BY Polly Staple in Reviews | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Ed van der Elsken

The Photographers Gallery, London, UK

BY Polly Staple in Reviews | 10 OCT 01

I'm not sure what to expect from photography anymore. The most sophisticated fashion images can be seductive, but the pleasure is brief and lacking in Warholian terror, and the sterility of much recent 'art photography' is simply depressing. It's easier to appreciate documentary photography; there is always an insistent event framing the image, and historical distance can lend the subject profundity. The subjective documentary approach of Nan Goldin or Wolfgang Tillmans brings with it the gritty realism and romantic allure of faintly seditious subcultures. The photographs of their predecessor Ed van der Elsken establishes a similarly idiosyncratic terrain, and this mini-retrospective is timely and refreshing to behold.

Van der Elsken was born in Holland in 1925; moving to Paris in the early 1950s, he gravitated towards disaffected post-war youth, the dissolute poets and cultural revolutionaries who populated the bars and cafés of St Germain des Prés. For his book of photographs Love on The Left Bank (1954), he constructed a narrative: Ann and her unrequited lover, Manuel, and their friends and lovers breeze from late night bars to sweaty Jazz clubs, arguing, kissing, smoking a lot of cigarettes, living on 50 francs a day, occasionally sleeping on park benches and emanating the doomed glamour of Jean-Paul Belmondo or Jean Seberg. Shot in grainy black and white, blurred snatches of cinéma vérité sequences are juxtaposed with seductive portraits: two men argue in a bar, a couple kiss with ferocious passion, a girl stares into space, the word 'Rêve' (Dream) is whitewashed across a wall. Paris looks as stormy, shoddy and majestic as the grandly impoverished protagonists. Van der Elsken's theatrical documentary does, however, have a very real location and history. One of the drunken boys with a wry smile and writing on his trousers is Jean-Michel Mension, a leading figure of the International Lettristes; apparently you can see the back of Guy Debord's head in one bar scene. The numerous shots employing mirrors and side glances owe as much to the atmospheric influence of Brassaï as to Debord's insistence that van der Elsken did not photograph him and his scene; the irony being that Debord subsequently collaged van der Elsken's images into his memoirs.

For this exhibition excerpts from Love on the Left Bank were displayed alongside a selection of photographs taken by van der Elsken on his investigative forays around the world. These follow a more straightforward documentary approach but still reveal his eye for the codes of the street, the fashioning of individual identity and the often sublime poetry of everyday life. Belgium (1968) depicts two redheaded twin girls wearing identical jumpers standing on a street corner; quietly self-assured, they stare blankly at the camera. A couple of dandies with shark eyes and extravagant costumes loiter on the pavement in Let it Rock, London (1972); four Japanese youths sport matching Champion shirts and stone washed denim in Tokyo (1981); three girls in mini skirts stride across the street in Beethovenstraat, Amsterdam (1967) - each image is emblematic of an era.

The photographs are often suggestively political or self-critical. South Africa (1968), for example, depicts elderly white tourists enthusiastically photographing two black toddlers; in Brigitte Bardot (1952), the beauty of the starlet resists both the inelegance of her lumpy ballet tights and the irreverent angle of the photographer's crotch shot; Pop Festival, Kralingen (1971) is an early morning bird's eye view of a vast array of sleeping bags and dazed Hippies; Edam (1970) depicts an idyllic rural homestead situated in an open landscape interrupted only by a naked couple making out.

Van der Elsken's photographs revel in a nonconformist attitude to life. His pursuit of, identification with and subsequent depiction of bohemian hustlers or and transient cultures delights in the detailing of quotidian existences and the life affirming, enduring beauty of hearts longing for grace. The most entrancing image from the show is, however, of van der Elsken himself. In his film The Infatuated Camera (1971) the photographer - all whiskers and twinkly eyes - careers around a field in a clapped out Jeep staking out his territory. Grinning into the camera's fish-eye lense he growls 'I make deadly serious things and also some funny things. I report on young rebellious scum with pleasure ... I rejoice in life; I'm not complicated, I rejoice in everything. Love, courage, beauty. Also blood, sweat and tears. Keep your eyes open.'

Polly Staple is a director at Chisenhale Gallery, London.