Ed van der Elsken‘s groundbreaking book of photographs, Love on the Left Bank, first published in a small edition in 1954, has been reprinted by the small British publisher, Dewi Lewis. This is a cause for celebration. It is a classic of its kind – grainy, monochrome cinéma vérité – and one of the first photobooks to record the nascent flowering of rebellious youth culture in Europe.
Set in and around the hinterland between Odéon and St Germain-des-Prés, shot in black and white, the book is an impressionistic narrative that centres on a fictional character, Ann, a beautiful and enigmatic bohemian, and her circle of vagabond friends, who haunt the bars, cafes and clubs of the area. Van der Elsken’s camera trails Ann as she works as an exotic dancer, drinks, flirts, fights, sleeps, falls in and out of love.
Ann is actually the legendary bohemian figure Vali Myers, a self-exiled Australian artist, who was friends with Cocteau and Genet, and, by way of van der Elsken’s evocative portraits of her, later became a muse for the teenage Patti Smith. When the two eventually met in New York in the early 1970s, Myers tattooed a lightning bolt on Smith’s knee, while Smith described her as “the supreme beatnik chick – thick red hair and big black eyes, black boatneck sweaters and trench coats”.
Love on the Left Bank is actually narrated by a relatively minor character called Manuel, a young Mexican on the run from his own demons, who falls for Ann and whose thoughts form the text that accompanies the pictures. The text, van der Elsken makes clear from the start, “is entirely fictional and is not related to any living person”. The story of Manuel’s unrequited love for Ann creates another layer of mystery, adding to the sense that this is a snapshot not just of a time and place, but of a mood, maybe even a collective state of mind. That mood could be described as the beatnik sublime, and van der Elsken captures the first stirrings of a kind of youthful non-conformity that would become much more familiar – and ritualised – in the coming decades.
The intimate portraits of Ann – daydreaming, dozing, stirring a coffee – are the still moments in an otherwise impressionistic, often frenetic, narrative. The characters in the book are constantly on the move, from cafe to bar, nightclub to jazz club, the streets of St Germain-des-Prés alive with young people in search of the next nocturnal high. The supporting cast of real-life characters includes Jean-Michel, Benny and Pierre, who look like stylish proto-punks and drift in and out of trouble without much thought for the consequences, getting drunk, getting high and, at one point, getting arrested for brawling on the street. Like Brassaï before him, van der Elsken is drawn to the symbolic as well as the impressionistic: in one portrait of Ann, she leans against a wall on which the word Rêve (Dream) has been painted: shades of the Situationist slogans that would transform Paris during the student uprising of 1968.
In one series of fly-on-the-wall photographs, van der Elsken captures Jean Michel teaching a girl to “smoke hashish in the right way … the cigarette not held in the mouth, the smoke inhaled together with air from the cupped hands”. Jean Michel Mension would later become one of the main protagonists of the 1968 student uprising, a member of the Letterist International, to which the legendary Situationist activist and thinker, Guy Debord, also belonged. Legend has it that the back of Debord’s head can be seen in one of the many bar scenes in the book.
Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank is important for many reasons, then: as an early reflection of youth cultural ennui, disaffection and rebellion; as a glimpse of a particular place and time when Parisian culture, specifically its youth culture, was on the cusp of a great sea change; as one of the first visual narratives that walks the line between fly-on-the-wall reportage and created narrative.
Vali Myers went on to become an opium addict, then an artist of some repute. She lived for a time in her own personal “Garden of Eden”, a small house with a rambling garden in Positano. She is the subject of four films, one, Death in the Port Jackson Hotel, made in 1971 by van der Elsken. She died of cancer, aged 72, in 2003 in her native Melbourne. In a newspaper interview, given from her hospital bed, she said, “I’ve had 72 absolutely flaming years. It [the illness] doesn’t bother me at all, because, you know love, when you’ve lived like I have, you’ve done it all.”
Van der Elsken went on to produce several brilliant books and to embrace colour photography in order to capture the vitality of his native Holland, but he was never at ease with the world of commercial photography.
Love on the Left Bank, his first and most groundbreaking book, remains his most beautifully realised body of work. He died of cancer, aged 65, in 1990. He once said, “I report on young, rebellious scum with pleasure … I rejoice in everything. Love. Courage. Beauty. Also blood, sweat and tears. Keep your eyes open.”