Ed van der Elsken: Love on the Left Bank

When first presented with The Relationship brief I have to admit the romantic in me instantly conjured up thoughts of affectionate images of couples by the likes of Doisneau. So it only seemed right that I explore this theme in some way through my research, to see where it leads.

Whilst searching photographs showing couples on various websites I came across a beautiful photograph taken of a sleeping couple in Paris by Ed Van Der Elsken. A Dutch photographer and filmmaker who created the groundbreaking photobook Love on the Left Bank.

Published in 1956, roman-à-clef Love on the Left Bank captures post war Parisian life. A time where the left bank was home to many artists, writers and aesthetes who influenced the cultural agenda of a generation. In the book we see the result of Van Der Elsken following these young bohemian hedonists, with a fictional albeit corny storyline alongside his black and white snapshot images. The story focuses on Ann (represented by Australian artist and dancer Vail Myers) and is narrated by her Mexican lover Manuel, who pines with an unrequited love for her.

The relationships we witness through these raw, often sultry images are those of tangential lovers. There is a real sense of sadness I felt in looking at this tribe of existentialists in Paris. Although they are technically fictional characters within the context of this book, the people in these photographs are real people who aren't helping to stage these photographs in anyway. They really were selling and smoking cannabis, eating very little food and slept on benches, in cinemas and any rooms they could during the daytime hours.

These images are incredibly potent snapshots of postwar Paris showing the reality of the lifestyles of these seemingly jubilant bohemians. The photograph for example where the girl has bitten the ear off of her unfaithful lover shows just how intense the relationships of these hedonists were. It is even more tragic when you learn of how Vali Myers was eventually reunited with Van Der Elsken and told him of how she became an opium addict, two members of the group committed suicide and another ended up in a mental home. The photographs in this book because of this are also a haunting indication of the destruction entering the lives of the real people in these photographs, and Love on the Left Bank is truly a piece that reveals the tragedies captured through the relationships formed in a carefree era.

“ For making love, i’m looking for 450 francs, All donations are accepted, Don’t Wake Me Up “ - Paris, 1952

Saint Germain des Pres
The photograph above of the couple sleeping is one of my favourite photographs in the book that particularly moves me. Alike the rest of the bohemian tribe shown in Love on the Left Bank, this couple appear to be sleeping rough. With the way they are wearing coats and appear to be sat inside some kind of cafe or bar. Their faces particularly with the sunlight on the man's conveys how exhausted the pair are and that they have been up all night as these people always were with their lifestyles. Despite this the moment we are able to witness here seems so gentle and calm despite their uninhibited way of living. 

What really strikes me in this photograph is the sense of dependency this couple appear to have on one another. These leading lines draw our eyes straight towards them and suggest they are the center of one another's world. The way they equally rest their weight on one another communicates how much they need eachother and that they are all they have. 

Cafe Culture in Bohemian Paris, 1954
Pierre and Paulette (Kiss with Hand Around Cheek), 1951
Without the provided storyline these images show the true nature of the despairing lives of these young Parisian Bohemians in the 1950s. They show the addiction, poverty and vulnerability of these nocturnal free spirits, who all seem dependent on these intense relationships formed in their groups. The gritty snapshot nature of these images pushed the boundaries of documentary photography at that time, in terms of how images of this genre could look and be presented. For me personally what I find inspiring about this photo book is the approach Van Der Elsken took to creating these photographs. He immersed himself within these people who in the images show a lack of awareness whatsoever for the photographer. Most likely because they were comfortable with him and he presented himself in a way that had no professional agenda, much like the people in the photographs themselves. 

Following people is what really has stood out to me in terms of Elsken's approach, that once people stop being hyperaware and conscious of your photographic intensions, they really start to reveal themselves. I have no idea yet what kind of relationships I want to capture through my images but it is becoming clearer to me that in order to get natural images of people interacting, you need to fully immerse yourself in the social situation you find yourself wanting to photograph them in. 

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