When I first came across the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken, I didn’t know what to make of him. I’d been a great admirer (like countless others) of Cartier Bresson’s work, which I considered a kind of poetic realism. You always know what you’re looking at in a Cartier Bresson shot. He stands back, shows you the reality he sees. Does it with grace and an uncanny sense of harmony. If that’s what you’re used to and like, though, van der Elsken can throw you. He couldn’t be more different. He gets in close, shoots disorienting shots. His style is exceedingly dark and high contrast one minute, exceedingly washed out and pale other times. I think you can call his work expressionistic. His photos are as much about the intense things he feels as he shoots the shot as they are about the thing shot. You don’t get the safe distance between subject and object, between photographer and the thing or person being shot, that you get in Cartier Bresson.
The opening spread of van der Elsken’s 1966 book (shown above) is a case in point. “Sweet Life” is the product of van der Elsken’s fourteen-month trip around the world. It is a challenging book for sure. I thought when I first saw the opening spread that I was looking at two disparate very dark, charcoal drawings, not photos. They’re up close, harsh profiles in a way, jarring. You have to, in fact, see them on the printed page of the book to realize just how bold and vivid they are (“Sweet Life” was printed in deep gravure, a process that gives images on the page a kind of physical presence that’s uncanny). I guess it took me a while to recognize this opening spread was conceptual. An idea made van der Elsken juxtapose the two different images. The idea was slavery, in it’s awful dehumanizing reality, must almost pave the way somehow for freedom. It’s so obnoxious and evil it must eventually lead to free men. What struck me most about this seemingly conceptual take was how real and tangible it is. How convincing. If there’s an idea here it’s not abstract. Not some whimsy existing mostly in the head of the photographer. The longer I looked at the images the greater the hold they had on me. They’re bold and stirring, unorthodox and deeply felt. You couldn’t, it seems, with these photos get further away from the kind of work Cartier Bresson did. Yet van der Elsken’s work holds its own. It’s quite authentic and potent.
And yet, it took me a while to get used to “Sweet Life.” It can be a perplexing book. For one thing, van der Elsken is capable of shooting in a variety of different styles – conceptual, realistic, lyrical. And this can throw you. You almost don’t know what to expect when you turn the pages of the book. Then I began to understand this was the result of the man’s deep, ceaseless creativity. He knew the world was complex. He knew he himself felt different things at different times. Why shouldn’t he have sought out as many different ways of shooting as possible.
To quickly offer a contrast to the rough, iconic, conceptual opening spread I’d pick a shot he did of fishermen by the sea.
It’s amazing to me that van der Elsken with his harsh, high contrast approach could produce this lyrical seeming shot—soft, half mysterious. Full of van der Elsken’s respect for—even awe of—these working fishermen. It’s as if he feels he’s witnessing an ageless drama (in a note he explains these fishermen are using centuries old fishing techniques).
The genesis of “Sweet Life” is very interesting. And it reveals something about van der Elsken’s intention. In 1960, possessed seemingly of a restless spirit, the Dutch photographer took a fourteen-month trip around the world. Travelling mostly by sea, booking passage on freighters.
He went to Africa, Tokyo, Hong Kong. He stopped in the Philippines. He crossed the ocean to the U.S. and Mexico before returning home. It was a deep and in some ways strange journey. As if van der Elsken were looking all the time for something important – both in himself and in the world.
What he produced in his remarkable book was an account of that journey. An account that reveals – in all the variety of his photographic styles – a vast and varied human community. I don’t think there’s ever quite been a book like “Sweet Life.”
Photography is blessed to have in its past such different masters as Cartier Bresson and Ed van der Elsken. These two geniuses show us just how different great photography can be. It’s a challenge to take in their work, have it deeply affect you. Then realize each one, each different approach, has its validity. Street photography in particular perhaps needn’t be one kind of thing. It can be open and resourceful, classical and a kind of creative insurgency as well. And this, I think, is an exciting thing.