maandag 5 februari 2007

Ed van der Elsken & Amsterdam in the Sixties

As far as the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies are concerned, Ed van der Elsken was one of the great documentary photographers. An exuberant chronicler of his times, van der Elsken's unrestrained passion for life translated into a rapacious, experimental photography. Enormously respected in his native Holland, van der Elsken is little known in Britain (certainly in comparison to American contemporaries such as William Klein or Robert Frank, with whom he is often compared), and this survey exhibition of his work in photography and film, gives the opportunity to appraise his pivotal position between pre-war street photographers such as Weegee and Brassai, and the emotive, ultra-subjectivist photography of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, that came after him.
Ed van der Elsken moved to Paris in 1950, joining many young Dutch artists and intellectuals seeking respite from the gloomy aftermath of the war in Amsterdam. Love on the Left Bank (1956), created during this period, remains his most celebrated work and the one which secured his reputation in the early 1950s. A noir novel-in-images, it follows a circle of drifting post-war youth, young people whose lives, and ideals, have been devastated by the war. Leading a nocturnal, aimless existence punctuated by drink, drugs and sex, van der Elsken's free spirits personify the restless hedonism, and the nihilistic spirit that was to animate the French New Wave. Most memorable amongst his subjects is the gorgeous, vampiric, opium-addicted Vali Myers, a girl who didn't see daylight for three years. During this time van der Elsken was friends with Karel Appel and Cobra emigrés, as well as leading figures in the emergent Lettrist movement and the Situationist International, and found himself in a cultural milieu where the mood was at once desperately melancholic and defiantly anarchistic.
Returning to Amsterdam in 1954, van der Elsken started to experiment with colour photography, and to pioneer a cinema-vérité style of film-making (even inventing his own portable movie camera), in order to produce the most immediate, most unmediated imagery possible. The exhibition includes excerpts from several seminal films: The Infatuated Camera (1971) and A Photographer Films Amsterdam, (1982), among others. He began to travel extensively - around the world in 1959, and then regularly visited Japan, Hong Kong and Africa. He was one of the first photographers to realise that the photography book was a very specific medium with its own unique possibilities, and Sweet Life, (1966) the book which emerged from his first global tour, is still an extraordinarily innovative publication.
As the decades pass, the mood in van der Elsken's photography shifts from post-war despondency to the permissive optimism of the flowerpower era, back to a sense of tainted idealism post-Woodstock. Van der Elsken was always in one sense an outsider drawn to outsiders. Fiercely anti-capitalist, equally anti-communist, he was never an ideologue. His signature images of rebellious youth - whether Dutch rockers or Japanese 'yakuza'(gangsters) - are driven by a sense of personal identification and celebration, rather than social protest. Unusually for a documentary photographer there is rarely any pretense of neutrality or detached observation: he is always, himself, emotionally and dramatically present in his photographs. Sometimes gentle and romantic, sometimes shrill, vulgar, even obscene, van der Elsken is invariably uncompromising and direct in his approach. And never more so than Bye, (1990) his final, valedictory film which chronicles his slow decay from prostate cancer. He died on 28 December, 1990.
Kate Bush

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