Camera in Love: Ed van der Elsken
The Stedelijk Museum is turning the spotlight on famous Dutch street photographer Ed van der Elsken, hunter of images and human connections.
People – their lips, their legs, their embraces; walking down the street, riding their bike or waiting for the subway – people were what Ed van der Elsken loved to capture, his eyes riveted to his Rolleiflex or pocket camera’s viewfinders but never losing sight of the humanity revolving around him. From lovers in Paris to pedestrians in Tokyo and punks in Amsterdam, his photographic legacy may be the most resounding demonstration of mankind’s endless variety.
Ed van der Elsken, Selfportrait with Ata Kandó, Paris (1953) © Ed van der Elsken / Nederlands Fotomuseum
If his style remained undeterred – the depth of his black and whites, the feeling of life and movement –, his eye roved over his subjects without regard for origin, social class, age or sex. Throughout his oeuvre, the thematic remains a constant: connection. Not only the connection between the people he photographed: of the couples kissing, the groups of girls laughing, the bent elderly men feeding pigeons, or even his nude self-portraits with his wife, what remains is definitely the tiny tangible ties we weave day in and day out. But what really sets him apart from his contemporaries is the obvious connection that he personally sought with them while aiming his camera at their faces and bodies. ‘He turned his sights on people he liked or who looked particular to him, and he challenged them with his eyes, with a quip, a gesture. Contact was an essential condition for him to make an image,’ says Hripsimé Visser, the curator of the major Van der Elsken retrospective, Camera in Love, opening at the Stedelijk Museum on 4 February.
Ed van der Elsken, Couple making love (1980-1987) © Ed van der Elsken / Nederlands Fotomuseum
The Stedelijk owns the largest collection of Van der Elsken’s work in the world, having kept an eye on his talent since his very beginnings. In the early 1950s, the Amsterdam-born photographer worked as a printer for Magnum in Paris and caught the eye of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was impressed by the peculiar personality of his street photography. What really launched his career was the publication of his first photographic novel, Love on the West Bank, a foretaste in his storytelling abilities which would later take him on large detours into filmmaking. As Visser says, through his life in Europe and his many travels through Africa, Japan and China, he ‘also created dramatic, witty and poignant stories – books, films and slide shows’, many of which are part of the materials exhibited during this monumental retrospective.
Ed van der Elsken, Nozems, Kamagasaki, Osaka (1960) © Ed van der Elsken / Nederlands Fotomuseum
Storyteller and photojournalist: it’s a fascinating conflict of interest that turned into a very particular signature; as they mingled, both qualities only enriched each other, rendering his work, often politically and socially involved, timeless: ‘A child of his times: bleak in the 50s, rebellious in the 60s, liberated in the 70s, and reflective in the 80’s’, as Visser describes it. ‘He was a romantic who recognised his own despair in his peers and saw his own spirits reflected in the people around him.’ Ed van der Elsken’s lifework is full of empathy, of intimacy, of love; and even after his death in 1990, documented in his last film, ‘Bye’, the beauty and relevance of his oeuvre haven’t aged a bit.
From 4 February // Stedelijk Museum