AQ18 Spring 2017 Art Review
by Bryan R. Monte

Ed van der Elksen – Camera in Love/De Verliefde Camera, Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum

At the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, one can currently view the one of largest retrospectives of photographer and filmmaker Ed van der Elsken’s work in 25 years. The exhibition entitled: Ed van der Elksen – Camera in Love/De Verliefde Camera is open until 28 May 2017.

Van Der Elksen (1925-1990) photographed the cityscapes and people of Paris (in the 1950s), Amsterdam (in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s), and Hong Kong and Tokyo (in ’60s and ’70s). He also went off to Africa and around the world by boat to photograph people in remote and less Western locations in the late 1950s. The Stedelijk, which has the largest collection of Van Der Elksen’s work, has assembled a very comprehensive, longitudinal exhibition of both his photos and films and presented them in a very aesthetically sensitive, yet educational manner.

Museum director, Beatrix Ruf said at the press conference that Van Der Elsken was a Dutch photographer who “experimented with photos and film in ways that capture the moment, that tell stories in ways that are really intense.” For example, Van Der Elksen’s Paris photos of the 1950s have a very dark and grainy quality that Elsken used to show the gritty quality of its post-WWII café society. Van Der Elsken studied sculpture in the Netherlands in the 1940s and these sharp, sculptural edges can be seen in his black and white photos from the ’50s. He also, like Weegee, was fascinated by crime in the big city and the exhibition includes photos of two French gendarmes taking a man away, their arms under his shoulders, as well as a full-length, group portrait of Japanese Yakuza reminiscent of some of the guild and schutters portraits in the Rijksmuseum and Haarlem’s Franz Hals Museum.

The exhibition is divided physically into two sections: an inner ring and an outer ring. The inner ring has 200 of Van Der Elsken’s photographs hung on white walls. It includes photos from the 1950s to the 1980s in black and white and colour and displays Van Der Elksen’s various photographic techniques and changing subject matter—from cityscapes and people to concentrating more on the urban personalities in his later work. The darker outer ring includes about a dozen films, some slides and many contact sheets, notes on how he would crop or expose his shots, as well as historical and biographical information. One short film records what was left of the Jewish ghetto in the 1950s. When I first came to the Netherlands, I asked what had happened to the Jewish Quarter and I was told by more than one person most of it had fallen in due to the construction of the underground Metro line (which was opposed with much protest in the late ’60s/early ’70s as is memorialised on the walls of the Nieuwmarkt station, near the centre of the former Jewish neighbourhood). This, however, is clearly not true according to Van Der Elsken’s film with the subtitle “Demolition Jewish Quarter.” It shows the neighbourhood with many overgrown, vacant lots, but also with some derelict or abandoned buildings with boarded up windows still standing, one of which is being scavenged for wooden beams.

This section also includes a variety of photos, short films and a slide show from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The earliest film is about Van Der Elksen’s sponsored world journey and in one scene, shows his cabin hung with rolls of developed film. Another staged scene shows two lovers in a convertible automobile being awakened by cows in a field. There is a set of photos from Central Africa from 1957-58 featuring people in traditional dress and face paint performing rituals, and hunting. “Eye Love You,” also the name of Van Der Elsken’s first, colour photobook from 1977, includes, according to the museum,: “hippies, nude beaches, couples having sex, and Indian transvestites” contrasted with “the poor and their struggle for survival.” “Tokyo Symphony,” is an unfinished project, due to Van Der Elksen’s illness, about that city including slides of the fishmarket, a religious ceremony, demonstrations, and as usual, Van Der Elsken’s regulars—the beautiful and the fringe and alternative types. One of the most interesting presentations of Van Der Elsken’s work in this dark ring is the projection of four films simultaneously on the four sides of a cube, each of which can be enjoyed separately or two simultaneously.

Van Der Elksen records Amsterdam in all its iconic glory including an auto being fished out of a canal, people dancing in a cafe to a live band, prostitutes in the red light district, mini-skirted women in high heels crossing the Dam, punks with spiky hair and safety pins through their ears, young men and women in designer clothes sitting outside at a cafe, emaciated junkies, and the obligatory hippie birth and sex videos of that era. Many of the photos and films of this period were captured by Van Der Elsken as he roamed the city centre in his specially-designed open car with rollbars to steady his camera, as if he were a naturalist filmmaker in a Range Rover capturing wildlife on the Serengeti’s plains. Ed van der Elksen – Camera in Love/De Verliefde Camera is an exhibit one won’t want to miss if you want to learn more about this Dutch photographer and filmmaker and, of course, about Amsterdam.