First Fronteras, Homie House Press, July 2019. Soft cover with adhesive photo, 5.5 x 7 in, 72 pages. Courtesy of Northern Kentucky University.

As Everything Goes Virtual, One Professor/Curator Doubles Down on the Physicality of Art With Photo Books

Posted on September 1, 2020


Northern Kentucky University’s Bound and Determined is exactly that about getting photo books in the hands of students—and, when it’s safe again, the public.


“What you see on the screen is nothing compared to what you see in person [with art],” says Rachael Banks, Assistant Professor of Photography at Northern Kentucky University—and the curator of what was going to be a public-facing FotoFocus Biennial exhibition this fall. Specifically, the transformation of a small NKU gallery into a cozy, bookshop-like reading space, which she would fill with a selection of more than 60 contemporary small-press and limited-edition photo books for visitors’ lingering perusal.

“I wanted an exhibition that would encourage interaction,” says Banks. “You go you see [photographs] and they’re gorgeous, but it’s the most sterile environment.” She sought to upend that: “I really wanted to force visitors to stop and interact with the work. What’s great about a book is it’s a really intimate interaction, it forces you to stop and actually handle what you’re looking at.”

But as the 2020 refrain now goes, covid-19 changed all that, what with the whole people-touching-stuff-and-congregating-indoors thing being, well, a problem.

Griselda San Martin, Tijuana, Kris Graves Projects, 2019. Softcover, 7 x 8.5 in, 48 pages. Courtesy of Northern Kentucky University.

Banks, however, was quick with a plan. From the earliest stages of the exhibition, she saw the opportunity as a chance not only to bring books into visitors’ lives, but to acquire them as part of a permanent collection within the NKU photography program. With a longstanding interest in books and self-publishing, Banks herself is an avid collector of photo books—something that kicked up when she was studying photography (at a time when the internet was less omnipresent), and that she wants her students to experience (at a time when the internet is all, not least of which the primary forum for education).

With an exhibition nixed, her curator-self yielded to her educator-self and Banks redirected reception and additional grant dollars to boost her book haul. The motivation was two-fold: more books for students, and more financial support the involved small presses—namely: Deadbeat Club Press, 10×10 Photobooks, Kris Graves Projects, Spaces Corners, and Homie House Press—and photographers, many of whom are emerging and underrepresented.

Wendy Red Star, Crow Country, Kris Graves Projects, 2019. Softcover, 7 x 8.5 in, 48 pages. Courtesy of Northern Kentucky University.

“At the start of the semester, I’ll be assigning books to students from the exhibition, they’ll be doing reviews, and online we’ll have a database with a recap of every book in the exhibition” says Banks. “They’ll have the option to check out the book, so it still allows students to interact with the exhibition, and students have the opportunity to revisit the books after the exhibition, too.” (As will, she hopes, the public, in a future iteration.) Particularly because she focused her selections on artists and photographers that students otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to—including a solid contingent not far from her students’ age.

Love of the printed page notwithstanding, Banks is no Luddite. She sees and appreciates the value technology brings, and the pathways it opens for photography, art, and design. But she also has the artist’s instinct of interaction between the senses, the rhetorical differences between mediums, and the back-and-forth between viewer and that which is viewed. And from that, a genuine reverence for that essential—if ephemeral—physical presence and experience of art. For example: hands-on time spent with a book of photography, no gloves or museum glass or screen to interfere.

And, arguably, it’s all the the more paramount right now: “Because everything is virtual,” says Banks, “I think it does change the meaning of the things that we take for granted to be able to touch, and to see in person.”

Vote, Volume II, Even The Score, Homie House Press, January 2020. Newsprint, 11.5 x 15.5 in, 32 pages. Courtesy of Northern Kentucky University.

FotoFocus collaborates—locally, nationally, and internationally—to present and support photography and lens-based projects that are accessible, enriching, and engaging to a diverse public. FotoFocus inspires conversations about the world through the art of photography and film, via its partnerships and signature programming including the FotoFocus Biennial, FotoFocus Symposium, FotoFocus Film Program, and FotoFocus Lecture and Visiting Artist Series.

As the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped our world, FotoFocus had to pivot. First, by pledging part of its 2020 Biennial budget to financially support more than 100 Participating Venues and Partners in the region’s art community through FotoFocus Emergency Art Grants, and further, by enhancing other pathways to support lens-based art and engage the public in accordance with its mission. The Lens—the FotoFocus editorial arm—is one such avenue.