His imagery provides quotidian, intimate and autobiographic perspectives on the European zeitgeist spanning the period of the Second World War into the nineteen-seventies in the realms of love, sex, art, music (particularly jazz), and alternative culture.
Ed van der Elsken was born on March 10, 1925 in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In 1937, pursuing a desire to become a sculptor, he learned stone cutting at Amsterdam’s Van Tetterode Steenhouwerij. After completing preliminary studies at Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs, the predecessor of the Rietveld Academy (dir. Mart Stam), he enrolled (in 1944) in the professional sculpture program which he abandoned to escape Nazi forced labour. That year, after the Battle of Arnhem he was stationed in a mine-disposal unit where he was first shown Picture Post by British soldiers. Later, in 1947, he discovered American sensationalist photographer Weegee’s Naked City. These encounters inspired his interest in photography and that year he took work in photo sales and attempted a correspondence course with the Fotovakschool in Den Haag, failing the final examination. He subsequently gained membership of the GKf (photographer’s section of the federation of practitioners of the applied arts).At the suggestion of Dutch photographer Emmy Andriesse (1914–1953) he moved in 1950 to Paris. He was employed in the darkrooms of the Magnum photography agency, printing for Henri Cartier-Bresson (who was impressed with his street photography), Robert Capa and Ernst Haas. There he met (then in 1954, married) fellow photographer Ata Kandó (b. 1913 Budapest, Hungary), twelve years his senior, living with her three children among the ‘ruffians’ and bohemians of Paris from 1950 to 1954. Ata was a principled documentarian whose pictures taken in the forests of the Amazon among the Piraoa and Yekuana tribes are her best known, but her more poetic leanings, exemplified in her later Droom in het Woud (Dream in the Wood 1957) must also have been an influence on van der Elsken and his decision to move from newspaper reportage to aim to become a magazine photojournalist. Consequently, much of his work documented his own energetic and eccentric life experience subjectively, presaging the work of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin or Wolfgang Tillmans. Thus his adopted family and their lives became the subjects of his photographs along with the people he met, during this Paris period, including Edward Steichen who used eighteen of the photographer’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés images in a survey show (1953) of Postwar European Photography and another in “The Family of Man”, and probably Robert Frank (who found and introduced European photographers to Steichen). Another encounter was with Vali Myers (1930–2003) who became the haunting kohl-eyed heroine of his roman à clef photo-novel “Een liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint-Germain-des-Prés” (Love on the left bank). This book, designed by Dutch graphic designer, sculptor, typographer Jurriaan (William) Schrofer (1926–1990) was the first of some twenty van der Elsken publications. It quickly sold out, and its filmic qualities led to his experiments with, and parallel career in, cinema. Amongst its pages can be found the faces not only of artists but also of nascent Lettrist International members and Situationists at the cafe Chez Moineau. Twenty years later Myers re-appeared in his film ‘Death in the Port Jackson Hotel’ (1972, 36 min. 16 mm colour).
Upon moving back to Amsterdam in 1955, he recorded members of the Dutch avant garde COBRA, including Karel Appel whom he later filmed (Karel Appel, componist korte versie, 1961, 4 min. 16 mm black & white). He separated from and divorced Ata Kando.
He then traveled extensively, to Bagara 1957 (now in Democratic Republic of Congo), and to Tokyo and Hong Kong in 1959 to 1960, with Gerda van der Veen (1935–2006) also a photographer, whom he married (25 September 1957). He filmed for Welkom In Het Leven, Lieve Kleine[ the homebirth of their second child, Daan, in the old-fashioned, working-class Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam. This is an early example of cinema production with a small shoulder-mounted camera synced with sound. He continued in motion imagery his subjective stance[ in which the camera operator interacts live from behind the camera with subject, obviating the need for the intrusion of an interviewer or presenter, and recording the immediate experience. His style was immediately influential on the television of Hans Keller Keller and Roelof Kiers and others.
From 1971 he lived with his third wife, photographer Anneke Hilhorst (1949 - ), in the country near Edam, where their son, John, was born. During this period he continued to travel and worked prodigiously between film and photography, producing a further 14 books and broadcasting more than 20 films with the collaboration and assistance of Hillhorst.
He died on 28 December 1990 in Edam in the Netherlands.