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Book Review: In This Dark Wood


Book Review In This Dark Wood By Elisabeth Tonnard Reviewed by George Slade How many books have you read that address the nuances of translation? How many photobooks have you read that attempt an answer to the questions raised by translation? Reviewing this book is like trying to color each side of a moebius strip.

In This Dark Wood. By Elisabeth Tonnard.
J&L Books, 2013.
 
In This Dark Wood
Reviewed by George Slade

In This Dark Wood
By Elisabeth Tonnard

$35.00
J&L Books, 2013. 196 pp., 90 black & white illustrations, 6x9".


How many books have you read that address the nuances of translation? How many photobooks have you read that attempt an answer to the questions raised by translation? Reviewing this book is like trying to color each side of a moebius strip.

Actually, anyone reading photobooks encounters all kinds of translational acts. The image, after all, undergoes several levels of translation — from reality into the lens, through the lens onto a recording matrix, from that material into visibility, and from there to reproduction on book pages, which are further conditioned by edit and design. Each layer adds meaning. Each operation tweaks implications.

Every two-page spread in Tonnard’s modest volume creates intersections between two streams of translations. One stream consists of 90 variations of a passage from Dante’s Inferno; the other, 90 examples of work from a prolific San Francisco-based “commercial street photographer” named Joseph Selle, whose archives, now housed at Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester NY, include around a million 35mm negatives.

In This Dark Wood. By Elisabeth Tonnard. J&L Books, 2013.

Each portrait captures a nighttime wanderer, in a space that could pass for Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, Shinjuku, or any gaudily-lit amusement zone. Each wanderer seems entirely self-absorbed; a return gaze is an exception in this collection. What are these people translating, aside from a particular iteration of the human race, genus urban dweller? What is Selle translating in his photograph? This is a catalogue of migrating souls, transporting themselves through a transient space, all the same and all different. Like the figures in Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, ghosts without proper homes.

In This Dark Wood. By Elisabeth Tonnard. J&L Books, 2013.
In This Dark Wood. By Elisabeth Tonnard. J&L Books, 2013.

Facing them, the literary variants, a well-chosen passage about the phenomenon of passage with a clear photographic slant about vision and light. It is worth a moment of thought, as you read this book, to wonder about selections of text and image. But only a moment; it is hard to believe that any specific, meaningful connection can be made between Selle’s translations of lives and the English-language accommodations of Dante’s vision. You can try, though.

In This Dark Wood. By Elisabeth Tonnard. J&L Books, 2013.

Tonnard has done remarkable work here in this second version of a book coupling Dante and Selle. I enjoy the design; there is one translation, by Tonnard herself, that occupies a page without an accompanying image at the very end of the sequence, and there is one image, of a dark-suited man, that goes without a text, other than the clearly framed word PIX in the upper right corner, that introduces the entire image section. Is that dapper figure, fully engaged with the camera, standing in for the photographer Selle? Or for Dante? Or as our narrator and guide, there to walk us through the darkness to come? Or as a doppelganger for Tonnard, thus folding the narrative back on itself? And the carrousel of symbols goes round and round…—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

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