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Ed van der Elsken, Girl in the subway, Tokyo (1984) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Ed van der Elsken, Girl in the subway, Tokyo (1984) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
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Influential Dutch Street Photographer Ed van der Elsken at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Picture of Tom Coggins
Updated: 6 March 2017
Widely recognised as the first Dutch street photographer, Ed van der Elsken spent large parts of his career employing and developing a distinctive, improvised style of photography. A new exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam called Camera in Love retraces van der Elsken’s remarkable body of work, whilst paying close attention to his personal life, interests and innovative photographic methods. Read on to find out more about this influential photographer.

After moving to Paris in 1950, van der Elsken began producing photographs that captured the seedier sides of post-World War II France and in doing so significantly contributed to the city’s bohemian art scene. As these pictures were mainly taken at night, he adapted his work around limited light sources and developed an impromptu yet highly formalised style.

Ed van der Elsken, Selfportrait with Ata Kandó, Paris (1953) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate
Ed van der Elsken, Selfportrait with Ata Kandó, Paris (1953) Nederlands Fotomuseum / | © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate

During this period, he created a legendary photographic novel called Love on the Left Bank which portrayed fictionalised versions of his friends in semi-autobiographical settings. Several photographs from this pioneering publication are on display at the Stedelijk alongside many other important examples of van der Elsken’s Parisian oeuvre.

19. SCAN VAN NFM - Ed van der Elsken, Zelfportret op straat met Vali Myers, Parijs (1952), NFM 00016564
Ed van der Elsken, Selfportrait on the street with Vali Myers, Paris (1952) Nederlands Fotomuseum / | © Ed van der Elsken

Van der Elsken left Paris in 1955 and returned to his native Amsterdam where he continued to produce groundbreaking street photography whilst sporadically working abroad. Instead of bohemians or artists, in Amsterdam van der Elksen mainly focused on the Dutch working class, with a specific emphasis on his hometown’s youth.

zie Wolfsburg-catalogus pag. 106
Ed van der Elsken, Nieuwmarkt district, Amsterdam (1961) Nederlands Fotomuseum / | © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate

Although he lived in the Netherlands for the rest of his life, van der Elsken was fascinated by other cultures and regularly travelled to Japan. There he shot several series of photographs that document a wide spectrum of lifestyles and customs, ranging from traditional Sumo wrestling to modern street fashion.

Ed van der Elsken, Yakusa territory Kamagasaki, Osaka (1960) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Ed van der Elsken, Yakusa territory Kamagasaki, Osaka (1960) Nederlands Fotomuseum / | © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

He also travelled extensively throughout central Africa and amassed a large collection of minimalistic and intimate photographs of the area’s inhabitants.

Ed van der Elsken, Four girls at a circumcision ritual, Oubangui-Chari, Central-Africa (1957) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate
Ed van der Elsken, Four girls at a circumcision ritual, Oubangui-Chari, Central-Africa (1957) Nederlands Fotomuseum / | © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate

Eventually, he decided to settle in Edam with his family and turned towards documentary filmmaking. By employing his characteristically intuitive style, van der Elsken produced several outstanding autobiographical films that documented his life in rural Noord-Holland.

Ed van der Elsken, Filmstill from De Verliefde Camera (1971) EYE / © Ed van der Elsken
Ed van der Elsken, Filmstill from De Verliefde Camera (1971) EYE / | © Ed van der Elsken

The Stedelijk’s comprehensive retrospective covers every aspect of van der Elsken’s monumental career and successfully chronicles 25 years of his work. This impressive overview will be on display at the Museum until Sunday, May 21st 2017.

Ed van der Elsken, Couple making love (ca. 1974) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate
Ed van der Elsken, Couple making love (ca. 1974) Nederlands Fotomuseum / | © Ed van der Elsken / Collection Ed van der Elsken estate