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Indepth Arts News:

"Ed van der Elsken: Sweet Life Photography + Film 1949-1990"
2000-02-26 until 2000-05-24
Kunst Museum Wolfsburg
Wolfsburg, , DE Germany

In the six years of its existence so far, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg has many times featured the medium of photography through exhibitions of the work of individual artists. The exhibition Ed van der Elsken: Sweet Life / Photography and Film 1949–1990 belongs in the context of the Museum‘s series of CLASSICS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, which has so far included Man Ray and Pietro Donzelli There are also obvious links to the emotional subjectivity of the contemporary photographers Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin, both of whom have also featured in one-person shows at the Kunstmuseum.

In Germany, Ed van der Elsken’s work has mostly been seen piecemeal. He first became known to a wider public when a number of works from the series Sweet Life were presented at documenta X in Kassel. The Wolfsburg show sets out to present his work to the German public as a whole, and, in particular, to reflect the diversity of his use of media. As well as photographs, it will cover Ed van der Elsken’s films, books, and sound-and-vision slide shows.

By his own account, he first realized that he wanted to be a photographer when, in 1947, he saw a book of pictures by the American photographer Weegee, Naked City. Weegee and his vision of urban life became a crucial influence on Ed van der Elsken’s work. Like Robert Frank and William Klein, he felt strongly drawn toward the darker side of human existence. In 1950 Ed van der Elsken moved to Paris. There he began to take photographs that clearly reveal the influence of Weegee. His subjects were the drunkards, homeless individuals, and unemployed youths who lived on the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He took hundreds of photographs of them and published the results in the form of a photographic novel, Love on the Left Bank. Ed van der Elsken returned to Amsterdam in 1955. There, he concentrated first of all on his own family life before starting to photograph the Amsterdam jazz scene. As in Paris, this soon led him into the observation of society in general and its rebellious youth in particular. In 1959, armed with commissions from two magazines and from Netherlands TV, Ed van der Elsken and his wife Gerda van der Veen set off on a round-the-world trip that was to last almost a year. He worked in a number of countries in Africa, Asia, and America; his photographs regularly appeared in magazines, and he contributed short films to television programs. Six years after his return, he published a selection of photographs from the trip under the title Sweet Life.

Ed van der Elsken was recognizably the same artist in film as he was in still photography. His films echo the themes of his photographic sequences and were made in parallel with them. His aim was to find a path between the two media, and over the years that followed he spent time working as an assistant director or cameraman for other filmmakers. The film work of the period will be illustrated by screenings of his 16 mm motion picture Welkom in het leven, lieve kleine (1963). In this, he documents the life of his family, in the setting of the Nieuwmarkt district of Amsterdam, during the period before and shortly after the birth of his son Daan Dorus.

The chronological part of the exhibition concludes with a selection of color photographs taken by Ed van der Elsken in the 1970s and published in his book Eye Love You (1977); these will be accompanied by a sequence of photographs taken on the foreign reportage trips that he undertook in company with journalists and writers. Additional material will include magazines as well as Ed van der Elsken’s sound-and-vision slide show, Eye Love You.

The thematic section of the show is organized around the three great cities in which Ed van der Elsken repeatedly worked: Paris, Amsterdam, and Tokyo. Along with photographs taken in each city, a 10-minute condensation of his film Een fotograaf filmt Amsterdam (1982) will be shown. His photographs from Japan will be complemented by another sound-and-vision slide show, Tokyo Sinfonie, which has been reconstructed especially for the Wolfsburg exhibit.

Ed van der Elsken’s last major work, the video film Bye, made in collaboration with his wife Anneke van der Elsken-Hilhorst between 1988 and 1990, is a documentation of the last 27 months in the artist’s life, after his cancer was diagnosed. This film about his own dying is impressive in its unflinching record of physical decline and in its total lack of sentimentality.

In his work, Ed van der Elsken abolishes the frontiers between the professional and private spheres, and also between photography and real life. Subjective perception is always an integral part of his work, both in photography and in film. His books, too, invariably document his own identity as artist, man, lover, and father, and his unshakable optimism—as manifested in the film by his own dictum: Be strong everybody. Take care. Show who you are.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue with a preface by Gijs van Tuyl followed by essays and shorter texts by Anneke van der Elsken, Annelie Lütgens, Mark Hartman, Hans Schoots, Enno Kaufhold, Andrea Brodbeck, Michael Naura, Hripsimé Visser, and Fuminori Yokoe. Separate text and illustration sections will be complemented by full biographical and bibliographical details and a list of works in the exhibition.

Catalogue app. 200 pp., app. 48 DM, format 24 x 29.8 cm, 120 duochrome illustrations, app. 10 color illustrations.

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