Ed van der Elsken

Personal problems, but also disappointment in the cultural poverty and the lack of perspective in the Netherlands during post-war reconstruction, were important reasons for Van der Elsken to go to Paris at the age of twenty-four. As was the case for many of his generation, World War II had been the determining force of his adolescence. For one year during the war, he followed the foundation course at the School of Applied Arts in the Gabriel Metsustraat in Amsterdam where he was primarily interested in sculpture. Thereafter, in order to escape service in the German Army, he was in 1944 hidden underground in Bergeyk, in Brabant. In 1947 he went with a 9″ x 12″ plate camera of his father’s to take photographs in the streets Amsterdam and had jobs with various photographers. A first trip to Paris and Marseille in 1949 resulted in photographs which he showed to Annelies Romein, a photographer at the elite organization of Dutch photographers, the GKf, which considered engagement and personal vision to be paramount. The enthusiasm about his work was virtually unanimous within this group and he was accepted for membership. Here he came in contact with photographers like Emmy Andriesse (whom he greatly admired) and Ad Windig for whom he worked as assistant for a year. His photography training if one can call it that was completed in Paris when he worked for Pictorial Service, the photo laboratory of the Magnum photographers, and printed photographs which included those of Henri Cartier- Bresson, Werner Bischof and Ernst Haas.

Van der Elsken only stayed there a few months. He was too unconventional and too individualistic to be able to work consistently on assignment for others. Although many of his photographs over the years were published in daily and weekly papers or magazines, and he made travel documentaries for Avenue between 1967 and 1982, he initiated his most important (book) projects himself.

In total, Van der Elsken completed just under twenty books of photographs. It was his preferred means of presentation. Although his books were designed by professional designers who are known for their own personal outlooks (Jurriaan Schrofer, Anthon Beeke), he determined the layout to an important degree and he usually also wrote the introductory texts himself. These books of photographs were characterized by tremendous liveliness and spirit. Pages with numerous photos placed tightly against one another are interspersed with enlarged images covering the double spread. The image originally photographed was never an unalterable given for Van der Elsken, as is apparent from the frequently very diverse cropped details, prints and combinations of images. The texts consist of background information, often written down directly as he spoke, often pointedly phrased.