Rineke Dijkstra, Marlene Dumas and Marijke van Warmerdam looked at the oeuvre of the late Dutch photographer, Ed van der Elsken, which has resulted in a charming exhibition, ‘Look. Ed! at Annet Gelink Gallery in Amsterdam.

Is there a more photogenic city in the world through which to meander than Paris? The scene in Louis Malle’s ‘Ascenseur pour l’échafaud’ comes to mind wherein Jeanne Moreau strolls, at night, through the city searching for her lover. The reason, though, why the scene became immortal was due to the score created by Miles Davis whose trumpet style gave the film a moody, melancholic atmosphere. The film is a wonderful homage to Paris.

Around the time in which this film was made, the Amsterdam-born photographer, Ed van der Elsken, also meandered through Paris with his camera. He spent most of his time on the left bank in Saint Germain des Prés where he hung out with a group of disillusioned bohemians who had a sombre outlook on life but also imbued him with a sense for style and class that particularly appealed to him. It produced a gem of a book that is coveted by art collectors, ‘Love on the Left Bank’ (1955), wherein Van der Elsken extensively documented their lives in cafes, in clubs, on the streets and the Paris metro. The book tells the fictional story of Ann, played by Van der Elsken’s muse, the Australian dancer and artist, Vali Myers, and her circle of vagabond friends. The book can be regarded as one of the forerunners of docudrama. One can imagine it could also be a source of inspiration for a fashion editorial – something with the gravitas of a feature shot by Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue.

Dumas selected two pictures that featured in ‘Love on the Left Bank’. One of them is of Myers adorned with heavy black make-up around her eyes who narcissistically kisses herself in a mirror, and the other is of a couple passionately (French) kissing. In the catalogue Dumas writes that “my selection had largely to do with artistic expression, with cultural rites and places where art manifests itself”. There are two wonderful pictures of artistic expression of the legendary Jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker: one in which he is singing, with the other depicting his concentrated demenaour whilst playing his instrument, during a night performance at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. These close-up black and white pictures are so coarse-grained as Van der Elsken was not allowed to use flash photography during the performance.

Aside from one picture that Van Warmerdam selected, all the pictures in this show are in black and white and printed by Van der Elsken himself. The reason he made prints was specifically for the production of his books. His early prints are all in small format as he didn’t have much money to make prints. (The photograph of a façade of a bookstore in Harlem, New York, is even printed in two halves).

Van der Elsken was fascinated with people from different cultures and their circumstances and he travelled around Africa, Japan, United States and Mexico to photograph them. Armed with an infinite curiosity, he strolled through metropoles such as Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong and Amsterdam, with a good nose for special situations, odd characters or faces who stood out in the crowd, which he then captured on film. The results produce an image that, when viewed, gives the spectator a sense that they are witnessing the scene as though it were unfolding in front of their eyes at that very moment.

This particular gift is most present in Rineke Dijkstra’s selection of a collection of intimate images and special moments Van der Elsken had encountered on the streets. On a pedestrian crossing in Tokyo, a group of Japanese transvestites is striking a pose in front of his lens after a night of clubbing. Another curious moment is a picture involving two startled looking ladies and a policeman. It appears that they are witnessing their houseboat going up in flames. Although the scene is quite tragic, there is also something comical about the moment Van der Elsken captured: both women, dressed in typical 1960s attire, are holding a cigarette and it seems that the policeman, whose leather jacket is completely outdated, is warning one of the women not to step too close to the fire by holding her arm. Sometimes, reality is better than fiction. Intriguing is a close-up picture of a Tilda Swintonesque androgynous young man starring into the lens.

In Dijkstra’s selection of Van der Elsken work one can detect certain aspects that are also present in her own work: the stylized composition, the minimal backgrounds, direct eye contact, emotional intensity, an immediacy, realism, and daylight as the main source of light. Whether or not it was the intention, or a conscious decision, of the three artists to make a self-portrait out of Van der Elsken’s work, in Dijkstra’s selection it is most apparent.

Van Warmerdam selected photographs that were published in ‘Bagara’ (1958) – a book about Van der Elsken’s safari trip to Central Africa. It comprises a photograph of Van der Elsken’s companion during this trip; his tough looking bodyguard holding a rifle behind his neck and seven photographs of slayed and living elephants. There is a wonderous picture of a young elephant with a skin as shiny and smooth like a seal. It turns out the baby elephant is still-born, causing a feeling of shock, but also spellbindingly beautiful.

Two photographs of the series are actually stills from a 16mm film where a fierce running elephant just misses the camera. In order to make this striking image Van der Elsken must have kept Robert Capa’s quote in mind: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. Van der Elsken was always close enough.

In search for photogenic subjects Van der Elsken didn’t have to travel the world. The gallery shows fragments of his 1982 film, ‘A photographer films Amsterdam’, in which he meanders with his camera through the Dam square area and captured how unique and how photogenic Amsterdam is with its colourful population and tourists who are attracted to a city full of adventure. Although the score is not as iconic as in ‘Ascenseur pour l’échafaud’ – Larry Kaplan on flute – it can be considered as Van der Elsken’s homage to his city of birth, Amsterdam.

Written by Thierry Somers. Photographs Ed van der Elsken. Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam. Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam.

‘Look. Ed!’ Ed van der Elsken. Selected by Marlene Dumas, Rineke Dijkstra and Marijke van Warmerdam. Co-curated by Jhim Lamoree. Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam until 13 October 2012.

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