Love On The Left Bank: Review.

By Hayley Mars.

In 1950, Dutch photographer Ed Van-der-Elsken hitchhiked to Paris and began work at Magnum’s photo-laboratory as a ‘darkroom slave.’ After just six months he’d tired of developing photographs by the likes of Ernst Haas, and abandoned his day job in favour of shadowing a group of youths on the Left Bank as a freelance photographer.[i] Van-der-Elsken captures their daily mission to find ‘a new wild way to live after the war.’[ii] In his characteristic blend of narcissism and voyeurism, his intimate images demonstrate the decadence of his subjects as well as his own involvement; for Van-der-Elsken, ‘the camera only had meaning if it allowed him to look, to see and to be seen.’[iii] The images are combined with a fictional story, penned by Van-der-Elsken himself, constituting the sensational photobook Love On The Left Bank.

Van-der-Elsken takes a ‘selfie’ with Vali Myers

Originally released in 1956, the book experienced a revival with Dewi Lewis’ decision to republish in 1999. Three print runs later, and the photobook has acquired quite the cult following. The work comprises a sturdy hardback, just under A4 in size, containing 200 duotone photographs over 112 pages: Van-der-Elsken somehow conveys an entire zeitgeist with mind-blowing concision. The book itself is expressive of those it represents; a chaotic hotchpotch of differently-sized images, interspersed with snatches of prose, across a jumble of sleek gloss, and rough matte prints. All pages weighty, they indicate value and durability, traits shared by the resilient youth printed on them.

Van-der-Elsken explains his work: ‘I report on young, rebellious scum with pleasure… I rejoice in everything. Love. Courage. Beauty. Also, blood, sweat and tears.’[iv] In response to his quote, O’Hagan affirms Van-der-Elsken’s perception of ‘beauty,’ questioning: ‘who would not wish to have been one of those rebellious scum?’[v] Van der Elksen’s ‘scum’ could be found but one metro stop along Saint Germain de Prés from where the intellectuals hung out in cafés such as the Flore and the Deux Magots.[vi] These people didn’t interest him.[vii] Though apparently dissociated from the Parisian intellectual scene, his work is clearly influenced by an existentialist outlook, it is uncertain whether it is inherited from the photographer’s experience, zeitgeist or literature. Sartre, existentialist thinker and regular at the Flore, claimed that ‘you are nothing else than your life.’[viii] The bohemians of the Left Bank embody this sentiment, with Van-der-Elksen using the written narrative to impose and exaggerate intent.

The grainy monochrome images of the 1950’s Parisian netherworld depict blacks, prostitutes, junkies and drunks. The young bohemians, accompanied by a select few older eccentrics, embody hedonism. Bohemian icon Vali Myers (referred to as ‘Ann’ in the prose) granted Van-der-Elsken access to her ‘grudging, camera-shy’ friends, and thus served as his protagonist; reckless, carefree and sexy.[ix] Ann is queen of the Left Bank, desired by all, ‘the girl with orange hair who danced like a negress.’[x] The gang dance through the night, dose-up through the day, and doze for any stolen moment of stillness in a darkened cinema, metro stations, or else brazenly in daylit cafés. They manipulate their spectacle in order to generate the means to survive. In dancing, begging, fighting and fucking, the young bohemians subsisted on cultish behaviour, but also in a sense on cultish image. They and their visual are commodity.

Vali Myers: ‘The girl with the orange hair who danced like a negress.’

'Once extras were needed for a television plav about Saint Germain de Prés.'

‘Once extras were needed for a television plav about Saint Germain de Prés.’

The young bohemians subsisted on cultish image.

‘You begged some money here, some money there, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a metro ticket.’

‘You begged some money here, some money there, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a metro ticket.’

In a sense, their lifestyle emulates the photographic medium. With no sense of future or past, for them every moment was snapshot; a dance, a meal, an arrest, an afternoon drawing, detached throes of passion. Everything instant and then gone, ecstasy and hardship alike. In their snapshot world continuity was a mystery. Van-der-Elsken conveys this fast-paced immediacy in his images: in blurred shots capturing movement; in the series of minutely different stills of an unfurling scenario, capturing each subtle change in circumstance as separate incident; in the consistent darkness of days spinning by so quickly that they meld into one long Parisian night, every moment a homogenous black, blank canvas to embellish as one desires. Although at first it may seem inappropriate to condemn the free to a roll of film or the pages of a book, in doing so, Van-der-Elsken offers forth something to escape from, to burst out of; just as Ann dances out of the page, the Left Bank bohemians burst free from social constraints.

Imposing a written narrative on the book highlights the structure-less nature of bohemian existence. Van-der-Elsken clumsily bleeds out an existential narrative from a series of images that depict a nihilistic lifestyle that resists greater meaning. The irony of this falsifies the photographs, sapping their gritty reality in favour of faux-bohemian sublimity, with the occasional flash of realism. Slightly out of whack with the text, the images now seem staged and obviously manipulated for purpose afterwards. This blend of reportage and fiction is landmark in the development of the photonovel genre, notwithstanding that, it seems lacklustre and demeaning to documentary aspects of his work. If we were to believe that Van-der-Elsken was being clever about it, we could say that he was parodying a meaningless world by adding meaning and purposefully making it seem bizarre and unnatural; advocating the Absurd with an absurd plot. Whether taking the prose at face-value, or swallowing my, perhaps overwrought, interpretation, I think the images are best enjoyed without the accompanying corny (regardless of it being anchored by the contraction of VD) text.

With this work, Van-der-Elsken locates himself in a school which Gerry Badger dubs the ‘stream of consciousness’ photographers.[xi] His fellows include the likes of Klein and Frank, similar in pace, ‘beat existentialism’ and invasive/intimate street approach. However, the difference lies in social conscience; whereas the Americentric ‘stream of consciousness’ photographers totter the line between introspection and curiosity in the humans around them, in Love On The Left Bank Van-der-Elsken presents a different plane of insularism. In the whole page macro-zoom headshots, in his photographic disdain for the city beyond walls of the bar, and in his lack of interest in any aspect external to the group he shadowed, it is evident that his ‘stream of consciousness’ is far more self-indulgent and self-involved, betraying the narcissism Horak accuses him of.[xii]

Given László Moholy-Nagy’s claim that the 21st century as ‘belongs to light,’ and Paris’s reputation since the Enlightenment as La Ville Lumière, the city’s great legacy of photography is as embedded in semantics as it is in culture.[xiii] With the very origins of photography at the Boulevard du Temple, Paris has attracted photographers from all over the world, playing host to every shade of photographic sophistication. The bohemian intimacy of his work on the Left Bank allows Van-der-Elksen to assume his position in the photographic history of Paris hall of fame, alongside the likes of Doisneau, Agtet, Kertész and Lee Miller. His style rings of the brief glimpses of the Parisian underworld in Brassaï’s compendium Paris de Nuit (1933), or more strongly of Strömholm’s lusty street photography of Parisian women and intimate reportage of transsexuals in his work Les Amies de Place Blanche (1983). Van-der-Elsken is unusual in that (discounting the prose) his subjects transcend the city as opposed to the other way around, where the Paris-ites become parasites, feeding off lore and location rather than image. Strömholm clearly took inspiration from Van-der-Elsken, parodying the visual language he established, and he achieves a similar focus on the individual rather than Paris in his own later photo-documentary (bar one phallic slip up!). In Love On The Left Bank, Ann is La Tour, Van-der-Elsken the Seine, and the city itself is but the silhouette of a yowling cat on a moonlit roof.

Van-der-Elsken and Ata Kandó, 1952.

Strömholm and Panama, 1968.

Betty Bjurström by Strömholm, 1947.

Fifteen years on from his time in Paris, Van-der-Elsken rendezvoused with Vali Myers. His film Death in The Port Jackson Hotel portrays Myers immersed in her experimental lifestyle in Positano. Unkempt and panda-eyed, with flaming hair, a lyre tattooed around her mouth and an inky line connecting her eyebrows, reminiscent of facial hair and a mono-brow; a 1970’s Frida Kahlo of the Apes. She renders herself art, generously offering a rich, iconic visual to the world. With every flirtatious glance towards the camera, every nervous lick of the lips, every compulsive scrunch of her mane, it becomes all the more evident why Van-der-Elsken made her his muse.  This ‘behind the scenes’ of how he photographed her somehow verifies the images. Her movements are natural and every still could be framed as another classic ‘Ann’ shot.

We see the free spirit lock herself in a cage, explaining: ‘somehow a cage is not like a prison to me… it’s something beautiful… sometimes you know like an animal is safer behind… you dig what I mean?’ She thrives in stillness, a photographic goddess. The movement of the film somehow undoes her mystique, like some animals she is ‘safer behind.’ Upon meeting ‘Ann’ in 1973, Patti Smith concurred: ‘photos had become real, and I had to deal with it as a reality.’[xiv] Just as Van-der-Elsken’s text erodes the realism of his book, his later film counters the idealism of the text. In her review of the photobook where she indicates dead friends, and in Myers herself, there is a tragic reminder of the impermanency of youth and of the lifestyle she once had. In line with Barthes articulation of the discrepancies between the magic of the still image and film, the sense of loss comes crashing down: ‘in the photograph something has posed… and remains there forever… but in cinema, something has passed.’[xv] The burning beauty and tragedy of Love On The Left Bank intensifies.

Despite its contrived narrative, this photobook is one of my favourites. A gritty reportage of burgeoning youth rebellion in post-war Europe, ironically a Christmas present from my parents, it makes my heart ache. The life Van-der-Elsken captures haunts your very core. His images define living in the moment, and yet they are nostalgia manifest. They are honest, they are confused, they are tender and raw. They are youth. The artistry draws you in and you strangely find yourself longing to have your ear bitten off by a jealous lover, to call the gutter home, to be objectified by vying alpha males, because, why the hell not?

Van-der-Elsken makes me long to be one of ‘those rebellious scum,’ but instead I’m here, shackled to my laptop in my local coffee shop reviewing those who are in many ways freer than I.

Bohemia calls.


Sea of Dreams by Tom Stappers. Image of Vali’s bed at Hôtel D’Alsace Lorraine 30 years after Van-der-Elsken’s time in Paris.

Further Reading


References: [i] Horak, p.220. [ii] Casper, Lensculture. [iii] Horak, p.216. [iv] O’Hagan, Guardian. [v] O’Hagan, Aperture. [vi] Lennon, Guardian. [vii] Horak, p.220. [viii] Sartre, p.33. [ix] Horak, p.220 [x] Van-der-Elsken, Love On The Left Bank. [xi] Badger, Volume 9 Fantastic. [xii] Horak, p.216. [xiii] Moholy-Nagy, 85. [xiv] Patti Smith, Interview. [xv] Barthes, 78.


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