Max Kozloff once described gentile street photographers as “operating with a proprietary nonchalance.” That is, they act like they own the place, as opposed to the insecurity, desperation, intellectualism, and sociopolitical outrage of their Jewish counterparts. The Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken worked at the same time as Garry Winogrand, William Klein, and Marvin Newman, among others, and his pictures don’t resemble theirs at all. These days, distinctions tend to get lost in the nostalgia for black-and-white prints, but the show at Howard Greenberg (through May 5) allows a chance to focus on exactly what he was doing, and what he wasn’t.
By now van der Elsken, who died in 1990 and has never had significant museum exposure in this country (he was the subject of a major retrospective last year in Amsterdam) has become an icon in Europe. In that context, it is easy to see his roots in Henri Cartier-Bresson on the one hand – the eye for culturally loaded situations and a hunger for travel – and Brassai on the other – a fascination with “those in the shadows you do not see,” as Bertolt Brecht called them, the fringe, the outsiders, the vaguely disreputable. Many of the photographs at Greenberg appeared in van der Elsken’s first book, his autobiographical Love on the Left Bank (1956). In several pictures of disaffected postwar kids, he seems to be channeling Brassai’s Paris de Nuit, but younger, hipper. You can almost hear a sax solo in the background.
What you don’t see, or not very often, are the gestures of American street photography: radical incongruities within the frame, formal precision in the midst of social chaos, ironic juxtapositions that can reveal the universe as socially unjust or metaphysically absurd. Van der Elsken’s deeper interest, the thing that gives him joy and makes him scratch his head, is people. I am fascinated by the fact the van der Elsken originally wanted to be a sculptor and learned how to carve stone. There is an obvious and enduring sculptural fascination with women’s bodies in his work, and that may not play well with audiences now sensitized to the possessive male gaze. But it is part of his “proprietary nonchalance” – a feeling you get from his photographs and his films that there is no place he doesn’t belong and nothing about what people are doing and the way they look that he can’t celebrate. Part of the appeal of van der Elsken’s work, especially to a younger generation, is the reflection of a time when making photographs could be unabashedly personal without the mandate to solve the world’s problems or indict your own guilt.