15 Feb 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Within literature, the challenge to linearity has fallen in and out of favor, though it generally manifests through either writing strategies, such as shuffling narrative pieces out of straightforward time, or through formal strategies that challenge the physical constraints of the traditional codex. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates is an example of the latter, in which the book cover is in fact a clamshell box that opens to reveal roughly 28 loose signatures that can be read in any order, with the exception of FIRST and LAST.  

Linearity might suggest that truth can be revealed through a singular path. The hyperlink as defined by Ted Nelson [1], however, eschews linearity and in so doing posits that truth is instead positional. In his 1974 Computer Lib/Dream Machines, Nelson observed that, “the structures of ideas are non sequential” and offered the hyperlink as a means by which a user can be presented with alternatives to conventional hierarchies.   

Within 25 years of Tim Berners-Lee’s contribution of the world wide web in 1989, two in five adults on the planet have been initiated in Nelson’s hyperlinking. Much has been written about how the internet has changed everything from the way our brains function to the way we socialize to how we understand “Truth.” In thinking about artist books in this light, I would like to look in particular at how the photobook as a genre of artist book reveals its influence by the non-linear hyperlink. 

Whereas photo books since the nineteen-twenties have largely been single monographs, over the last decade, there has been an increase in photobooks which present a number of volumes in different formats in a container of some kind – a clam shell, a cardboard box, a slip cover, etc. The material consideration of the book formats in these photoboxes places them within the larger artist book tradition. More importantly, these book formats also reflect the influence of our experience of the world through the lateral movement of the hyperlink as opposed to the linear movement of the traditional single codex. 

A fine example of an artist photobox is Kazamu Obara’s Exposure (2016).  Exposure has as its focus Chernobyl and the box contains three formats – a soft cover, vertically formatted codex with text & images; a newsprint facsimile; and a horizontally oriented, hardcover photobook. Together, these formats provide three distinct perspectives: black & white found negatives with a reflective text; a historical reference; and a color view from inside a train and looking out as it transports workers to and fro from either side of Chernobyl. These 3 formats provide distinct perspectives that allow us to triangulate on the experience of this place: personal, historical, and documentary.

An additional layer of photographic content is the inclusion of film negatives set between a number of pages and facsimile 4x6 color photos tucked into others. These elements push the material attention further into the artist book realm. A finishing touch unifying the work includes a couple medium format film labels. They not only create the cover imagery for both the outside box and the b&w paperback book inside, but also they actually wrap around the box and the book inside, creating a seal (like the film wrap) that must be broken to open. This breaking of the seal can be interpreted in myriad ways.

Another notable photoboox is End. by Eamonn Doyle, Niaill Sweeney and David Donohoe. This 13x8in hard slip-cover, wrapped in translucent, neon yellow glycine contains a handful of variously formatted booklets with different thicknesses of paper, printing styles, number of pages, and fold-outs. The cumulative effect of End. is more associative and is distinct from Exposure in that it is heavily design oriented. There is a strong abstract sensibility throughout, with exceptional bursts of clearly composed, though somewhat surrealist, color photos from Dublin. While not as precise or poignant in its details, End. nevertheless uses the multiplicity of formats to interrupt a particular viewpoint, thereby challenging, poking fun with, and disorienting our vantage point as readers.

To conclude, these photoboxes prove radical in terms of being broadly influenced by the hyperlink – represented by a diversity of perspectives that create a break from the modernist, single perspective, authoritative viewpoint. I leave as an open question whether this shift also reflects a change in the photographic community’s conception of “Truth” as it relates to the photographic medium.

[1] Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, p. xxviii, ed. Ken Jordan, 2002, USA 

Alexander Mouton has a background in film, literature, and photography. His artist books are self-published under the Unseen Press moniker, many of which are in collections internationally, including MoMA NYC and the Getty Research Institute, LA.  Currently, Alexander is Associate Professor, Chair, Dep’t Art, Art History & Design, Seattle University.


  • 15 Feb 2021 11:34 AM | Peter Tanner
    This is a really interesting subject. The photobook, as both collection and archive, composed and curated in such a way that demonstrates a non-linear approach to the photo-essay. The first thing this post prompted to my mind was the 1963 literary work Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Argentine author Julio Cortázar. This literary reference is relevant because of the way that Cortázar presents his work. At its beginning on the “Tablero de dirección” (literarily direction board – one could also think of it as the game board since it part of a novel called hopscotch) where the novel begins with an explanation prior to the first chapter that states: “In its way this book is many books, but above all it is two books. The reader is invited to choose one of the two following possibilities: The first book is read in the ordinary way, and ends in chapter 56, at the foot of which there are three showy stars that equate to the word End. Therefore, the reader will dispense without remorse the chapters that follow. The second book is read beginning with chapter 73 and later continues in the order that is indicated at the foot of each chapter.” The pattern continues thus: 73 – 1 – 2 – 116 – 3 – 84 – etc.
    There are of course many other ways, as Cortázar conceded, to read this book that is “many books,” a few of them could be: for the reader to begin from chapter 1 and read all the way to chapter 155, or even invert that order 155 to 1; possibly even start anywhere and jump around to any chapter one wants; conceivably one could also move from one chapter to another that one finds interesting until one has constructed their own novel with or without using all the chapters possible.
    I raise this interesting literary example in relation to the current blog post to suggest that the book has always been related to the hyperlink (or was the original hyperlink perchance known as the reference?). In my experience no one ever reads the entirety of the reference books they own, and when they do read them they only go from beginning to end, alphabetically or indexically, to discover the location of what they are looking for and then concentrate on that subject. No one reads a dictionary linearly, from cover to cover (except for my strange ex-brother in law), or the entirety of an encyclopedia. Considering some more or less contemporary to Rayuela photo-essays, like Edward Steichen’s Family of Man (1954), or Robert Franks The Americans (1958) one might start from the beginning or the end of each and eventually close the book somewhere in the middle. Still further, as Mouton pointed out in the previous blog post, book artists might fabricate or manipulate similar non-literary works as phonebooks and bibles in order to demonstrate new narrative, literary, visual and creative possibilities.
    It is the shifting nature of these book works that Mouton shares with us in this post that highlights how the malleability of the book as a format, that can include image, text and physical haptic construct, that establishes book artistry as one of the most relevant of all forms of historic and contemporary art in terms of both fabricating narratives in the past as well as shifting and questioning the linearity and truth of metanarratives that surround us.
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