PARIS — The St-Germain-des-Prés area has always been chic. Well-heeled locals slip into its glossy storefronts and leaf through the latest fiction at its many bookstores, and they and tourists alike continue to flock to the legendary Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, which count Sartre, Beauvoir, and Hemingway among their former patrons. But the neighborhood has belonged to others as well: students living off whatever they had in their pockets, bohemians drinking and taking drugs in the bistros, and others who, lacking a home base, turned the cafés and streets into their stomping ground. It was this outsider energy that fascinated Dutch photographer Ed Van der Elsken, and in the early 1950s he trained his lens on the young people roaming the edgier parts of the neighborhood. They were untethered, having left behind their own countries and families after the war, entangled in love affairs, and often marked by violence and addictions.
These images formed the heart of van der Elsken’s 1956 book Love on the Left Bank, which was a radical departure from the more optimistic humanist photography of the time and one of the first to document Europe’s fledgling youth culture. The pictures are notable for their grainy texture and high contrast — van der Elsken often shot the cafés of St-Germain-des-Prés at night, a haze of cigarette smoke hovering over his subjects, and he played with chemicals to bring out the black tones in his photos. But the images are also undeniably romantic: van der Elsken conceived the collection as a semi-fictional account of a generation living on the margins of society, and his narrator was Ann, a young bohemian dancing, falling in love, and wandering her way through Paris.
Several of these photos are on view as part of a van der Elsken retrospective at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris. Ann (portrayed by the photographer’s longtime muse, Australian artist Vali Myers) and her circle of friends dawdle on street corners, grab food from one another’s plates, and doze off in cafés, yet despite their cool attitudes, they are also hyper-aware of the camera. They embrace each other almost too tightly, primp exaggeratedly in front of the mirror, and, not unlike today’s youth, appear utterly self-absorbed. Van der Elsken’s tight frames give these moments a cinematic quality, and indeed he wrote in a 1986 letter that he “would have liked to insert a minuscule camera into my head, its lens poking out of my skull and artistically filming 24/7.”
Van der Elsken, who liked to call himself a hunter, was constantly in search of the right subject and moment. He captured carefree 20-somethings in Amsterdam and Tokyo, the bleak realities of apartheid in South Africa, elephant killings in Central Africa, and refugees working in Hong Kong. He was seduced by — and used his camera to seduce — those who were like him, “not the beautiful people and not the famous people, but the people who tried to live or to survive,” explains Hripsimé Visser, a curator at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where the exhibit opened earlier this year. It will later travel to the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid.
Looking at some of van der Elsken’s work today feels uncannily like witnessing the advent of what would evolve into our indulgent selfie culture, yet the artist remains less well-known than his peers in street photography, especially outside his native country. The Jeu de Paume exhibit, which includes around 150 prints, is in fact the first in France devoted to the artist, though it was in Paris that he launched his career. He moved to the city in 1950, working first in a photo lab that produced prints for Magnum photographers Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. He soon stepped into the streets himself, inspired in part by the crude urban scenes of Weegee. In 1953, van der Elsken met photographer and Museum of Modern Art curator Edward Steichen, who showed his works as part of his exhibits Postwar European Photography and The Family of Man in 1953 and 1955, respectively. It was on Steichen’s advice that van der Elsken began preparing his Saint-Germain-des-Prés photos for a book.
Van der Elsken brought an immediate intimacy to his subjects, at home and outside. His first wife, photographer Ata Kando, appears in several of his pictures, examining prints at home and lying in bed with her three children, their bodies framed by rolls of film hanging from the ceiling. In Hong Kong, his camera followed a woman in a cheongsam navigating the city’s streets, and in Tokyo he captured a young woman in a moment of quiet reflection in a busy train station. In 1959, he and his second wife, Gerda van der Veen, set out on a 14-month trip around the world, starting in Senegal and ending in the U.S. His photos from this trip would later turn into Sweet Life, another monumental book.
It was around this time that van der Elsken turned toward filmmaking. What began as small jobs to pay for the world tour gradually became an important medium for the artist, and many of his films are featured in the retrospective as well. His first autobiographical documentary was of van der Veen’s pregnancy and the birth of their son in the Nieuwmarkt neighborhood of Amsterdam. Perhaps fittingly, his last was an account of his battle with terminal prostate cancer, which he ultimately lost in 1990. He confronted his disease with the same intimacy that informed his early photographs — confiding his frustration at the imminence of death and documenting his slowly failing body. He was unrelenting in his pursuit of life’s darker truths, even when that meant using his camera to record his own departure from the world.
Ed van der Elsken: Camera in Love continues at Jeu de Paume (1, Place de la Concorde, Paris) through September 24.