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PRINT March 2000

CAFÉ NOIR: THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF ED VAN DER ELSKEN

Anticipating the moody verité of much recent photography, ED VAN DER ELSKEN’s vignettes of left bank demimondaines, Tokyo Yakuza, and Soweto insurgents are gaining a new following. As the Dutch artist’s first full-scale retrospective goes on view at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, VINCE ALETTI examines van der Elsken’s autobiographical legacy.

Who am I to spout about life, love, happiness? About whether all’s right with the world, or whether it’s just a vale of tears, so store up your treasures for heaven. I think it’s unbelievable, fabulous, this life of ourseverything, the birds and the bees, the deer and the antelope, the spacious skies, the foggy dew, the rockabye babies. . . . My wife’s embrace, a landing on the moon, space, time, eternity. I don’t understand one damn thing about any of it, except that it’s enough to keep me in a constant delirium of delight, surprise, enthusiasm, despair, enough to keep me roaming, stumbling, faltering, cursing, adoring, hating the destruction, the violence in myself and others.

WHO AM I? In 1965, when Ed van der Elsken wrote those words, he was a forty-year-old unreconstructed bohemian photographer-filmmaker living in Amsterdam, the city of his birth, with a wife, two children, and very little money. He had published three utterly original photo books—on jazz, Africa, and Paris’s disaffected youth —that had made him quite famous in the Netherlands but left him largely unknown outside Europe and Japan. Though Edward Steichen put one of van der Elsken’s Paris photos in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1955 humanist blockbuster, “The Family of Man,” and included eighteen more prints from the same series in an earlier exhibition of postwar European work, the photographer had been too broke to attend either show, and Love on the Left Bank went unpublished in the United States. He had just spent more than three years tinkering with the layout of another book, his first to find an American publisher. A record of his fourteen-month trip around the globe in 1959 and ’60, it had been originally called Crazy World, but van der Elsken retitled it Sweet Life, after a steamer he photographed in the Philippine port of Cebu. The ship’s name provided a casually ironic comment on the shot of a dockworker hefting crates of soda bottles on his naked back and prompted the overheated philosophical ramble above, one of many van der Elsken wrote not so much to annotate his pictures as to illuminate the earnest, outlandish, romantic, often infuriating man who took them.

“I’m not a journalist, an objective reporter,” van der Elsken wrote in the course of another Sweet Life tangent. “I am a man with likes and dislikes.” Though this determined subjectivity was most pronounced in the idiosyncratic cinema-verité films he began making in the ’60s (culminating in Bye, the anguished but unflinching record of his death from advanced prostate cancer, in 1990), he was a passionately engaged observer from the beginning. His Paris photos, taken in the early ’50s, explore Left Bank cafés and underworld dives in the stylistic footsteps of Brassaï —in love with the night, and with life in the shadows. But they also anticipate the you-are-there flavor of later subcultural forays like Danny Lyons’s The Bikeriders and Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang as well as the seductive, bruising intimacy of Larry Clark’s and Nan Goldin’s pictures from the edge. Though not as rootless and aimless as his young subjects, many of them still scarred by the war, van der Elsken understood their alienation and shared their free-floating rage. Hanging out with them, he says in a 1988 interview, “suited my feeling of uncertainty and anger, depression, pessimism, defeatism, all that.”

He started photographing these beautiful losers “as a reflex, or as a kind of diary notation,” and kept at it in spite of their burning hostility, if only so he could linger in the haute bohemian aura of the astonishing Vali Myers. Vali, an Australian exile, voluptuous narcissist, and sometime opium addict whose kohl-rimmed eyes look decades older (though no wiser) than the face they’re in, is the most vivid presence in van der Elsken’s Paris. An urchin with flair, her combination of petulant distraction and drop-dead insouciance made her the natural star of the narrative Steichen urged van der Elsken to tease out of his mass of photos. The resulting book, Love on the Left Bank, wasn’t published until 1956, shortly after the photographer’s return to Amsterdam, but its air of claustrophobic obsession and glamorous ennui was far from dissipated. Now a fictionalized, cinematic document featuring Vali as a femme fatale named Ann, Love on the Left Bank captures the restless spirit that animated the French New Wave and remains the purest expression of van der Elsken’s romance with the outsider.

The look of his Paris work —dark, rough, improvisatory, immediate —established van der Elsken at the vanguard of a style that takes off from Weegee (the only influence he acknowledges) and Robert Frank and ends up someplace much funkier and more personal. Because he was largely self-taught (he’d taken a correspondence course in photography in 1947 but failed his final exam), van der Elsken was less interested in technical perfection than in atmospheric zip. (As a film colleague noted approvingly, “If there was a choice between a certain formal or technical quality and an emotion, he always chose the emotion.”) His freewheeling inventiveness was wide open to accident and surprise, to the roiling mess of life. Working only with natural light, he captured the sensuality and volatility of careless young Parisians by letting his images go soft or blur or nearly fall apart. His jazz photos, made without flash in Amsterdam nightclubs, are gorgeous fields of grain, as moody and soulful as a sax riff. And when he went on safari in Africa, his jittery pictures reflect both the exhilaration and the horror of the hunt; as a sequence, they feel joltingly filmic but almost hallucinatory —a trip. For van der Elsken, subjectivity was paramount; his best photos embody not just his point of view but his emotional investment and physical involvement, his fierceness, excitement, and joy. William Klein arrived at a remarkably similar style with his first book, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York, which also appeared in 1956, was never published in the US, and caused a sensation that rivaled Love on the Left Bank in Europe and eclipsed it in America. Klein and van der Elsken, both outsize personalities, followed parallel career paths —traveling widely, mining the exotica of Japan in the ’50s, designing their own books (with similar emphasis on inky blacks, bold graphics, full-bleed pages, and jazzy layouts), doing editorial work for magazines, turning to film. Klein was the more radical stylist, experimenting with various formats and pushing his pictures further toward expressionism, but he wasn’t as present in his work as van der Elsken was. He learned to accommodate himself to high-gloss fashion work by playfully subverting it, and became an international star while van der Elsken’s reputation barely crossed the ocean. In spite of the success of Love on the Left Bank and regular forays into the wide world, van der Elsken tended to retreat to the comfort of Amsterdam, where he was a local hero and resident eccentric.

He went far on his seductive appeal —a mix of disheveled boyishness and messianic fervor —but that antiestablishment eccentricity nearly stalled van der Elsken’s career early on. Asked in 1954 to comment on the state of Dutch photography in the first magazine in the Netherlands to publish his Paris photos, he launched into an all-out attack on “little men with no flair, no imagination, no courage and no artistry,” alienating his peers just as they were about to welcome him into their circle. Notoriously difficult and uncompromising when it came to commercial work, van der Elsken scuttled nearly as many assignments as he completed. When the editor of Album du Figaro arranged to meet him in front of the House of Dior for his first fashion assignment, the photographer showed up in shorts and sandals. “That was how I dressed in those days, and they just had to lump it,” he explained later. Though the editor didn’t bat an eye, and van der Elsken was soon seated in the front row next to Diana Vreeland, he burned that bridge before long. Invited to shoot for American Vogue in a period when multiculturalism wasn’t even a speck on the horizon, he said, “Only if I can work with black models,” and was not asked again.

“I can only do something that I want to do myself,” he insisted. “I can only act on my own impulses.” But if those impulses often left him isolated and barely scraping by, they fed the raw nerviness of his work. Contemptuous of conventions, both social and photographic, he identified with outlaws and outcasts, especially among the young. He could get mushy, and a bit condescending, on the subject of the comman man; at Coney Island in the course of his Sweet Life jaunt, he relishes the wild diversity, then turns pious, blathering about “the salt of the earth, all the little people who make the world tick.” Though he never again found a subject as enthralling or as emblematic as Vali and her Saint-Germain-des-Prés crew, van der Elsken was always on the lookout for signs of revolt. In South Africa, he gravitated to one of Durban’s black-only beer halls. In New York, he went to Harlem and hung out with the baby beats and folkies in Washington Square. In Japan, he notes in the course of one of his films, “I’m not interested in the cherry blossoms or the tea ceremonies. . . . Students, artists, and the underworld —that’s my cup of tea.” A photo of Japanese student demonstrators in Sweet Life inspired this description: “The Zengakuren boys looked the embodiment of youthful rebels fighting for justice: fierce, naive, irritating, convincing, irresistible, insufferable. I love ’em!”

Van der Elsken, ever the agitator, could have been describing himself here. He bent just enough to publish thirteen books in his lifetime and become a regular contributor to Dutch magazines and television, but he remained a gadfly to the end. In one of his self-portrait films, The Infatuated Camera (1971), he drives through fields of grass in an open vehicle that looks like a homemade Jeep, summing up his life for the camera. “I make dead serious things,” he shouts into the wind, “but a lot of light and pleasant things as well. I like to report on young rebel punks and on blowing up one of those capitalist exploiters’ rotten banks.” He stops and grins wickedly, blue eyes flashing, then goes on. “I praise life. More complicated I’m not. But I praise everything: love, courage, beauty, and anger; blood, sweat, and tears.”

His final film, Bye, combines all these elements —courage and anger battling for primacy —and closes with van der Elsken, his white-bearded face filling the screen, reading a farewell speech. His last line, “Show the world who you are,” has come to sum up his philosophy, his defiance. But they weren’t his last words. In a profile filmed after his death, van der Elsken’s young wife, his third, says he lived on another six months, and she was grateful for the time alone with him once the camera had finally been put aside. She had refused to allow him to film the birth of their son —“I wanted him to be there as a person, not as a photographer” —but in the end she’d relented, as nearly everyone did in the face of van der Elsken’s compulsive, controlling drive. In one of Bye’s rare antic moments, van der Elsken proposes making one more long film, P.S. From the Great Beyond, in which he hoped to appear “wearing huge angel wings” and reporting on what it’s like to be dead, “because we’d all like to know.” Heaven, the ultimate counterculture, is prime van der Elsken territory. We’re waiting.

Vince Aletti is art editor of the Village Voice.