dinsdag 12 augustus 2008

Epic photojourney Sweet Life by Ed van der Elsken Documentary Photography

Sweet life. Elsken, Ed van der

Amsterdam: Bezige Bij [published date: 1966] Hardcover Square quarto, 182 pages and 154 gravure plates. (PBC 75; Parr 254, 255) First edition. ‘Sweet life was the report of a world tour through Africa, Asia and America. Van der Elsken took charge of the design of the book himself. Similar to Jurriaan Schrofer’s book Bagara, most of the photographs crossed the gutter on a double page. Van der Elsken made deliberate use of the fact that the gutter in the page cuts the picture in two. In a photograph of Japanese Sumo wrestlers two men are standing facing each other in a fighting pose, surrounded by other wrestlers. The idea of a fight is strengthened in the picture by the fact that the gutter comes precisely between the two men, dividing the spectators also into two groups. A photograph that crosses the gutter like this is often experienced as disturbing because the picture is split in two. The advantage is that a photograph can be blown up to enormous proportions - in Sweet Life even to a size of 60 x 30 cm. There is a close-up, for example, in the book of Kasahara, one of the directors of Sony, displaying two transistor radios. His head and hands are reproduced larger than life, which gives the viewer the feeling of a direct confrontation. Sweet Life was Van der Elsken’s last photobook for the Bezige Bij.’(PBC 75).

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger : The Photobook: A History volume 1/ The Indecisive Moment: The 'Stream-of-Consciousness' Photobook

Ed van der Elsken Sweet Life

Out of stream-of-consciousness photography emerged several distinct genres - the 'personal' documentary, the diaristic photobook, the photonovel and so on. Another was the photographic odyssey, the photographer's quest to find himself (it's generally a boy thing), the photographic version of On the Road. The epitome of this genre is, of course , Robert Frank's The Americans, but not far behind is Ed van der Elsken's epic photojourney - Sweet Life. Whereas Frank criss-crossed the United States, Van der Elsken was even more wide-ranging. Sweet Life is the result of a 14-month world trip that he made in 1960-1, covering West Africa, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, the United States and Mexico. Sweet Life was the name of a little tramp steamer in the Philippines, which makes its appearance in the book. Not surprisingly, modes of transport form one of the volume's major leitmotifs.

Van der Elsken's rationale for this freewheeling odyssey is typical Existential: 'I didn't understand one damn thing about it, except that it's enough to keep me in a delirium of deligth, surprise, enthusiasm, despair, enough to keep me roaming, stumbling, faltering, cursing, adoring, hating the destruction, the violence in myself and others.'

Although Sweet Life chronicles a journey, Van der Elsken's magnum opus has more in common with William Klein's New York than with The Americans. Like Klein, Van der Elsken designed the whole package himself, in an equally cinematic, improvisational, free-association way - there is no linear determinism in the narrative, though it does progress more-of-less logically from country to country.Like Klein, Van der Elsken brings into play a whole panoply of layout effects - double-page bleeds, crops, running pictures together and so on - and it is an unprecedented book in that a different cover for each of the seven countries in which it was published. Also like Klein's book, van der Elsken's was a big hit in Japan. His work consituted a significant influence on the young japanese photographers of the 1960s, about to be hit by the iconoclasm of the Provoke era.

Van der Elsken's words quoted above describe the tenor of the book as much as his journey. Sweet Life is a sprawing, exuberant cornucopia, a preview of the pure stream-of-consciousness, machine-gun approach that would soon come with the japanese Provoke aestetic, Van der Elsken's work has its dark and pessistic undertones, although in Sweet Life bold, frantic energies predominate.

A reaction by John Gossage : take a look at the book "Barcelona Blanco y Negro" by Xavier Miserachs 1964 to get an idea of where Ed van der Elsken got many of his design moves for "Sweet Life".

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