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