. The photographs are allusive of the themes black metal culture treats, and presented in a surprisingly informal way—printed on bleached newsprint stock (something of a trend? See Alec Soth’s The Last Days of W). On this ephemeral paper, the photographs retain a stately quality but gain a more disorienting sense.

Distinctive aesthetic expressions of metal are of interest on this blog, of course. But I also saw a (loose) parallel in how this American artist interprets visual genres forged in northern Europe and the original dissemination of the music itself, which spawned numerous stateside Black Metal bands. Overall I wanted to know more about  the motivations and process behind this fascinating body of work. I emailed Grant before he made a trip to Sweden and Norway to continue this series.

How did the project begin?

I was kind of stuck working on another project, Grand County [also viewable on Grant’s site] and felt like I needed to take a break from that. I had an idea for a while to do a project on Black Metal or something related to Norse Mythology, Paganism, Satanism, the Occult, etc. etc. I’d been kind of secretly fascinated with this stuff since high school and felt like it was time to do an “artistic investigation” into this.

I started actually working on the series when I took a trip in 2008 to Pennsylvania. I think I just had all of these ideas for different images coming through my head at that time and began shooting in that type of style and mindset.

moon blackmurder

I am interested in how relatively nonrepresentational and atmospheric the work is—which is of course consistent with a lot of the work that has appeared on black metal packaging. But it’s 180 degrees from, say, Peter Beste’s work [as seen in his book True Norwegian Black Metal].

I really like Peter Beste’s work and think its great how he does these intense studies into subcultures that have such a sense of awe or mystery surrounding them.  But yes, like you said, my work is totally different. I feel like his work is kind of the front-end of black meta—the performances of the musicians, how they want to look in front of the camera, carefully crafted situations, etc. My work is kind of like the back-end—what is behind the music.

Are you interested in Black Metal in all aspects, or just this aesthetic vector? That is, are you a fan who wanted to artistically explore this world, or is this new to you?

Like I said before, the series is a result of a long time interest in this kind of music and its ideologies. I’ve been listening to Metal for as long as I can remember, but when I started listening to Black Metal it was the first time it really interested me so much more than just the sound itself—the culture and history behind the music are what interest me most I think.

axe fortun

This was your Parsons thesis—and congrats on the award and fellowship. It was well received at school then? Who was your advisor? Any resistance to the project academically?

My advisor/professor for the past year at Parsons was Carrie Levy. She was incredibly helpful and gave me the best insight to my work that I received at school. Initially there was a small amount of resistance to the work mainly because we weren’t sure I was going to arrive at a resolved point in the work by the time I graduated. But this series developed a lot more quickly than some of my past work, I think because it’s something I had been thinking about for a long time and a subject I was already obsessed with.

How do you see this work tying into the larger metal-oriented art scene, from the fine-art, Banks Violette end of the spectrum to designer/musicians like Stephen O’Malley and Aaron Turner? Or do you see your work as its own thing?

I definitely gained inspiration from those artists, especially Banks Violette, but I think my work differs in the actual subject matter I’m looking at. I think for the most part these other artists are making work that directly references metal genres, but my work is referencing more what is referencing the music itself. I’m using Black Metal as an umbrella term in a sense, as a way to group together these different ideas, such as Paganism, Satanism, Norse mythology, etc. into a concise body of work. When taken out of the context of Black Metal, Paganism and Satanism alone are fairly different from one another, but they are grouped together in the sense that they provoke a similar mental image and are “occult.”

whitesun blacksun

Curious that you are continuing the project in Sweden and Norway—were any of the photos from the first part of Svart Metall shot there? I’d guess not all of them—if any of them—were taken in Scandinavian countries.

None of the photos in the series have been taken in Scandinavia so far (with the two exceptions of the found images “Fortun” and “Mannduad”). I started working on the project in western Pennsylvania—the first image of the series, “Untitled (Moon)” was one of the first images made for Svart Metall. Almost half of the images were taken in the mountains of Colorado. The rest were taken in New York and Québec.

mannduad fire2

For that matter, since the project eschews a considerable amount of literalism anyway, why is it important to actually go Nordic with the next part of the project—or any of it?

I think its important to visit these areas, Norway especially, in order to bring a sort of change to the work and have almost a fresh start again. It’s also undeniably something I want to do regardless of the work I make there—but my main objective is to see these places that have sparked what is essentially behind or responsible for provoking the rise of Black Metal, its culture, etc.

How do you plan a trip like this, how do you do location scouting ahead of time? Do you know what you are looking for, or do you go more instinctively?

I’ve only planned this trip so far in that I’ve booked train tickets to a few different places in Sweden and Norway. But mostly I’m going on instinct and off of some research I’ve done. It’s similar to the way I would shoot in the US: I choose an area based on the connotations it has or my impressions of it and use those ideas to find something in that place. So in a way I have ideas in my mind that I’m looking for, but they’re not necessarily location specific.

ice fenrir2

You are still working on Svart Metall; what are your ultimate plans for the project?

My ultimate plans right now are to keep transforming the series into an even more personalized look at black metal. It’s a really general desire, but I don’t want to pin down too much where I want it to go, I think it works best when it evolves naturally. I have a few ideas in mind of where it could go in terms of presentation, etc. but I’m hoping those ideas will also change over the course of the next year or so.

sword
The photographs above are not titled in the Svart Metall book, but they are, in order here:
Untitled (Claw)
Untitled (Moon)
Untitled (Black Murder)
Untitled (Axe)
Untitled (Fortun)
Untitled (White Sun)
Untitled (Black Sun)
Untitled (Mannduad)
Untitled (Fire II)
Untitled (Ice)
Untitled (Fenrir II)
Untitled (Sword)

Earlier: Helvetica metal, The look of metal today

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The legacy of Personal Space

June 29, 2009

personal-spaceAs mentioned here earlier, a longer analysis of Robert Sommer’s Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design over at Design Observer.

Sommer conveyed that even modern people inhabit and protect space like animals and members of territorial tribes; the book is full of terms from anthropology and animal behavior study like “attack, “defend,” “invade,” and “victim.” An exemplary passage describing these innate, universal behaviors (with cultural factors imparting some distinctions) still has the power to surprise upon the recognition that these “victims” and “invaders” are, under similar conditions, the readers themselves. . . .

And more to come regarding this landmark book soon, including a gallery of never-published photos from Sommer’s research.

Personal Space forty years on.

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The sonic torsion of personal space

June 26, 2009

PS cover

I’ve been researching the career and writings of Robert Sommer, the polymath psychologist who gave us the durable concept of personal space. His book of the same name, published in 1969, presented research he had conducted and synthesized from outside sources across a wide array of disciplines, including sociology, communication, psychology, perception, criminal and carceral studies, education, animal behavior, architecture, and urban planning.

I’m hoping to publish more about this 40-year-old book elsewhere soon, but until then, I am reminded of how influential this book still is when I find recent research like this: via Mind Hacks, evidence that people listening to music through their headphones have a warped sense of their personal space. Impairment of spatial relations perception due to cellphone use while driving has been known for a few years, so this is no surprise. The research Dr. Sommer pioneered is ongoing.

(Thanks for the tip, Jenn!)

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The edifice of enthusiasm: The BLDGBLOG Book

June 22, 2009

BLDGBLOG Book

Copies of The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff Manaugh are arriving in the hands of those who have ordered it, stores and individuals alike. I know this is a rather keenly awaited event for a number of BLDGBLOG readers and enthusiasts—and not least Geoff himself.

I’m also up there among those who have anticipated this moment, for I am the editor of the book. As such it is inappropriate for me to do anything like review the book, even in an unregulated online environment; endorsing it would be redundant, and running it down bizarre.

Spreads from The BLDGBLOG Book, from BLDGBLOGs Flickr page

Spreads from The BLDGBLOG Book, from BLDGBLOG's Flickr page

Not surprisingly, I’m predisposed to this book and its creator, and want to share a few thoughts about it from a privileged perspective. This may not be the biggest publishing event of ought-nine, but for some it’s a triumph. I am not talking about the subject range of this modestly proportioned 272-page book, whose content quotient is far outweighed by that of the blog. Neither is this to argue that The BLDGBLOG Book is a bellwether for how new-media content will supersede traditional models of publishing—the blog that gets ported into a book. I’m pretty sure BLDGBLOG doesn’t need further boosterism to find its aficionados; its critical function of non-academic, laterally thought speculation is already established. I’d argue what makes the book a successful entity unto itself is its rhetorical drive, its optimistic inclusiveness.

The BLDGBLOG Book is an edifice of enthusiasm.

A brief recap: Geoff had conducted a singularly entertaining interview with another Chronicle author, Erik Davis, of the aforementioned The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape, and from that point on the blog had me hooked. I met Geoff and his wife Nicola Twilley in Los Angeles in the Winter of 2007 at a small symposium he held at the Center for Land Use Interpretation. From there Geoff and I staged a similar event in San Francisco, in which we stuffed a weekend afternoon with the ideas of Geoff, Erik, the principals of Rebar and IwamotoScott, and to cap it off, the great film and sound editor Walter Murch, who shared, as I put it in a Chronicle Books blog post, “his independent research into how the geometry of the Pantheon seems to accurately point to a heliocentric understanding of the cosmos, and how some simplified math supports an archaic theory called Bode’s Law, which correlates planetary orbits to harmonic intervals.” That weekend Geoff and I also discovered shared interests in the grindcore band Napalm Death, film director David Cronenberg, and of course the godfather of psychospatial perversity, J.G. Ballard. Sometime during that weekend I think the idea of a book surfaced.

Geoff moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles to take a senior editorial position at Dwell, which enabled further discussion. He worked up a proposal, and late that June I delivered him an offer for the book. It may not go down as the most outlandish agreement ever struck in modern pop history—leagues away from Tony Wilson’s blood-inked cocktail napkin contract with Joy Division, say—but the setting was a neon-hued hotel room in Reno, Nevada, there was bourbon involved, and there were numbers on a napkin. That possibly sounds more louche than it really was, since we were in Reno to attend a fairly highbrow event sponsored by the Nevada Museum of Art, a panel discussion with Geoff, David Maisel, and Bill Fox.

One of the aspects of BLDGBLOG that I always liked was Geoff’s writing—longer form than most blogs, interrogative of its subject (it’s never a simple re-post site), and often a platform for a capsule prose piece of some speculative sort. From the beginning the mutually agreed idea behind the book was to create ample space for this writing, what Geoff sees as the foundation of his creative endeavor. Yes, the range of his fantastic ideas are why many people love the blog, but if that were the primacy of his work then he’d be just another blogger. My job as an editor would not be to mess with the text so much as to coordinate it with the other elements and Chronicle’s in-house process and flow. There weren’t that many disagreements about his writing, though I could not disabuse Geoff of his fondness for activating any given noun into a verb through the “-ize” suffix (we should have brought the discussion here). I thought there must be some better, if more technical, word for something as obtrusive as “musicalize.”

But there it is again, the rhetoric of enthusiasm, causing what’s usually inert to jump to life. It’s the animating principle behind BLDGBLOG and the justification for its wide net. This is another key factor that separates him from most other online scribes, and what puts him at the farthest end of the spectrum from trolls or grey vampires or whatever. Geoff’s philosophy was well summed up in his manifesto for Icon magazine: “Everything is relevant to architecture . . . stop limiting the conversation.”

The idea was never to slurp the best posts from BLDGBLOG, typeset them, and throw some fancy pictures into a default format. Geoff wrote a great deal of new texts for the book, and adapted many others. The book format afforded an opportunity to impose a structure that blogs largely lack. Five sections—Architectural Conjecture, Urban Speculation; The Underground; Redesigning the Sky; Music Sound Noise; Landscape Futures—accommodate texts of various lengths, including little sidebars and interstitial texts for the skimmer type of reader. Portions of his smartest interviews appear as well, including an exciting new one from Michael Peter Cook of Archigram [Michael Cook is the Canadian sewer-and-drain spelunker behind The Vanishing Point, and also the subject of an interview in the book]. And there are lots of wonderful images as well, from David Maisel, Simon Norfolk, Siologen, Camille Seaman, Ed Burtynsky, and of course NASA. Brett MacFadden and Scott Thorpe—former colleagues at Chronicle who struck out on their own—imposed a sharp look and clear hierarchy for the different kinds of texts within. Geoff enlisted Dwell colleague Brendan Callahan for some blithe illustrations of some of Geoff’s more peculiar concepts, and cartoonist Joe Alterio converted the inner covers to the first BLDGBLOG comics ever. Finally, Geoff added a special, rather funny, spread in the back, after an extensive Further Reading section, for the autographs of particular BLDGBLOG heroes. Sadly, though perhaps necessarily, noone will ever fill all those lines, due to the passing of the great Mr. Ballard.

We could devote a long entry to the thorny process of choosing the right cover for the book, but in the end this composite approach is an appropriate visual summary to the menagerie within. I’m proud of this book and eager to see it get out to its fans. Thanks to the entire team who worked hard to put this together—and thanks, Geoff, for trusting me and Chronicle with it.

I hope you start working on the second book soon.

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Scaled up and divinely appointed: FLDS urbanism

June 18, 2009
The limestone-clad FLDS temple in Eldorado, Texas. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

The limestone-clad FLDS temple at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

Museo has a stellar piece by Adam Marcus about the origins of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community in Eldorado, Texas, which was famously raided by the US federal government last year on suspicion of child sexual abuse. Marcus takes up the architectural and planning aspects of the sect’s from-scratch visionary city, Yearning for Zion.

Given the FLDS’s sense of divine appointment and defiant rejection of external (“gentile”) norms, it’s no surprise that a decidedly outsider architecture emerged.  Quoting Marcus,

The contrast of these buildings with their landscape is exacerbated by the odd choice to build with logs in an area of the state where there are no trees. Thus it seems that the FLDS’s intention is to invoke the mythologized American cabins of past settlers, and by extension, portray themselves as the quintessential American frontier society. In a remarkable, bizarre synthesis of formal convention (notions of what a house ought to look like) with the functional demands of a polygamist lifestyle, the typical FLDS house strives to project the idealized image of American domesticity, yet everything is scaled up in size as needed in order to accommodate the numerous sister-wives, as the brides are called, and scores of children who live inside.
A typical FLDS family home at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by

A typical FLDS family home at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

Marcus proceeds to read the gargantuan gleaming temple, clad in limestone quarried on the property, through its design echoes of Joseph Smith’s original Latter-Day Saints temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. By hearkening back to the pre-schismatic founding architecture, the FLDS implies not just a linkage to the original church, but a supersession. And then there are the divergences from that temple vocabulary: “The turrets are topped with crenellations that continue around the roofline, suggesting the profile of a castle or a fort, thereby producing an uncanny confusion of religious monumentality and the architecture of military defense,” Marcus writes. Essential reading.

This piece is also in the vein of one of the most challenging and rewarding books I have collaborated on, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape by Erik Davis, with photographs by Michael Rauner.

A sort of secret history of the Golden State as told through the stories of the diversely religious and compelling individuals who founded and continue to inhabit it, The Visionary State is also a huge survey of eccentric, divinely inspired architecture. When the Spirit guides the architect’s hand the results usually vault well beyond the ordinary.