Saturday, November 14, 2009

In This Dark Wood by Elisabeth Tonnard

Last weekend was another small artbook fair in New York at which I made an exciting discovery in the work of a young Dutch poet and visual artist named Elisabeth Tonnard. Tonnard has been in residence at Rochester's Visual Studies Workshop and has created several artist books over the past several years. One title that was a must own for me was her book In This Dark Wood published in 2008. I am one year late to add this to my Best of 2009 list but since I make the rules here, I will happily add it anyway.

In This Dark Wood presents a selection of photographs from an archive that is currently housed at the Visual Studies Workshop. The pictures are from a commercial photo firm called "Fox Movie Flash" which was owned by a man named Joseph Selle. Working in the San Francisco area, Selle and a team of street photographers made casually framed fleeting portraits of pedestrians intended to be sold to the passers-by after development.

Shot with half frame cameras that would hold a 100 foot roll of 35mm film, each roll captured more than 1500 photographs. The archive consists of over a million images made from the 1930s to the 70s.

Tonnard constructed her book using 90 of the photographs paired with 90 different English translations of the first line of Dante's Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la via diritta era smarrita.

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

Selle's unsuspecting subjects walking alone and caught in the light of the flash, become the multitude of alienated souls wandering "the dark woods" of the city. What is amazing about this work is how, accompanied by the suggestion of the text, the environs surrounding each subject heighten the metaphor. Movie marquees caught in the upper corners of the frames read movie titles of violence and doom; "Ring of Fire," "Hell is a City," "...from Hell," "Petrified World, "Nightfall," "Corridors of Blood."

Tonnard sequenced the photographs to emphasize repetition and further sense of - in Tonnard's words - moving "incessantly to and fro" without seemingly making any progress much like Dante's lost souls. By stressing the difference in translations, Tonnard is also emphasizing the fluidity of language and thus a path that may appear straight but is in constant flux.

In This Dark Wood is a print on demand book in an open edition. The size of a trade paperback it is simple in its design and construction which can make the price tag on first glance seem high. It isn't an elegant presentation (her creation is certainly deserving of better treatment) but the photographs are wonderfully striking and not without their individual surprise.

Highly recommended.

Check Elisabeth Tonnard's website for other books and ordering information.


Not the Only Flame in Town said...

I am in complete agreement with you on this book and in the book of hers that I purchased from her entitled "Oceanus". Oceanus is a more petite production measuring 4 X 7 or thereabouts. The entire book consists of details from 2 photographs of a boat being tossed at sea with small phrases from Homer's "Odysseus" floating in the photos. For anyone who fears a watery grave or being in a storm at sea this book is a debilitating horror. I look at it and feel queasy and off. it took me back to the first time I saw "Das Boot" and Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine as well in "Titanic" or whatever that old film was. At the fair I looked down at the 5 or 6 works of hers on the table and felt like I was looking at something very, very special, that here was a mind at work that was both powerful and nimble. Her choices, the adroitness with which she is taking language and imagery and working with them; she makes them seem as malleable as clay. She is playing with the absolute freedom of a happy child but with the power and arsenal of a highly educated adult. And she seemd like a really funny person,too. I looked up and blurted, "I would really like to get drunk with you..".

The Only Flame in Town said...

It's a delicate balancing act to juxtapose verse with image poignantly. Tonnard has the good sense to leave the poetry to a master, relying cleverly on the subtle variations in translation of Dante to accentuate the subtle idiosyncracies of the figures caught in the camera flash. Clearly Tonnard is a romantic, with a romantic vision. Or more correctly, she is a romantic existentialist, configuring people's lives as journey's in a dark wood. My only reservation in appreciating this work is the risk it betrays the very people caught in the image, whose possibly very gritty, bawdy, difficult, and postively unromantic lives are awfully misrepresented. If you ever met one of them perchance and genteely enquired about why they had wandered from their woodland path into the hinterland, you might just get a quizzical look (at best) or a mouth full of knuckles (at worst). Are these people known by the photographer, thereby granting her some licence to construe as she sees fit? Anyway, it might be argued that artistic licence is licence enough.

Pierre-Yves Racine said...

For those who want to see more of this book :

Thanks for the interesting review..

Anonymous said...

It looks like a fascinating book. But it only scratches the surface of the treasure that is the 'Fox Movie Flash' archive at the VSW. I do hope that one day we will see more of it in some form or other.