Under, Outside and Between: the elusive art of Ed van der Elsken

Ed van der Elsken, Camera in love, PRESTEL, 2017

‘Under, Outside and Between: the elusive art of Ed van der Elsken’ is an essay written for Camera in Love, the catalogue of the Stedelijk Museum’s major survey of the work of Ed van der Elsken. The essay looks at the relation between the many contexts and platforms in which the artist worked: books, exhibitions, films.

English version published by Prestel

Dutch version, De Verliefde Camera, published by Uitgeverij Hannibal

French version, La Vie Folle, published by Éditions Xavier Barral

Under, Outside and Between: the elusive art of Ed van der Elsken

by David Campany

In the pantheon of Dutch photography and film, Ed van der Elsken is a major presence. His achievements, over forty years of active work, loom as large as those of any artist from the Netherlands since the 1950s. Beyond his home country however, he has not been quite so well-known although in recent years he has come to be recognized as something of a pioneer: an unpredictable free spirit whose images seemed to spring directly from his own idiosyncrasies. His photography escapes classification, his books defy genre, his exhibitions threw the curatorial rulebook out the window, and the extraordinary range of his films never ceases to surprise. Just when you think you have the measure of the man, another aspect will steal your attention. It is the apparent boundlessness of Van der Elsken’s work, so inseparable from the irrepressible boundlessness of his personality, that now appeals internationally.

One of the major reasons why Van der Elsken eluded attention was that he was not overly interested in the overt craft of ‘fine art’ photography, nor in the making of single iconic images for contemplation as a perfect squares or rectangles. For so long this was the rather narrow way that our museums and art histories assessed photography. Likewise, his films were highly informal, and often technically erratic, giving the disarming impression of being unmediated slices of a wayward and peripatetic life. His aesthetic seemed to be based on improvisation, spontaneity and chance, one image leading almost accidentally to another and another. Today of course, contemporary art is deeply interested in the informal and hybrid practices that reflect the ways in which everyday life is now so precarious and fragmentary. Perhaps Van der Elsken’s time has come. What follows is a series of observations about key moments from his work and their continued relevance.


An apparent split between pictorial formality and flowing informality has always haunted those who might claim to speak on behalf of photography.  Indeed, with hindsight we can see that between 1920 and 1970 (the half century of what we now call modernism) the identity of serious photography was caught between two extremes:  a preciousness that attempted to defend some idea of the purity of the medium, and a hybrid outlook that was expansive, open to outside influences and the possibilities of combination. Think of the difference between, for example, Edward Weston and László Moholy-Nagy. Weston’s aesthetic began and ended within the border of the highly wrought photographic print. Moholy-Nagy pushed beyond the frame to the space of overlap and exchange with graphic design, sequencing, sculpture, film, writing and more. Or closer to the present, think of the differences between Jeff Wall as a maker of singular photographic pictures that stand alone and invite autonomous aesthetic judgment, and Wolfgang Tillmans’s swarming interplay of various types of image, print and presentation. Of course there are commonalities. The division is not fixed or final, and there have been many modern photographers right in the middle of all this. Walker Evans (1903-75) made photographs as formally exemplary pictures, beloved of the museum, in what he called ‘the documentary style’ but he was also interested in editing, sequencing, writing and mainstream publishing beyond the precious livre d’artiste. Weegee photographed crimes scenes and scandals for New York newspapers but had great formal ambition for his images, which he wanted to exhibit. Weegee’s book Naked City (1945) influenced Van der Elsken profoundly.  Nevertheless, the tensions never quite resolve or dissolve. They are part of what makes the medium perplexing and compelling, along with its inherent antagonisms between document and artwork, chance and intention, accident and design.

No doubt Van der Elsken’s open and pluralist approach belongs somewhere along the trajectory that runs from Moholy-Nagy to Tillmans. But, as with so many photographers who found their artistic calling in the 1950s – notably Robert Frank and William Klein – his work emerged from a testy relationship with reportage. Almost from its beginnings photography had great potential as a responsive, reactive medium with an intimate connection to everyday life and its events. It led to the exciting flourishing of photographically illustrated magazines in the 1920s and 30s. But the postwar mass media of Europe and America reduced so much of that excitement by establishing reliable and predictable conventions for picture stories that were often unchallenging, spectacular and easy to consume.  By the 1950s the original, experimental basis of reportage seemed almost lost. Van der Elsken, Frank, Klein and others emerged at this point with radical acts of defiance. (Frank probably summed it up best: “I didn’t want to produce what everybody else was producing. I wanted to follow my own intuition and do it my way, and not make any concession—not to make a Life magazine story. . . .Those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.”) [i] In their own very different ways all three refused to accept that reportage was the property of publishing corporations, insisting upon the absolute necessity for invention and individual voice. New experiences always demand new forms of expression. Photography and film could not be reduced to the formulae and consensus of the mass media.

Moving to Paris in 1950 at the suggestion of his friend, the photographer Emmy Andriesse, Van der Elsken worked at Pictorial Service, the darkroom used by the newly founded Magnum photo agency. There he printed the work of, among others, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.  Aged twenty-five he was temperamentally unsuited to modelling himself on either of those two. Falling in with a bohemian crowd around Saint Germain des Prés, he began to photograph his friends, their relationships, parties, apartments and bars. The images accumulated. What kind of form might give meaning to these photographic bits and pieces of a life lived with ‘beautiful losers’ trapped on the margins of society?

Van der Elsken captured the innate theatricality of his loose circle of creative acquaintances. In front of his camera their gestures and mannerisms were so archly self-conscious it is as if they were permanently performing. The photographs express the dilemmas of a group caught between an impoverished reality and the acts of imagination or self-determination that might lead to change or escape.  When the British weekly magazine Picture Post bravely serialized some of his images in 1954 it announced: ‘This is not a film. This is a real-life story about people who do EXIST’, but the truth was somewhere in the middle.[ii] The following year the Dutch TV station AVRO made a program also based on these photographs. Van der Elsken was not too impressed with it, but it was enough to interest him in the possibilities of filmmaking, especially in that speculative space between the single image and the poetic sequence that came to shape so much of his work.

In the coming years Van der Elsken fashioned from his photographs what would eventually become his first book, Love on the Left Bank 1956. It was a remarkable combination of images and writing that blurred all possible lines between fact and fiction, reportage and literature, photo-story and cinema.[iii] The photographs themselves carried the sexually charged allure of a youthful, existential Parisian demi-monde, which may well have been enough to secure publication. But it is the peculiar form of the book, with a narrative structured around an almost cinematic flashback, that keeps readers on their toes, not quite knowing how to relate to the images and the lives depicted.

Issued in Holland, Germany, and England (a French publisher could not be found), Love on the Left Bank was romantic but also alienated and embittered.[iv] At its heart is an impossible nostalgia for a vanished Paris, an honest and painful cry of that first postwar generation at the onset of an accelerated consumerism. Many young artists were finding that the Paris of the 1950s was no longer the Paris of the 1920s and 30s.[v] Relying on instinct and confidence in his own unlikely mixture of influences, Van der Elsken had made a groundbreaking work that continues to appeal to subsequent generations.[vi] To call it a ‘photobook’ is to somehow miss the point. Love on the Left Bank defined its own genre, and can be seen as the precedent for books as varied as Larry Clark’s Tulsa 1971, Nobuyoshi Araki’s Sentimental Journey1971, Gaylord Oscar Herron’s Vagabond 1975, and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency 1986.

Although smaller and more focused, Jazz, published in 1959, was just as innovative. It was a pivotal time for jazz music. 1959 saw the release of several landmark albums, including Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. In the smoky spotlights of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Van der Elsken photographed Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and many more. The results could have been simply a strong collection of portraits of the great jazz players and singers of the era. Through cropping, sequencing and layout it became a meditation on what it means to translate one art form into another.  How can fixed and mute photographs articulate flowing sound? Jazz is almost a visual score in book form. Some spreads are packed with small photos butted against each other, like clusters of be-pop notes played at speed.  Across other spreads the position of the players in the frame suggests musical notes ascending and descending.  Several pages carry images cropped along the elongated forms of a trombone or clarinet, as if to visualize extended solos. At times the varying areas of white space around the images feel like moments of stillness and silence between bursts of action and sound. Van der Elsken does not simply mimic the music he loves; he invites the reader/viewer to consider this rich parallel between jazz and photography as forms emerging from play, structure, style, reaction and personality.

The same year, Van der Elsken allied his camera to yet another art form: dance. In the three small and little known volumes of Nederlands Dans Theater, he begins with a group of dancers in their studio but soon takes them out into the world. They enact their poses and routines in front of industrial architecture, on beaches and rooftops, and in the street.  The books are completely upfront about the energetic artifice of it all. Van der Elsken is documenting while collaborating and improvising – inviting the performers, the viewers and himself to enter a distinct imaginative space belonging equally to dance and photography.

In 1959 and 1960 Van der Elsken made a fourteen-month voyage around the world, with his wife Gerda, visiting the USA, Mexico, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and West Africa. He took pictures and shot movies for himself but paid for the trip by making images for magazines and TV travelogues. Upon his return he soon had a very large book dummy ready to go, but struggled to find a publisher. When it did appear finally in 1966, under the title Sweet Life, the impact was extraordinary. Published in Germany, France, Spain, America, Japan, and Holland in an edition of 17,000 copies, this vast, global odyssey flowed over 208 large format pages. It was received as an impassioned riposte to the slick new 1960s imagery of colour tourist brochures, lifestyle magazines and TV adverts for exotic places. From his 5000 exposures Van der Elsken produced hundreds of gritty, grainy prints in high contrast with deep blacks and few mid-tones. The prints had to feel as physical and material as his raw encounter with the world around him. On the page the images are bled to the edges with no white borders, placed together without white space between, in a non-stop rush of visual sensation.

Van der Elsken’s visual exploration came directly out of his appetite for social exploration, defying norms and expectations. In Reis rond de Wereld (Journey around the World 1960), which is not so much a film as a compilation of travelogues, we see him in a little pair of swimming trunks, balanced high up in the wind between two masts of a ship, camera in hand, trying to get a series of shots. His movements are agile, confident and determined. For him photography was as much a physical and psychological activity as a matter of making pictures.  He often talked of standing in the street feeling as if a large area around him was a force field of hyper-awareness which he could make palpable with his camera. It was a projection of his creative will onto the world. He felt a camera could protect him, like a passport, in the face of unpredictable or extreme experience.

In Durban, South Africa he found himself the only white man in a beer hall in a black township. In Ciapas, Mexico he was the only European present at a religious ceremony (and was almost stoned to death). At many points in his photography and films he pictures himself naked in bed with lovers, as if the images were confirmation or trophies of a life lived with the greatest emotional intensity. He was both voyeur and exhibitionist. Even when he was dying, he filmed himself undergoing treatment for cancer, showing the surgeons’ lines on his body and displaying the X-rays of his tumors (Bye 1990).  Although he was active and productive for four decades, Van der Elsken never had what today we might be tempted to call a ‘career’, or even and artistic trajectory: he had a life, and the images he made were his own way of experiencing and externalizing that life. The richer and more varied life, the more his images embodied the range of his experiences. Commitment to the mediums of photography or film never came into the equation. In many ways Van der Elsken’s work is a realization of the ideal that filmmaking might become as fluid and reactive as writing (what the French film critic Alexandre Astruc, called La Caméra-Stylo, or camera-pen.)[vii]

Sweet Life is often compared with the run of ‘city books’ made by the Paris-based American photographer and filmmaker, William Klein (New York 1956, Rome 1959, Tokyo 1964 and Moscow 1964). Along with their preference for grainy, hyper-journalistic photographs both men were intimately concerned with the editing, writing, design and layout of their books. Both were suspicious of the myths of objectivity, preferring to interact energetically with their subjects – provoking, goading, teasing, flirting, so that in the end everyone is an actor and aware of the situation.  Indeed, looking through the Japanese section of Van der Elsken’s Sweet Life and Klein’s Tokyo we come across images of complex performance art events, dropped into sequences of street photographs. Klein shoots the ‘action painter’ Shinoheira, boxing his way along a sheet of paper, his hands wrapped in rags soaked in ink. Shinoheira is painting and performing, for his own art and for Klein’s camera. Similarly, Van der Elsken photographs naked women laying on a sheet of white paper, as if in some strange ritual, and this is his explanatory caption for the image:

“Nudes in a photographic experiment conducted in a darkroom with olive-green light. The strip of white paper is photographic paper, or rather two strips, each four feet wide and twenty-six feet long, placed together on the floor with the emulsion side up. On the paper, girls in decorative poses arranged – draped, you might say, by Takeji Iwamiya, leading industrial photographer in Osaka, who was making a photographic mural on commission from a department store. . Bits of colored paper on the open spaces, to give texture, pattern. You understand. When everything was in its proper and beautiful place, there was strong exposure by electronic flash. Then the models got dressed, the photographic paper was developed, and presto-chango: everything that was not protected from the white flash came out black on the picture; the rest, primarily the bodies of the girls, remained silhouetted in white. I made this photograph with a Leica at the moment the flash bulbs went off. Many thanks Takeji. Iwamiya also makes lovely books of old buildings, old things, traditional Japan.”[viii]

This scenario and these words, written with such obvious delight and fascination, show how Van der Elsken was not in the least interested in distinctions between mediums, nor the distinctions between artists and supposedly non-artists, nor between the fine arts and the applied arts, nor between documentary revelation and the artful picture, nor even between his own creativity and that of others around him. Life was one extended, improvised continuum of occurrences and associations. The only truly artistic act that mattered was to be attuned to the flow and one’s place within it. Making images was Van der Elsken’s way of doing this. We could even go so far to say that the one medium he cared about above all others was himself.  Take creative care of one’s life and the images will follow.

Van der Elsken carried the forward this energy in the presentation of his groundbreaking exhibitions, especially his 1966 solo show at the Stedelijk Museum, Hee..zie je dat! The exhibition survives through a handful of installation views, one of which has come to symoblise Van der Elsken’s approach to making exhibitions. It shows a room covered entirely in borderless images – walls, floor and ceiling. It is a total photographic environment, rejecting any neat rows of fine prints on the museum’s white walls. Viewers could not stand outside the work and gaze at pictures in frames; they were obliged to enter the work, walk on it, and become part of it. The biggest image in that room was a larger-than-life cutout of a naked female body, laying face down. With her feet near the entrance, visitors would come into the room between her legs, so to speak. It is possible the idea was inspired by the artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s famous 28 meter-long multi-colored female figure installed at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm earlier in 1966. Visitors entered through her vagina. Inside, the artists Jean Tinguely and Per-Olov Ultvedt had constructed kinetic sculptures, a planetarium, a milk-bar, a gallery of forgeries and a cinema screening a Greta Garbo movie.

By 1966 Van der Elsken had already experienced several years of the best and most intensive experiments in interdisciplinary art. He had been regularly photographing and making films of sculptures, installations and performances by other artists.  Much of this was at the Stedelijk Museum, one of the most forward thinking and experimental art institutions. In 1961 he made a short film of Bewogen Beweging (Moving Motion) an exhibition featuring the kinetic sculpture of Jean Tinguely, László Moholy Nagy and Alexander Calder. His movie camera is as dynamic as the works on display, panning up an outdoor sculpture before moving inside the exhibition hall to cut rapidly between the various exhibits and the reactions of visitors.  Attempting to equal the energy of the sculptures, the film is a document but it is also a willfully subjective response. Also in 1961 Van der Elsken made a short film about the Dutch action painter Karel Appel (Karel Appel: Componist).  Then in 1962 he filmed and photographed Dylaby: dynamisch labyrinth, the Stedelijk’s exhibition comprising six rooms designed by six artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri and Per Olof Ultvedt). Arriving just three weeks before the opening, the artists found the materials for their rooms in flea markets and scrap metal yards of Amsterdam, complementing them with artworks and objects from the museum’s own collection. Van der Elsken was there with his cameras to cover the evolution of the show and its opening. The exhibition was a great success, pointing a way forward for museums to become lighter on their feet, and more responsive to the creative rhythms of the new art making.

The energy and irreverence of Dylaby anticipated that emblematic mixed media art form of the 1960s, the happening: a temporary autonomous zone in which there is no outside or inside, just the free and innovative contribution of everyone involved. This was, in many ways, what Ed van der Elsken had been intuiting as far back as Love on the Left Bank. He had always reveled in the suspension of art’s conventions and canons, favoring spontaneous and unscripted invention.

Van der Elsken had become involved in so many aspects of the Stedelijk’s activities at the behest of the museum’s director (and graphic designer) Willem Sandberg that.[ix] Indeed, for decades his photographs could be found in the archives of several different areas of the museum (painting, sculpture, performance, press, catalogue publishing, as well as Photography, capital ‘P’). Sometimes he is photographing art, sometimes his photographs are the art, but very often the images occupy that grey area in the middle, where authorship is muddled and the categories do not hold. While Van Der Elsken was very much aware of his own authorship, the confusion does reflect the category-defying nature of his work.

Through the 1960s and 70s Ed van der Elsken continued in this vein, following his impulses, and taking commissions to make photographs, books and films of various lengths about a bewildering range of subjects including construction and demolition work, cycling, Israel, street life, Vali Myers (the red haired Australian woman who feature in Love on the Left Bank), farm animals, horses and rural life near Edam, where he lived. Little unites these films beyond that ever-hungry eye behind the camera, searching the world for miraculous details and unexpected visual delights; and Van der Elsken’s inimitable semi-improvised voice overs (always honest, sometime infuriating) with which he would steer his audience through his world.

In 1982 Van der Elsken completed the hour-long film Een fotograaf filmt Amsterdam. In English it was given the title My Amsterdam but the original Dutch is better, because in many ways this is a photographer’s film. Not because it contains still images, but because it is made as a sort of homage to a city he had photographed so often in the past. Structurally, it’s an unusually rigorous work, alternating between long, continuous shots taken from a car speeding through the empty city centre, and the spontaneous filming of people Van der Elsken notices on the street. As usual he is attracted to the flamboyant extremes: hippies, Hell’s Angels, drug dealers, eccentric dressers and women in mini-skirts. As you watch you may find yourself wondering how you, or Van der Elsken, might have photographed these scenes, as if a freeze-frame from the film might be the equivalent of a photograph taken on the street itself. From time to time Van der Elsken intervenes to ask the people what they’re up to.  A group of performance artists in bright clothes and painted faces are looking for volunteers from the public. Van der Elsken can’t resist making his own comments on the soundtrack, not quite happy to let the viewer make up their own mind.  Indeed, over one of the long takes made from a car he ponders:

“I could shut up and let you figure out where we are. That’s fun to do, of course. But we have to think of the people who are not so familiar with old Amsterdam. So I’m helping them a little by saying what’s what and where. I’d much prefer to just show it to you…completely silent. I’d like that too. Not say anything. But that kind of scares viewers. They can’t stand dead silent films, I think. Even the old silent movies needed to be accompanied by sound. With a piano player in the auditorium.”

It is an unexpectedly revealing remark. Van der Elsken never really allowed his images to stand alone in their silence. They were always modified and mediated by sounds, voices, and captions, or by the experimental formats of his books and exhibitions.  Could he not stand the silence? Maybe. Or perhaps there was simply too much that he wanted to say, through images and words that he knew would never quite equal the vitality and richness of a life fully lived.

When Van der Elsken died in 1990, aged just 60, one of his projects that was left incomplete was a hugely ambitious mixed media spectacle. Tokyo Symphony was to be a programmed multi-screen slide projection accompanied by sound. He left behind 1600 colour slides for the project, along with five reels of audio recording. A celebration of the country and culture that had embraced him early in his life, Tokyo Symphony has all the key characteristics of his work – switches between reportage and subjective poetry, a teeming blend of influences, a love of tradition and modern life, a play with consonance and dissonance, and a form that is difficult to classify as a work of film, photography or writing.

Today of course, media technologies have converged in ways that have made such hybrid practices as the still image/audio presentation easier to realise and much more familiar in our visual culture. Meanwhile, even entry-level cameras allow us to switch effortlessly between frozen images and cinematic flow. The ‘camera-stylo’ is now in the pocket of almost everyone. And the photographic book, which Van der Elsken has pushed into so many new territories, is now fully recognized by our museums and histories as the important form it always was. Ed Van der Elsken was simply ahead of his time.




[i] Robert Frank, “Interview at Wellesley College” (1977) in Eugenia Parry Janis and Wendy MacNeil, eds., Photography within the Humanities(Danbury, New Hampshire Addison House, 1977. p. 37.

[ii] Picture Post published van der Elsken’s images across four issues in February 1954. Elsken had first encountered Picture Post a decade earlier, during the war, when he was shown a copy by British troops.

[iii] Ed van der Elsken worked out the design of Love on the Left Bank in collaboration with Jurriaan Schrofer.

[iv] To avoid possible scandal and censorship English language version of Love on the Left Bank, made for distribution in the UK and the USA, omits the interracial sexual relationships of the original.

[v] Desperate to get to Paris after the war, the American William Klein enrolled for art classes in the atelier of Fernand Léger, who informed his students that the Paris art scene was over and they should get out into the world, into architecture, filmmaking and graphic design. See David Campany ‘William Klein’s Way’, in William Klein: ABC, Tate Publishing, London, 2012, unpag.

[vi] See Tamara Berhgmans et al, Looking for Love on the Left Bank, Aman Iman publishing, 2016

[vii] Alexandre Astruc, ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,’ in The New Wave, ed. Peter Graham. Trans. from Ecran Français 144, 30 March 1948, pp. 17-18.

[viii] Ed van der Elsken, Sweet Life, Abrams, 1996, unpag.

[ix] In Form magazine n. 16, 1961 Willem Sandberg wrote an article accompanying Ed van de Elsken’s photo reportage of the exhibition Bewogen Beweging, entitled ‘Der Kunstler hat den Kontakt mit dem Publikum verloren’ sagt man’(‘The artist has lost contact with the public, they say’.)


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