Ed van der Elsken (1925, Amsterdam -1990, Edam NL), was one of the Netherland’s greatest and most influential photographer and filmmaker, who expressed his meetings with people in photos, photo books and films for more than 40 years. Although his worldwide reputation rests on his unique black-and-white photography, the last thirty years of his life were mainly devoted to working in colour.
His first book of colour photographs, EYE LOVE YOU, was published in 1977. Ed van der Elsken photographed people. Or more precisely, what people made of life and what life did to people. He travelled all over the world recording this in his photographs and, in the process, creating a unique oeuvre that continues to attract international attention even today. ‘A book about people’ is what he called his first book of colour photos, EYE LOVE YOU (1977). ‘I love you’ but also ‘My eye loves you’. Love, life and death play key roles. Looking and being looked at. Van der Elsken’s themes are the sexual interplay and tension between men and women, the freedom and happiness of young people setting out to explore the world, and the experience of destitution in disillusioned old age. He was one of the first photojournalists in the Netherlands whole-heartedly to embrace colour photography. Van der Elsken had already used colour (slide) film in the fifties, when he was working on his pioneering photobooks Een liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint Germain des Prés (1956) and Sweet Life (1966), although both were eventually published entirely in black-and-white.
In 1950 Ed van der Elsken founded “kindred spirits” in a group of dropouts in the St. Germain des Prés (Paris) neighborhood. In a private diary he kept photographic “notes” about their activities, which he was allowed to photograph undisturbed. It is evident that he was primarily fascinated by the beautiful redhead Vali Myers. In 1953 he met Edward Steichen, who pointed out that his photographs had a narrative structure and advised him to create photography book that tells a story. Supported by his wife at the time, the Hungarian Ata Kando, van der Elsken organized his contact sheets, put together the first of a total of three dummies and started a joint project with the graphic designer Jurriaan Schrofer. In 1956 the publisher De Bezige Bij released „Love on the Left Bank“. Elsken‘s pictures were put together to form the story of the unrequited love of the protagonist Manuel for Ann alias Vali Myers. It is fictional and takes place over a period of months, during which he followed a pair of lovers with his camera and captured a harsh yet tender love story in the working class neighborhood of St. Germain des Prés. The photography book that resulted is not only regarded as the summit of his work but is also internationally recognized as one of the most extraordinary photography books of the 20th century, as it is the first one using the format of a photo novel.