‘I look at you. How lovely you are. How lovely you were. All your fun. All your misery. I picture. There are things I got to tell you. I prod you in the ribs. I grab you by the arm. I yank you coat-tails. I say d’you see that? Dammit! Fabulous! Or, filthy bastards! Dirty dogs! They should pass d’lov…D’you see that! Look at them! Jesus, I am alive!’
Self-portrait with Anneke Hilhorst, Edam, c. 1973. Courtesy Ed van der Elsken Estate
Pierre Feuillette and Paulette Vielhomme kissing at café Chez Moineau, Paris,” 1953.
If one would to merge a soul of a flaneuse with that of a voyeur, the outcome would probably resemble something like the spirit of late dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken. His propensity for roaming the streets acting upon arbitrary fascination with subjects he encountered was as much a play of provocation and seduction as it was an act of mere documenting. And yet, van der Elskens work is far from the aggressively masculine affair we would be led to believe – his photographs – an impressionistic narrative, every single inch as romantic and tender, exude intoxicating intimacy. The kind of which that leaves the observer in the state of perpetual craving as the eyes feast over some of the most beguiling photographic work of the 20th century.
In many ways van der Elskens’ approach to street photography matched the intrusive aspect of the hunt – occasionally engaging with the oblivious subjects by threatening their conformity and intimacy, either verbally or by being charmingly invasive, Elsken seeked to challenge in order to reveal the beautiful and the unusual pertinent to his imagined narrative.
His endeavour was rooted in the fervent desire to permanently record, to capture life as authentically as possible,
to capture life’s gritty realism and romantic melancholy to it’s full extent; and by capturing a moment Elsken seeked to extend it to the indefinite. Elsken had the taste for intimacy, rather than audaciousness, and most of the time his approach gravitated towards more cautious documentary, where each photo was a result of an emotional interaction rather than a physical one.
The results were evocative portraits so poignantly authentic that one could almost taste the magic of the moment sustained within them, standing as the affirmation of sublime poetry he as a photographer saw in the mundane. The kind of silver lining in the everyday life one might oversee if it wasn’t for Elsken to celebrate it.
One can only wonder if it was the fate interrupted by the World War II was which led van der Elsken towards the kind of emotional intensity that so profoundly radiates from his work. Subsequent to leaving Amsterdam for Paris, in which he and kindred spirits seeked creative refuge, Elsken pointed the lens towards the bohemian society of Odeon (not Saint-Germain des Pres as commonly mistaken, which was at the time the intellectual quarter of Paris rather than home to a burgeoning hippie community).
Perhaps the most entrancing element of van der Elskens’ narrative is probably the man himself
And there – between tangential lovers, absent-minded beatniks and in cheap, tangy motels and dusty streets lacking in character what most of the Paris oozed of, Elsken recorded the nascent commotion of youth against conformity. Dazed and confused, the reckless free spirits of the Left bank provided a perfect scene for what later generations would romanticize as Parisian night life.
Here is where Elskens’ penchant for the allusive narrative is at it’s strongest. The subversive imagery depicting beatnik icon Vali Myers stumbling through a myriad of semi-montaged scenes blur the boundaries of reality, as fly-on-the-wall and documentary narrative merge through Elskens’ lens.
His work takes a turn towards the style of ‘photo-novella’ (Nan Goldin) as his search for ‘the right kind of people’ to identificate himself with took him through the frenetic scene of countercultural movements characterizing Paris’ underground. And yet his work doesn’t lose any of it’s poetic tenacity despite the palpable harshness his subjects seem to encounter.
Au contraire – his photographs evoke such agonizing vividness that as an observer one might feel almost involuntarily drawn into the scene, as the strength of the emotions portrayed stirs one’s own.
Courtesy to our portable mini screens and due to the emotional sterility that has risen as a response to the ceaseless stream of visual input, connecting with an image, a photograph or photographer has become an increasingly strenuous task.Ed van der Elsken was a maestro in intertwining emotions and narratives over time and space, his work as acutely relevant now as it was many years go, perhaps even more so as post-selfie era has outlined much of the contemporary identity.
Albeit, Elskens’ ability to create an emotional link as his work evokes the feeling of the strangely familiar within the viewer, is seemingly crucial to the photographer’s recent re-surfacing and it’s success. Perhaps the most entrancing element of van der Elskens’ narrative is probably the man himself, who to the very end (‘Bye’ is an auto-documentary depicting Elskens’ battle against the cancer, and his loss) irreverently rejoiced in life and even filmed it’s very end .