Since the inception of the medium, photographers have trained their lenses on the wide-ranging rituals and practices they found in right in front of them or elsewhere in the vast uncharted parts of the globe.
The National Geographic Society, though an organization dedicated to broad-based exploration and learning, has always used photography as one of its primary methods of information gathering. Seeing is important to understanding. Alongside the discovery of the richness of the natural world came a fascination with the cultures that developed in tandem with it and the customs, rituals, and behaviors that defined those groups of people.
Another early example of this obsession was the intense coverage of the Civil War, as evidenced by the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much of the work from this era focuses on the pomp and circumstance of soldiers, the codification of their military structures, their hierarchies, and point-blank appearance.
The photographic landscape of today is unfathomably more complicated and varied, but many of our ritualistic markers remain the same. For many years, Martin Parr has gifted us with humorous and incisive observations regarding the cultural touchstones of British experience. Swiss photographer Luca Zanier presents chilling views into the physical spaces in which hard decisions are made within Corridors of Power. Julie Glassberg documents the rites and trappings of American outlaw bicycle clubs in raw, gritty, black and white. And, while there could be an entire subcategory of photography devoted to the poignant rituals of various sexual subcultures of sexual deviancy, perhaps none is more compelling than Canadian photographer Naomi Harris' depiction of American swinger's culture.
In order to cut through the endless amounts of photographic documentation covering everything from females in the Israeli military (Rachel Papo), to rodeo cowboys (Lance Rosenfield) and competitive dog shows (Landon Nordeman), it seems important to ask: What is ritual?
Ritual, as exemplified by photography, is a series of acts, behaviors, markings, or traditions that serve to codify and define a specific community. With repetition comes affirmation.
Rather than highlighting the eccentricities of a particular community, it seems more salient to present a work that speaks to the photographic process itself as the agent of ritual. From snapping "selfies" on a smart phone while getting drinks with friends, to the various phases of photography at a wedding, photography has become the ritual, often stripping the ritualistic act of any meaning and serving as its replacement. Photography is a ritual that authenticates our experience of reality. While photography was once the mechanism for documenting the rich, perplexing, and exhilarating world of rituals that surround us, today, the act of making photographs has become a ritual itself.
Lee Gainer, a Washington, DC, area artist, perhaps illuminates the quest for self-understanding, belonging, and identity through photographic ritual best with her piece, Group Therapy. In Lee's words:
"We have a tendency to seek out others with similar interests and ideas. Within these found groups, we can discover a place to belong, to be ourselves. When these ideas or interests require a certain uniform, whether for safety reasons or a consistent visual appearance, it serves to underscore our sense of belonging and our perceived acceptance within the group."