Ed van der Elsken
The Dutch photographer and filmmaker Ed van der Elsken (1925-90) photographed people. He was drawn from the beginning to characterful individuals, and he roamed the streets of his native Amsterdam and, later, Paris, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, seeking them out; over the course of his forty-year career he made dozens of photobooks and films in which his personal and professional lives were inextricably intertwined. Along with Robert Frank and William Klein, van der Elsken belonged to a new generation of photographers who, each in their own way after the atrocities of World War II, recorded a world of drama, somberness, and gloom. Today, van der Elsken’s influence is felt in the work of later photographers such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Nan Goldin, and Larry Clark, who took a similar interest in subcultures and adopted the street-style portrait in their diaristic approaches.
In 1947, van der Elsken’s father gave him a plate camera; three years later, the photographer went to Paris, where he would photograph bohemians in SaintGermain-des-Prés for his first photobook, Love on the Left Bank (1956). The resulting images are sometimes emotive, sometimes seductive—nobody ever smiles in his photographs; expressions are grave, sultry, or drugged. Van der Elsken depicts people on the edges of society as proud individuals rather than as pitiable figures, and his images reflect his admiration for their refusal to conform. The central character in these is the striking, redheaded beauty Valí Myers, who with her wild hair and her dark, kohl-ringed eyes epitomized the bohemian for van der Elsken: she represented freedom and personal expression.
Initially van der Elsken worked with a Rolleicord, later also with a Leica. He preferred to use available light because he sought to capture reality as he found it. He was not a purist: he cropped his images and loved contrast. By the end of the 1950s, van der Elsken also began to work in color, in photographs that were often commissioned and published in magazines. Although he is known for his pictures of nightlife, the red-light district, and the counterculture, the majority of his photographs focus on the everyday.
In his portraits he captures, beautifully, a sense of optimism, vitality, and love. More so than his contemporaries, he revealed himself and his surroundings; he was always present in his own work. Take, for example, his self-portrait with his girlfriend, later wife, Ata Kando, made in 1952 while doing housework in Paris, or his final film, Bye (1990), in which he confronts his own mortality.
As a photographer, van der Elsken was notorious for the way he provoked people, pranced around them, challenged them. He was a charismatic figure. Some called him a genius; others saw him as a loudmouth, a provocateur. Photographing or filming meant an intense interaction between artist and subject. He was always demanding eye contact; the expressions, the glances exchanged between photographer and subject, are never neutral. Van der Elsken never got bored with people. He wandered the city, fascinated by its dark side and its neglected inhabitants: those who resolutely rejected the deeply entrenched middle-class society. Van der Elsken compellingly captures this mentality in his photographs. He succeeded in doing so because it reflected his own.
Tamara Berghmans is a curator at the FotoMuseum Antwerp.