His name won’t be as familiar to you as the likes of Nan Goldin or Wolfgang Tillmans, but Ed van der Elsken was a Dutch master of the modern age who’s work made a lasting impact on both artists.
Despite being born in 1925, Van der Elsken’s ideas in many ways presaged our current camera phone era of image culture, says curator Colin van Heezik. He worked in the darkrooms of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa before he and his first wife, the Hungarian photographer Ata Kandó, moved to Paris’ Left Bank where he captured the lives and street scenes of the city’s bohemians in his fictionalised photo novel, Love on the Left Bank.
Tracing the works of the new exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum, which opens this month, or the pages of the accompanying catalogue Camera in Love (Prestel) you can see the attention van der Elsken gave to the intimacy between his subjects in a way that Nan Goldin saw as profound, yet somewhat overlooked. “Ed didn’t quite get the attention he deserved,” she writes in her essay in the book. “Like Ed, I wrote myself in as the lover. Sometimes, the obsession lasted for years. It was photography as the sublimation of sex, a means of seduction, and a way to remain a crucial part of my subjects’ lives,” says Goldin.
Though his subject matter varied massively from natural disasters, like Holland’s 1953 flood, to Berlin’s beatniks (the Halbstarken), the anti-Vietnam occupation protests taking place in Japan and Tokyo street-style – he was a veteran of the documentation of everyday life and every kind of subject.
It’s the unique lens that a photographer can turn on its subjects and somehow touch them in a non-physical way that Goldin says is clear in van der Elsken’s images. “It is this notion – of being obsessed with someone, and, through photographs, making that person iconic – that resonated with me in his work,” she says.
Camera in Love in published by Prestel. prestel.com