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Book Bag: Sacred: In Search of Meaning Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

8 December 2022

Shortly after opening this 12x12-inch, six-pound tome with sewn signatures, we realized it was not the kind of book you write up a review after reading through it. We will never, we knew, finish reading this thing.

In fact, it took us a few days to crack open the cover. The title made us leery. It was as if someone was about to lecture us on what's important. "Look here, sonny, this is sacred!"

But once we had a little chat with ourselves and sat down to look through it, we realized our mistake.

The book begins with images even before the title page. And the page with all the ISBN and other information is way back at the end of the book.

Let's just call it unconventional.

As is Rainier's choice of subject. You won't, for example, find interior shots of the Vatican or sunset images of the Wailing Wall or any mosques (well, one). No religious icons. No candles. No incense wafting into the light. That's not the kind of "sacred" that has interested Rainier for 40 years. Which is how long it took to collect these images.

But the collection does include buildings. The Taj Mahal, for one. And even more ancient structures like Stonehenge.

And there are many natural formations as well. Sand Dunes in Death Valley, the Bisti Badlands in New Mexico, the Sacred Bamboo Forest in Japan.

Details. Mouse over or tap for captions.

Those images are almost all devoid of people (well, tourists). And yet there are images of people here too. The Whirling Dervishes of Turkey get a fold-out spread. A man in West Africa is photographed reading the Quran. In Jordan we see women pilgrims.

Rainier, a documentary photographer and National Geographic explorer, was Ansel Adams's last assistant. Adams made an impression on the young Rainier:

As his last assistant, he taught me the importance of using photography as a social tool for good. His photographs in all their artistic beauty are testimonies to the urgent need to preserve and protect the last areas of true wilderness in the North American landscape. I took his wisdom and dedication to heart, and I have tried to apply them to my mission in life. The world's human population has almost doubled since I worked with Ansel in the 1980s, and it has become all too clear that are very few untouched and unchanged places on the planet left. My mission will always be to photograph the last "wild," the truly sacred places that remain.

Which is a pretty good definition of "sacred," we think.

And almost as if to emphasize the point, none of the images are captioned. You simply experience the image without any distraction. That ruffled our feathers a bit until we saw the book's index is a set of captioned thumbnails that answered all our questions.

Rainier writes that he has used a variety of gear to capture these images. Everything from film cameras once upon a time to digital today with even a Diana now and then. But there's no profane technical information accompanying the images, even in that index. And we didn't miss it.

We were just too mesmerized by the images themselves.

In addition to his own remarks, over 12 others contributed short essays on what "sacred" means to them, including British essayist and novelist Pico Iyer; ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker Wade Davis; and Pulitzer Prize winner and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek. Others contributing include Matthieu Riccard, Travis Price, Michael Wolfe, Lewis Vaughn, Phil Cousineau, Gene Tagaban, Terry Tempest Williams, Munya Andrews, Gretel Erlich and Nainoa Thompson.

Taken together it's quite a moving experience leafing through these images and pausing to read the essays. It quiets the soul. And, once quieted, you can hear eternity speak to you from no further away than the pages on your lap.

Sacred: In Search of Meaning by Chris Rainier, published by Mandala Publishing, 284 pages, $85.00 (or $72.99 at

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