Black and White cinema: Ed van der Elsken

During World War II many creative people fell on hard times. Gross censorship did not allow them to create freely, and those whose work was deemed "destructive" by the Nazis were persecuted and massively sanctioned; they were subjected to severe forced labor and were otherwise discriminated against.

However, it was precisely during such a difficult period for art that true talents often emerged, and in quieter times they revealed themselves to the public. Ed van der Elsken, an outstanding photographer who captured post-war life in black and white, among other things is such a diamond.

Ed van der Elsken documented his own energetic and eccentric life experience making a focus on the the one who was looking instead of the one who was looked at.

Ed van der Elsken was born in 1925 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He wanted to become a sculptor, so he studied stone-cutting in college. Later he enrolled in the professional sculpture program. It was 1944 when World War II was at its height and the Germans were invading the Netherlands, Ed was afraid to be subject to forced labor so he abandoned the program. That year he volunteered and was stationed in a mine-disposal unit. There were soldiers from the allied states, including Great Britain. The British soldiers showed him "Picture Post", a photojournalistic magazine. The magazine's stance was liberal, anti-fascists and populist. It was when the war ended in 1947 that Ed discovered American black-and-white photographer and sensationalist Arthur Felling known under a nickname "Weegee".

These encounters inspired his interest in photography and that year Ed took a job in photo sales and attempted a correspondence course with the Fotovakschool in Den Haag, failing the final examination.
At the suggestion of one of his friends Ed van der Elsken moved in 1950 to Paris. He was employed in the darkrooms of the legendary Magnum photography agency. There he met a fellow photographer Ata Kandó and they married 4 years later. Ata was a serious documentary photographer best known for her pictures taken in the forests of the Amazon among the Piraoa and Yekuana tribes. It is believed that she had an influence on Van der Elsken. After marriage he decided to move from newspaper reportage and to become a subjective photojournalist.
This is the secret of his unique photographic style – he documented his own energetic and eccentric life experience making a focus on the the one who was looking instead of the one who was looked at. This is a photographic equivalent of first-person speech. His imagery offers quotidian and autobiographic perspectives on the European spirit of that time in the realms of love, art, music and sexual freedom of young members of an emerging alternative culture.

It was middle of the 1950-s and Ed van der Elsken rose to fame. In 1956 a black-and-white photobook "Love on the left bank" was published under the pioneering project of the Dutch graphic designer Jurriaan Schrofer.
This genre is known as photonovel, essentially self-reflexion of Ed. Thanks to its quite provocative design and the genre itself, the book contributed to the history of photobooks.

This photo story is partly autobiographical. Ed was attracted to Vali Myers himself.
Ed Van der Elsken initially put together a dummy of the text and images himself, but could not attract the interest of any publishing house. However, he succeeded with the British magazine Picture Post (the magazine that inspired him to start photography), which devoted a four-part series in 1954 to the imagery entitled "Why did Roberto leave Paris?". The editors felt it necessary to inform the reader that these were pictures not from a movie, but a "real-life story about people who do exist" because Ed work looked like still frames from a movie, the book was loaded with all sorts of cinematographic elements such as retrospectives and flashbacks of the main characters.

One of the protagonists was a Mexican young man Manuel (Picture Post used his real name Robert). So Manuel tells how in Paris he fell in love with the beautiful Ann (prototype of Vali Myers, dancer and artist whom Ed knew personally), who hangs out in bars in Saint Germain des Prés and dances wildly in the jazz cellars. However, it is unrequited love; for Ann, always surrounded by men, shows no interest in Manuel. After learning of her lesbian relationship with her girlfriend Geri, Manuel returns disappointed back to Mexico. At home, he receives a letter from Ann telling him that she and Geri have a venereal disease and that they suspect he also has it. She comforts him with the thought that now he really belongs to their "gang" of outsiders.
This story is partly autobiographical (Van der Elsken was attracted to Vali Myers), but some elements were taken from accounts of the other Paris bohemians. The book was quickly sold out in Europe and Great Britain and its cinematographic elements features led van der Elsken to subsequent experiments and traveling around the world in search of new material with his second wife while making career in cinema at the same time.
Ed van der Elsken was a unique figure in photography world. The first true Dutch street photographer, he traveled Paris, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Tokyo in search of striking characters, attractive young women and rebellious young people. He is known for his bold, unconventional and unique style.

In each of his photograph we can feel his presence: it was crucial for him to make a close connection with people. And as a playful art-director, he often staged situations. His view of the world through the camera lens was subjective and never depended on observers. This subjectivity was a mix of stories told by his friends, colleagues, people in the streets – of all those who found themselves in an post-war destroyed world. But life was going on and it meant that not all was lost!
Author Anna Laza
More photographs and videos check in our Instagram