Image-text photobooks in a nutshell #2: Hester Keijser on In this Dark Wood by Tonnard
We asked a pool of international photobook experts to share with us an image-text photobook they find particularly interesting, regardless of its publication date and where text is a fundamental element in the narrative (not a mere introduction or essay on the photoworks). Here Hester Keijser shares her thoughts on Elisabeth Tonnard’s In this Dark Wood, self-published, Rochester, New York, 2008 (196 pages, 15.24 x 22.86 cm). A trade edition was also published by J&L Books in October 2013.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita. 
How hard it is to tell what it was like, the first encounter with Elisabeth Tonnard’s In this Dark Wood, a book that has been reviewed extensively by more notable authors than myself. Mostly, it has been considered as a photobook, because yes, it contains portraits of people walking alone at night on the streets of San Francisco. For me, it is an equal tribute to both literature and photography.
The images, dating from the 1930s to the 1970s, are part of the Joseph Selle collection, which resides at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York. The 90 black and white photographs are alternated by an equal number of texts, each one a different translation of the first line of Dante’s Inferno. And each of Tonnard’s protagonists are themselves translations – incarnations – of the same human condition.
This book is made for the reader, a single person, who can recognize the oneness in this manifold, and for whom life with its infinitely possible pathways and incarnations is laid out. For could I not be that woman carrying her groceries home in a paper bag clutched closely to her body? Where would I go as the suited man, holding two wrapped bottles of alcohol? And would I feel a sense of shame, having ‘strayed, abandoning the rightful path’, or would I speak in almost careless manner of having ‘far wandered from the way of perfect life’? There’s a subtle yet profound difference in that, which may determine where I’d turn next.
It matters yet it matters not that the author used found footage. Likewise, it matters yet it matters not that the book is printed without any pretensions as a paperback. What makes this book such a joy and so deeply moving, is the perfect balance between the twin subjects it speaks of, the shaping of our lives and the bringing into words of that experience.
Hester Keijser is a freelance curator and author based in The Hague and specialized in contemporary photography with a focus on the Middle East. She collaborates with international organisations on exhibitions, workshops, lectures and portfolio reviews. She recently joined forces with Noorderlicht as an associate curator. She is left handed.
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.
Dante, The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1 Inferno, translated by Mark Musa (London: Penguin Classics, 2002).