Camera in Love
Ed van der Elsken
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
4 February – 21 May 2017
During his lifetime, Ed van der Elsken (1925-1990) produced over twenty photographic books and dozens of films, in addition to a vast body of photography. In this survey, the largest to be staged in a quarter of a century, his oeuvre is revealed through his books and films, paired with dummies and notes that share his process. Also featured are prints produced by van der Elsken himself, some with the aura he often created around the heads of his subjects.
Ed van der Elsken was a world traveller, a stalker of subjects and stories who favoured a cinematic approach to image-making. He captured scenes and people with an improvisational verve, often inserting himself into the narrative. Van der Elsken came to prominence with his series of images published as Love on the Left Bank, ‘a story in photographs about Paris’. In what was a new genre of photo book, Ed van der Elsken told the semi-fictional tale of Anne (played by dancer, muse and artist Vali Myers) and her Mexican lover. Myers, referred to by Patti Smith as the ultimate beatnik, was perhaps in some ways a feminine expression of van der Elsken’s raw, earthy nature. Myers eventually leaves Paris for the serenity or rural Italy where she paints and draws, surrounded by friends and a colony of animals. Years later, van der Elsken reconnects with Vali in the film Death in the Port Jackson Hotel where she talks of the Paris years – former friends who committed suicide, overdosed, or were committed to a mental institution, and her addiction to opium. Vali’s intensity, a hedonism edged with tragedy, is evident also in van der Elsken’s filmic and photographic work – in his ceaseless urge to embrace the world, in his restless uncontained energy and appetite to feel, see and experience.
The stories that he told were multi-layered – exuberance, passion, languor are embedded there, but death and suffering are never far away. In the early ‘60s, when he fails to find a publisher for his book Sweet Life (the chronicle of his 14-month journey around the world, together with his wife, Gerda van der Veen) a disillusioned van der Elsken resolves to devote himself to film. And begins to tweak his film camera, attaching microphones and batteries with tape and lengths of stick so he can film alone, and for longer, and record sound in sync with image. In My Amsterdam, armed with one of his home-made go pro camera forbears, the filmmaker takes to the streets, driving crazily through run down parts of Amsterdam – former Jewish neighbourhoods that fell into decay during the war years, when inhabitants were rounded up en masse and transported to concentration camps. My Amsterdam reveals van der Elsken’s unconventional, highly personal style – his seemingly unscripted commentary as he hurtles through empty half-demolished streets: streets he loves, streets that he calls home.
This extensive exhibition is a treat for lovers of van der Elsken, and of street photography in general. Aside from the display of vintage prints, dummies, the immersive presentation of his films, and slide and sound installations, this presentation shares something of van der Elsken’s essence. Vali may have been addicted once to opiates, but van der Elsken’s addiction was the camera. He chronicled his world, his city, his family and his final months. He wanted to see beyond the surface of the everyday and the camera allowed him to do that – he wanted to show the world to us, to show himself to the world. His final words on camera were: “Show the world who you are.”
TEXT BY: Lisa Holden
picture: Ed van der Elsken, Vali Myers with cigarette, Paris (1953) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Courtesy Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam