Inventing literary photobooks

Ana Luiza Fernandes

Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro
ORCID: 0000-0003-3598-2916

João Queiroz

Federal University of Juiz de Fora
ORCID: 0000-0003-3598-2916



This special issue regards literary photobooks. But, what are literary photobooks? There are many different ways to answer this question. We can, still without knowing how to define it, have no doubts when coming across one of them. Charles S. Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, calls this type of belief the first “grade of clearness” of a concept. A playful view of this grade tells us that “if it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck it’s a duck” (definition of “artist’s book”, by Lawrence Weiner, 1989). But this grade should not prevent us from calling something that is not a photobook a photobook. As claimed by Atkin (2016: 33), “a simple lack of hesitancy in applying a concept does not mean we have a full understanding of it”. But in that case we would be able to recognize something as similar to a photobook. As the pragmatists suggest, many of our conceptions do not extend beyond this level of clarification. But we should improve our conception. According to a second grade of clearness, we provide an abstract (verbal, ‘nominal’) definition of a concept, and also, with some luck, necessary and sufficient conditions for its application – which conditions we must satisfy to distinguish a literary photobook from any other type of book (artist's book, book art, art book, bookwork, book object, illustrated book, conceptual book). More effectively, this abstract criterion is imposed on analysis from external sources. We can improve our understanding even more. According to the third grade of clearness, Peirce recommends that we apply the Pragmatic Maxim – “consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (Peirce CP 5.402). The third grade represents our capacity to understand the consequences of holding some concept to be true. It transforms the concept into a series of hypothetical conditionals, pertaining to an interpreter’s own agency and experience (if x is a literary photobook then … the practical and conceivable consequences are y and z).

Designed and produced since the beginning of photography – “almost since the birth of photography in 1839, the photobook was invented more or less as a publishing medium, and Victorian pioneers, such as Anna Atkins and William Henry Fox Talbot, were starting to stick photographs into albums and books around 1843” (Badger, 2015)[1] – this kind of intermedial, multimodal, or intersemiotic experiment attracted, in following decades, writers, photographers and designers from several literary and artistic fields. According to Nott (2018: 2), the word “photopoem” [2] occurs for the first time in Photopoems: A Group of Interpretations through Photographs (1936). But the phenomenon is historically much earlier – “Pairings of poems and photographs in book form had existed for almost a century prior to Photopoems, though [Constance] Phillips’s anthology is important for its suggestion that the form deserved to be recognised and given a distinct name” (Nott, 2018: 2). Literary photobooks can be apprehended as a subset of intermediality phenomena (or intermedial arts), broadly defined as a theoretical term “able to address any phenomenon involving more than one media” (Wolf, 1999: 40-41), a concept that “comprehends all types of interrelationship and interaction between media” (Clüver, 2007: 9). From a semiological/semiotic perspective, in literary photobooks at least two sign systems (verbal and photography) “transgress” (Ljungberg, 2010: 82) their borders for inventing a new ontology. Verbal system is linked to the photographic image in a dense interaction, involving mutually modulatory (and interpretative) constraints connecting word and photography. They create a coupled system that can be defined as a new phenomenon – a new media (or intermedia) (Clüver, 2007), a new form of intermedial collaboration (Nott, 2018), a new form of art (Badger, 2015), a new literary genre, a new affordance (a new set of creative opportunities), a new representational (or semiotic) niche.

Much discussion has taken place to define the most accurate theoretical framework (methods, theoretical terms and entities, models, technical vocabulary), and the most significant historical examples, to investigate this phenomenon. This discussion is especially interested in defining several forms of relationship between photography and verbal text, and how these forms should be more adequately exemplified, described, and named. A naming, attribution of type, class, or genre seems to be at the origin of many problems, which tend often to be treated as a trivial terminological dispute. But, as we know, assigning a type doesn’t result only in naming a class of things or processes. A name is not just a tag. It reveals a collection of properties, rules and norms governing a work, a family or a system of works, and a landscape (or “horizon”) of expectations – we expect to find certain (and not other) things, structures, dynamics, depending on the genre that we face – “[...] the story that can be told about a given work depends on what theorists call the reader’s ‘horizon of expectations’” (Culler, 1997: 63). A “terminological dispute” reflects a dispute for the best “historical ontological” (Hacking, 2004) region of the observed phenomena. An ontological history also constitutes the reader through observation and analysis of artifacts, which have historical trajectories, and which we call conceptual spaces, theories and models. The literary photobook does not exist as an “observable phenomenon”, as a stable and distinct pattern of observable activity, before having a well-established toolbox of theoretical analysis and observation artifacts.

As we know, the concept of photobook mixes up with many other concepts [3] – artist’s book, book art, bookwork, art book, book object, illustrated book, conceptual book, photographic book, photographic album – from several fields of research – intermediality and multimodality studies, comparative literature, photography theory, general semiotics, art theory, history of art. The reader will find here several attempts to describe and analyze photobooks, and a discussion of how best to define and classify them, according to different theoretical perspectives and backgrounds.

The article opening this special issue, “A fotografia e a palavra no livro de artista” [“The photography and the word in the artist’s book”], discusses the appropriate classifications for approaching text-image intermedia relations in works of “intersection zones” (photobook – artist’s book). The second paper, “O livro de fotografia e a biblioteca: um estudo de caso” [“The photobook and the library: a case study”], analyzes the photobook in the context of Librarianship, providing “a survey of the particular characteristics of this type of material and the means through which this object can be demanded by users of a specialized library”.

Starting with the third article, we will find several case studies. The first one, “Assinaturas de olhares: uma análise da fotobiografia de José Cardoso Pires" [“Signatures of gazes: an analysis of the photobiography of José Cardoso Pires”], elaborates different hypotheses for reading and understanding a photobook based on the photobiography of José Cardoso Pires written by Inês Pedrosa. The next article, “Os Sertões de Euclides da Cunha: a ‘intervenção de uma tecnografia’ intermidiática e multimodal” [“Os Sertões by Euclides da Cunha: the intervention of an intermedial and multimodal technography”], concentrates on the macrostructure of this work, and proposes Os Sertões as a photobook experiment. “Miguel Rio Branco and the Curse of Cities (Maldicidade 2014)” focuses on the composition of the book as a dialogue between text and image, and on the use of the avant-garde techniques of montage and collage. “Intellectual montage in Journey into the Fantastic” uses Eisenstein’s theory of montage to describe “how combinatorial patterns can be observed acting as meaning-making processes” in Boris Kossoy’s Journey into the Fantastic. “Entre texto e imagem: a morte como tema fotoliterário em Nadja de André Breton” [“Between text and image: the death as a photoliterary theme in Nadja by André Breton”] analyzes the use of photographs in Breton’s work and the relationship between photography and literature. More specifically, this article analyzes “the photoliterary construction of the topic of death” in Nadja. “On the narrative potential of photobooks: an analysis of Alec Soth’s Niagara’s book” analyzes the narrative construction in the Niagara photobook (2006), produced by photographer Alec Soth, based on the concepts of storyworld and worldmaking from the field of Narrative Studies. “As fotografias compulsivas de Leila Danziger: reflexões sobre o encontro entre poesia e fotografia em ‘Robert Smithson’” [“Leila Danziger’s compulsive photographs: reflections on the encounter between poetry and photography in ‘Robert Smithson’”], analyzes the poem “Robert Smithson”, from the book Three essays of speech (2012) by Leila Danziger. The authors reflect “on the poem as a meeting place between different artistic practices” and on the “link between Danziger's poetic-visual productions and Smithson's photographs and installations”. “Os ‘álbuns despenteados’ em Esse cabelo de Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida” analyzes the relationship between text and photography in Almeida’s book Esse cabelo [That hair], the search for identity of the narrator and protagonist’s voice, and a representation procedure that resorts to photography.

At the end, we have two interviews and a handwritten collage. The first interview (“Photobook Phenomenon: an interview with Moritz Neumüller”) was conducted by João Queiroz and Ana Luiza Fernandes, on several topics, from recent and increasing interest in photobooks, in the academy and in the book market, to the distinction between photographic catalogs, albums, and photobooks, and relevant conceptual differences for distinguishing categories. In the second interview (“Duarte Belo e a génese do arquivo” [“Duarte Belo and the genesis of the archive”], by Manaíra Aires Athayde), we encounter a detailed view on the photographer’s methods of work, his many photographic albums and literary photobooks, and an account about his system for organizing an encyclopedic body of work on the Portuguese human and natural landscape. This special issue closes with “Caligrafia também é corpo: entrevista-collage com Miguel de Carvalho sobre seus fotolivros de literatura” [“Caligraphy is also a body: a collage-interview with Miguel de Carvalho about his literary photobooks”], published in the “Mediarama” section.



ATKIN, Albert (2016). Peirce. Abingdon: Routledge.
BADGER, Gerry (2015). “Why Photobooks are Important”. Revista Zum n.8. [10 November 2021].
BOULESTREAU, Nicole (1982). “Le Photopoème Facile: un Nouveau Livre dans les Années 30”. Ed. Henri Béhar. Le Livre Surréaliste: Mélusine IV. Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme. 164–177.
CLÜVER, Claus (2007). “Intermediality and Interarts Studies”. Eds. Jens Arvidson, Mikael Askander, Jørgen Bruhn & Heidrun Führer. Changing Borders: Contemporary Positions in Intermediality. Lund: Intermedia Studies Press 1. 19–37.
CULLER, Jonathan (1997). Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
HACKING, Ian (2004). Historical Ontology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
LJUNGBERG, Christina (2010). “Intermedial Strategies in Multimedia Art”. Ed. Lars Elleström. Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. 81–98.
NOTT, Michael (2018). Photopoetry 1845-2015, a Critical History. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.
PEIRCE, Charles S. (1931-1935). The Collected Papers of C. S. Peirce, v. I-VI. Eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; v. VII-VIII. Ed. Arthur Burks. Same publisher, 1958. Charlottesville: Intelex Corporation. (Quoted as CP, followed by volume and paragraph.)
PHILLIPS, Constance (1936). Photopoems: A Group of Interpretations through Photographs. New York: Covici Friede Publishers.
PHILLPOT, Clive (1982). “Books/Bookworks/Book Objects/Artists’ Books”. Artforum 20 (May 1982): 77-79.
–––––––––– (2013). Booktrek: Selected Essays on Artist's Books (1972-2010). Zurique: JRP.
WEINER, Lawrence (1989). “Books do Furnish a Room: Lawrence Weiner on Artist’s Books”. Umbrella Magazine, 11: 1–3.



[1] Excerpt from the article Why Photobooks are Important”, by Gerry Badger, December 31, 2015 in Zum Magazine n. 8. Available at:  

[2] According to another version, Nicole Boulestreau, in her article on Facile (1935), proposed the term photopoème to define the volume combining Éluard’s poems and Man Ray’s photographs.

[3] See Clive Phillpot (2013, 1982).