Ed van der Elsken

This exhibition of the oeuvre of Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken (1925-1990), which may be visited at the Bárbara de Braganza Hall in Madrid from January 25 through May 20, 2018, presents an ample selection of his most iconic images: snapshots of Paris from the 1950s onward; figures photographed on his many trips or in his hometown of Amsterdam from the 1960s onward; as well as his books and excerpts from his films and slide presentations, especially Eye Love You and Tokyo


Recalcitrant, self-aware and committed. Over more than four decades, Ed van der Elsken sought “his people” on the streets of cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Tokyo. He preferred to publish his photographs in book format, like Een liefdesgeschiedenis in SaintGermain-des-Prés (1956) — Love on the Left Bank in its English edition — his internationally acclaimed photographic novel; the monumental Sweet Life (1966); or the impressive De ontdekking van Japan (The Discovery of Japan, 1988). He also captured the world around him with a movie camera.

His viewpoint was generally autobiographical, his attitude direct, his methods rather unconventional, and he often included himself in the scene. “Heh, gorgeous, look at the camera!” he would shout provocatively from behind the lens. A lover of quirky characters and young rebels, he produced a kind of chronicle of the zeitgeist, a journal of the spirit of the age.

Van der Elsken worked on a variety of platforms and experimented with numerous techniques for the edition and layout of his works, creating publications and films, slide shows and videos. The book dummies, contact sheets and sketches on show offer a better understanding of his work methods, while the excerpts from his films – in black and white or in color – emphasize his importance as a filmmaker and highlight the relationship that exists between this practice and his photography. In this contemporary visual culture of the selfie and blending of disciplines, Ed van der Elsken’s work still remains undeniably relevant.

Paris and Love on the Left Bank 

Ed van der Elsken discovered his own style in Paris. At first he was enamored by the urban landscape and focused on the street artists, clochards and beggars, lovers next to the Seine, street demonstrations and billboards. But his encounter in a nightclub with the redheaded Vali Myers and her friends made him adopt a radically new, personal approach, which led him to photograph the bohemians of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, mainly at night. The twinkling of the street lamps and the mirrors of the cafés afforded his velvety black pictures a special ambience. He captured embraces, the art of seduction, loneliness and the intoxication by alcohol and drugs with a great sense of the physical, of plasticity. There is always little distance between the photographer and his characters, giving the impression that he shoots without them even realizing, although he sometimes obviously gets them to pose. In any case, his approach reflects a departure from the unwritten rules of the documentary based purely on observation, so characteristic of the postwar period.

At the end of the 1970s, Ed van der Elsken used his archives to produce a photobook on his Parisian period in the early 1950s. He reminisces about what were often difficult early days: his work in the laboratory of the Magnum agency; his first steps in the professional photography world; his life with the photographer Ata Kando and her three children; his relationship with Dutch artists and, of course, the creative process that led to his first book, Een liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint- Germain-des-Prés (Love on the Left Bank, 1956).

Van der Elsken jotted down ideas and made sketches for his projects in a Rhodia notebook. At first he worked with a Rolleiflex and had to be sparing with his film; later he used a Leica, which allowed him to reduce the distance between himself and his subjects. One of his favorite themes was his family’s everyday life, which he recorded in both spontaneous snapshots and carefully staged scenes, sometimes literally acted out for the camera.


His subjects increasingly became characters with whom he often entered into a highly direct personal relationship.

In his 1972 film, Death in the Port Jackson Hotel, Ed van der Elsken presents us with the memoires of Vali Myers, his muse and the protagonist of his first book, the iconic photographic novel Love on the Left Bank. While the book blends fact and fiction to create a story of impossible love between the Mexican Manuel (Roberto Inignez-Morelosy) and Ann (Vali Myers), the reality that Vali recalls proves to be much rawer and harsher. This book marks a clear departure from the positive humanist vision of postwar documentary photography and is one of the first signs of interest in the phenomenon of youth culture, with its doubts, violence and addictions. Van der Elsken’s viewpoint is that of a participant: direct and emotional. The narrative takes the form of a lengthy flashback.

Waterlooplein, Ámsterdam, 1961. Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate

Bagara and Sweet Life

In the late 1950s, Ed van der Elsken embarked on his first long journeys. The photographs he took in Central Africa in 1957-1958 show him to be a cultural anthropologist in search of an “authentic” culture and, at the same time, an enthusiastic reporter of the vicissitudes of the daily lives of the inhabitants of Ubangi-Shari. Van der Elsken was a master when it came to capturing intense situations related to certain rituals and hunting.

Ed van der Elsken and his then wife, Gerda van der Veen, left the Netherlands on August 22, 1959 for a journey that would take them around the world over a period of fourteen months. It was during this time that he defined his personal style and methods. His subjects increasingly became characters with whom he often entered into a highly direct personal relationship. At the invitation of his brother-in-law, who was a district commissioner in Ubangi- Shari, van der Elsken traveled to Central Africa in 1957, just one year before the French colony gained independence. During a three-month stay, van der Elsken captured everyday life in remote villages. He asked children to draw magical characters and rituals – such as circumcision, which he was not allowed to photograph – and included these pictures in Bagara. The title of the book means “buffalo”, an animal which, for van der Elsken, “symbolizes the wildness, cunning and life force that is Africa.” Bagara sets forth his vision of “the true Africa”, as reflected in the title of the German edition, Das echte Afrika; contemporary aspects such as cars and white people are practically nowhere to be seen.

They covered the costs of their adventure by making films for television and taking photographs for magazines. The trip began in Senegal and Sierra Leone, from where they continued on to South Africa. Their next ports of call were Malaysia and Singapore, before moving on to Hong Kong, via the Philippines. At the end of November they reached Japan, where they stayed for three months. The round-the-world trip ended in Mexico and the United States. Sweet Life, which found no publisher until 1966, embodied his adventurous spirit, his interest in humanity, and his fascination with foreign cultures. It was a passenger ship he photographed in the Philippine islands that inspired the title of a book that was originally going to be called Crazy World.

Amsterdam and Jazz

Ed van der Elsken devoted himself assiduously to street photography in Amsterdam, his hometown. This was where he developed his interest in young rebels and atypical characters. He first photographed them in black and white, but later, beginning in the 1970s, he turned to color. His pictures reflect the atmosphere of the capital over successive decades. In the 1950s he photographed “his” Nieuwmarkt neighborhood: a waitress, rebellious youngsters, two stylish sisters, a dreamy-eyed girl with backcombed hair, and children in homemade costumes.

At this time jazz was becoming increasingly popular. The young people went insane at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, where they attended concerts by Miles Davis, Chet Baker or Ella Fitzgerald, among others. Van der Elsken found their enthusiasm infectious and his camera captured to perfection the spontaneity of the music and the intensity of the audience’s experience. Color took on ever-increasing importance in his photography from the 1970s onward, but this barely made him change his approach. However, film began to acquire greater importance in his work. In the 1950s jazz was tremendously popular in the Netherlands. Ed van der Elsken’s journalist friend Jan Vrijman took him to a Chet Baker concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the photographer was immediately captivated. The book Jazz (1959) is fruit of the photos he took at jazz concerts, including performances by Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton and Ella Fitzgerald. Van der Elsken himself designed the layout of Jazz, translating the music into images.

From 1959 Ed van der Elsken focused increasingly on film. During his round-the-world journey he made brief travelogues for Dutch television which unfortunately have been lost, with the exception of a rushed montage of just a few – often rather formal – clips. For one of his first documentaries, Van der Elsken filmed his friend Karel Appel. He also made experimental short films, such as Handen (Hands, ca. 1960), a montage that shows the different functions and movements of the hands.

Color took on ever-increasing importance in his photography from the 1970s onward, but this barely made him change his approach. However, film began to acquire greater importance in his work.

The Camera in Love

In 1970 Ed van der Elsken left Amsterdam to live on a farmc he had purchased near the
IJsselmeer lake, in the vicinity of Edam. The film De verliefde camera (The Camera in Love, 1971) focuses mainly on his foreign assignments for the magazine Avenue. It begins with images of the photographer capturing a birth and closes with a recital from his Mini Moke while driving around the farm in Edam with his family.The fish-eye lens he used to record this sequence is one of his typical technical jokes. In 1971 Ed van der Elsken worked again with Vali Myers, his muse from Love on the Left Bank. In Death in the Port Jackson Hotel he did a portrait of the artist who was then living in a secluded Italian valley with her young lover, Gianni Menichetti, and her animals. Avonturen op het land (Adventures in the Countryside, 1980) is a tribute to the flora and fauna – and to the inhabitants – of the area around his farm in Edam in each of the seasons. He also published a book with the same title.

Eye Love You

Eye Love You lists the different ways of experiencing and practicing love all over the
world, a universal theme running through Ed van der Elsken’s “people book”. The images of hippies, nudist beaches, couples making love and Indian transvestites are in stark contrast with the more serious issues he dealt with for Avenue during his travels, when he documented in color extreme poverty, the struggle for survival and even death. The result is Ed van del Elsken’s tribute to mankind, his own personal Family of Man.

Territorio Yakuza, Kamagasaki, Osaka, 1960. Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.


During his first visit to Tokyo in the late 1950s, Ed van der Elsken progressively turned into a provocative, playful stage director of “his” people. The Yakuza — Japanese gangsters wearing American suits — seem to be s taring straight at the viewer, like actors in a B movie. The transsexuals are clearly having fun glancing flirtatiously at the photographer. Van der Elsken made a total of 15 trips to Japan, whose inhabitants, culture and traditional values and customs he found fascinating. His photographs depict typically Japanese themes such as sumo wrestlers, bowing to greet each other and the incredible pushing and shoving at train doors. However, he not only photographed demure customs and polite attitudes, but also how consumerism was affecting Japan and, yet again, the youth culture.

Tokyo Symphony

For van der Elsken, the slide show was an inspiring format, halfway between a static medium such as photography and one that proved so expensive, namely filmmaking. He created various audiovisual pieces, some with synchronized sound. In the final stages of his life, he worked on an audiovisual presentation about Tokyo, the metropolis with which he had maintained such a special bond. He photographed the fish market, demonstrations, attractive people, mannequins, wrestlers and alternative youngsters. He was unable to complete this project due to his health problems. Tokyo Symphony was completed posthumously and shown for the first time in 2010.


Ed van der Elsken’s first autobiographical film was 0>Welkom in het leven, lieve kleine (Welcome to Life, Dear Little One). With his last film, Bye, he bids farewell to life. In it, the photographer is both the protagonist and cameraman. In 1988 he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer and decided to document how the disease advanced as the world closed in around him. For him, this was the only way to deal with this experience. Bye is a personal, intimate self-portrait in which the photographer openly expresses his sadness, fear, pain and anger. He also refers to other photographers, his own work and his family, clearly emerging as a witty, spirited character right to the very end.

The exhibition has been organized by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in collaboration with the Jeu de Paume and Fundación MAPFRE. Our special thanks go to Anneke Hilhorst and Han Hogeland, Netherlands Photo Museum in Rotterdam and the Leiden University Library. Special Collections, Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum, Annet Gelink Gallery in Amsterdam, and Paradox Edam.


Pies de foto