Ed van der Elsken at the Stedelijk Museum

Ed van der Elsken, Meisje in de metro, Tokio (1984) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Observing Human Behaviour through the Camera Lens

by Danielle Carter

The new exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum explores Ed van der Elsken’s (1925-1990) infatuation with photography and film throughout his life. The exhibition takes its name from a film that van der Elsken made for Dutch TV, The Verliefde Camera (The Infatuated Camera), for which he won the national prize for film art a year later. Due to van der Elsken’s longstanding relationship with the Stedelijk Museum, the venue is the perfect fit for this remarkable reflection on his life and work as a photographer.

The exhibition walks through phases of van der Elsken’s life, which are punctuated by photographic habits, tendencies, or projects. Unlike some artists, who do not gain acclaim until later in life, van der Elsken began working in the photography sector early on. Around 1945, he picked up street photography in Amsterdam—documenting strangers that he saw in the street in a personal manner—and he began working for Magnum’s photography lab in Paris in 1950, just to quit a few years later to pursue street photography once again. Edward Steichen, the ambitious photographer and curator at the Museum of Modern Art, even selected one of van der Elsken’s photographs for the famous Family of Man exhibition (1955), which was organized as a photo essay elaborating on the human experience. The exhibition, van der Elsken’s works, and even van der Elsken himself would eventually end up touring the world for several years.

The exhibition pays due respect for van der Elsken’s favourite medium—photobooks. The rooms throughout the exhibition are generally organized by either his location—in Paris, central Africa, Asia, or the Netherlands—or by his photobook projects.

In Paris—where van der Elsken began to establish himself more professionally as a photographer—, van der Elsken documented his domestic life with his partner, Hungarian photographer Ata Kandó, and her three children, but he was also preoccupied with his paid work at Magnum Photos and with compiling his first photobook. These domestic images implicate van der Elsken as a photographer: his film strips hang from the ceiling, segmenting an image of Kandó’s children; his reflection and his direct gaze confront us in other images, especially in an image wherein he and the lens of his camera peer over Kandó’s shoulder as she scrutinizes herself in a mirror. The intimate tone of these images, as well as his urge to return to street photography, lay the foundations for the rest of his career in photography and film.

Ed van der Elsken, Vali Myers voor haar spiegel, Parijs (1953) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Although van der Elsken is perceived as one of the most important Dutch photographers of the 20th century, his filmic works also became a significant part of his oeuvre. Van der Elsken’s frustration with the delay in publishing his photobook documenting his 14-month around-the-world trip with his then-wife Gerda van der Veen led him to pursue film. Particularly striking is the film that addresses the illness that consumed the last months of his life. This video is very personal and honest, deliberating on his confrontation with his illness more than he did with his own family, which, in the end, seems to be a fitting opening to an exhibition in which van der Elsken’s very personal and confrontational style of photography becomes apparent.

Throughout van der Elsken’s career and throughout his travels and various photographic projects, van der Elsken remained committed to his passion for observing and documenting humanity and human nature. The themes throughout the exhibition and his oeuvre remain clear: street life, daily life, and the reality of the average human, perhaps even the commonalities among these average people despite their different ethnicities, nationalities, or appearances. Even when van der Elsken was asked to photograph an exhibition for the Stedelijk Museum, van der Elsken’s camera captured the people visiting the exhibition and their reactions to and participation in the exhibition more than the exhibition itself.

Despite van der Elsken’s adventurous spirit, he always returned to the Netherlands. Amsterdam sparked his interest in youth and the rebellious spirit that would become ever more prevalent in the ensuing decades, and he got his start with street photography in Amsterdam. His confrontational, witty, and honest method of photography might even be described as typical of Dutch character.

The variety of objects in the exhibition—the wall-sized reproductions of his photographs, the audio for interviews, van der Elsken’s films, van der Elsken’s scribbled notes as he tried to organize and design his photobooks, and digital film flipping through the pages of van der Elsken’s completed and published photobooks—provide an immersive experience in the like and work of van der Elsken.

De Verliefde Camera (The Infatuated Camera) is on show at the Stedelijk Museum through 21 May 2017. The Stedelijk Museum is a modern and contemporary art museum located on the

Museumplein in Amsterdam. The museum is open 10:00-18:00 daily, and 10:00-22:00 on Fridays. An adult ticket to the museum costs 15 euros.