September 16, 2016 4:00 AM EDT

In Gregory Halpern’s new book, ZZYZX, the viewer is taken on what feels like a visual pilgrimage, exploring southern California both in and around Los Angeles. Shot between 2008 and 2015, Halpern’s images were directly inspired by the city itself, with the route beginning east of Los Angeles, in the desert, then traveling through the city, and eventually ending at the Pacific Ocean. This path can be likened to America’s Westward Expansion, while capturing the essence of Los Angeles’ unique diversity.

“The space in the book might be read as mythical, and the time might be read as Biblical,” Halpern says, “Sequencing the book, more or less, from East to West helped greatly to create the feeling of being swept along on a journey.”

After shooting the images, Halpern spent a year working on the edit, with input from publisher Michael Mack and artist Jason Fulford. Collaborating with others on the storyline helped develop the book’s visual flow, according to Halpern. “It’s more extreme in the sense that it’s simultaneously more dismal and more ecstatic than anything I’ve done before.”

“Once you put work out into the world, you can’t take it back, and I wanted to feel satisfied,” he adds. “I like to work on a project until I am tired of it—that way I know I’ve pushed the work as far as I could have.”

Likening the role of a photographer to being a director, Halpern insists that it is crucial to retain control and maintain one’s vision while photographing people, pointing out that there may be, or may not be, a personal connection. “I am indebted to people who let me photograph them because they’ve taken a risk, shown generosity, vulnerability and trust, be it warranted or not,” Halpern says, “What interests me in portraits is their complexity, their mystery and volatility.”

Kenneth Bachor is TIME’s associate photo editor, overseeing entertainment and culture. Follow him on Instagram @kennethbachor.

Myles Little is a senior photo editor at TIME.

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