Camera in Love

about Ed van der Elsken

I make things that are here to stay,
my photos…
and I don’t make them for a monkey’s arse,
they’re made to last a few centuries

Hunter, traveler, in love with our world and all its villains, Ed van der Elsken was a unique figure. The first true Dutch street photographer, he roamed cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Tokyo seeking out colourful personalities, head-turning young women and wayward youth. He both chronicled, and influenced, the Zeitgeist. In his work, he developed a bold, unconventional and personal style. Ed’s presence resonates throughout his work: he cared about making a personal connection with the people he photographed and, like a playful art director, often staged situations, too.

Born in 1925, in Amsterdam, Ed wanted to become a sculptor and learned stone-cutting at Amsterdam’s Van Tetterode Steenhouwerij. Later, in 1947, he discovered American sensationalist photographer Weegee’s Naked City. These encounters inspired his interest in photography and that year he took work in photo sales and attempted a correspondence course with the Fotovakschool in Den Haag, failing the final examination. He subsequently gained membership of the GKf — photographer’s section of the Dutch federation of practitioners of the applied arts.

At the suggestion of Dutch photographer Emmy Andriesse, in 1950, Ed moved to Paris. He was employed in the darkrooms of the Magnum photography agency, printing for Henri Cartier-Bresson — who was impressed with his street photography —, Robert Capa and Ernst Haas. There he met and married, in 1954, fellow photographer Ata Kandó, twelve years his senior, living with her three children among the ‘ruffians’ and bohemians of Paris from 1950 to 1954.

In 1956, the young Ed became an international sensation with Love on the Left Bank, a photographic novel inspired by his own life about a group of young bohemians leading an aimless life in post-war Paris. He recognised himself in their nihilistic view of the world but also maintained the detachment needed to capture them in pictures. The filmic structure of the book, with flashbacks and ever-changing viewpoints, hints at the filmmaker Ed would become.

From 1971 he lived with his third wife, photographer Anneke Hilhorst, in the country near Edam, where their son, John, was born. During this period he continued to travel and worked prodigiously between film and photography, producing a further 14 books and broadcasting more than 20 films with the collaboration and assistance of Hillhorst. His last film was Bye — 1990, 1 hour 48 min, video, 16 mm film, colour and black & white — a characteristically courageous autobiographical response to his terminal prostate cancer. He died on 28 December 1990 in Edam, in the Netherlands.

The oeuvre of Ed is mentioned in the same breath as those of legendary international photographers Robert Frank and William Klein and his legacy inspires contemporary artists such as Nan Goldin and Paulien Oltheten.


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