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