PRINT March 2000


IF ANNELIE LÜTGENS is a relative newcomer when it comes to the work of Ed van der Elsken (1925–90), she’s hardly alone. When the forty-three-year-old curator was first exposed to the Dutch photographer’s work in the posthumous 1994 Fotomuseum Winterthur exhibition “Once Upon a Time,” she says, “I had heard little about van der Elsken. In Germany, only the older photographers and photography experts knew his name, people who were into photography books from the ’50s and ’60s.” Lütgens, whose previous exhibitions include shows of Wolfgang Tillmans and Elizabeth Peyton and who oversaw the Wolfsburg stop of the traveling Nan Goldin retrospective, hopes to introduce van der Elsken to a new generation with her comprehensive survey opening this month at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. The show, which will travel to Barcelona’s Fundació “la Caixa,” brings together all aspects of van der Elsken’s work, including nearly 180 photographs, dummies for the books that he designed, an acoustic slide show, and his various films. Lütgens’s exhibition should reveal not only the political dimension to van der Elsken’s work, but also the unflinching openness with which he rendered private worlds public—not to mention his powerful influence over some of the most important photographers working today.

Yilmaz Dziewior

YILMAZ DZIEWIOR: Why is it important to show Ed van der Elsken’s work at this moment?

ANNELIE LÜTGENS: In recent years van der Elsken has been included in shows in the Netherlands, Japan, and Switzerland, not to mention Documenta X. For me, the final sign that it was time to show his work to a broader audience in Germany was the Nan Goldin retrospective that came to Wolfsburg in 1997. With that show, the Kunstmuseum presented the most important artist working in a subjective mode of photography in the ’70s and ’80s; Wolfgang Tillmans represents this approach in the ’90s. Van der Elsken is a precursor to this attitude. His unsparing view of himself and his surroundings was something absolutely new in Europe in the ’50s.

YD: Do you think there is a different perspective on his work today than there was during his lifetime? Is his artistic significance recognized more powerfully than before, when he was largely considered a photojournalist?

AL: I don’t think he was regarded as a photojournalist in the first instance, because those who knew him early on were enthusiastic about his books, which are almost like photonovellas. On the other hand, I think his work does profit from a current trend: After the emergence of objective photography à la the Becher school and after the rise of computer-generated photography, the classics of reportage such as Robert Frank or Weegee have gained in significance.

YD: What meaning does travel have in van der Elsken’s work? Do you think his position has become more relevant in the era of globalization?

AL: Travel satisfied van der Elsken’s penchant for independence, his natural curiosity, and his search for photographic subjects. It’s important to remember that one of the first international exhibitions in which he was represented was Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man.” When he went to Japan in the ’50s, for instance, he didn’t have the faintest notion of the country’s social or religious structure. He photographed beggars, gangsters, the everyday. Japanese photographers couldn’t do that at the time. Unlike contemporary travel photography, van der Elsken was always partisan. He looked for the beauty and the liveliness of simple people all over the world, but he also saw violence and oppression, as in his ’60s and ’70s photo-reportage work covering the popular uprisings in Chile, Soweto, and the Philippines.

YD: Did you know van der Elsken personally?

AL: No. After I’d seen Bye (1990)—a very personal film in which he documented his own confrontation with cancer and death—I was moved to visit his house in Warder, Holland, where most of the film was shot. The house is situated in the middle of meadows on the dike of Lake Ijssel. Ed’s atelier, with its numerous windows and its enormous mirror, became a sickroom over the course of the film. I’ve visited his widow, the photographer Anneke van der Elsken-Hilhorst, many times. Without her assistance, the exhibition could not have become what it is.

YD: What in particular interests you about van der Elsken’s work?

AL: What I find fascinating is the enormous emotional content. Van der Elsken never aims for disinterested observation. For example, from his time in Paris there are shots of his wife at the time, the Hungarian photographer Ata Kando. She worked in the lab at Magnum, had three children to take care of, and had this young Dutchman with his camera constantly around. In some of the photographs you see her irritated glance because Ed is still shooting her doing the housework. This obsessive drive to depict one’s own life without regard for privacy or intimacy finally led to his documentary Bye. His parting words to his audience are: “Be strong everybody. Take care. Show the world who you are.”

Yilmaz Dziewior is a Cologne-based critic.