The Photobook Review

PhotoBook Lust: Sean O’Hagan on Ed van der Elsken, Love on the Left Bank

This is part of the feature “PhotoBook Lust,” a collection of writing on photobooks and desire by artists, curators, and writers, first published in The PhotoBook Review 006. Read the Lust introduction by guest editor Bruno Ceschel.

PBR 006 will be shipped with issue 215 of Aperture magazine. Subscribe here.

Ed van der Elsken
Love on the Left Bank
André Deutsch
London, 1954

Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank was the first present I received from the woman who is now my wife. We had not known each other long, so in retrospect her choice of gift seems almost telepathically inspired. I was not writing about photography then the way I do now, so I initially responded to the book purely as a work of visual poetry. It seemed a mirror of a world both real and created, actual and semimythical: a glimpse of the bohemian demimonde of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the early 1950s, a place informed by the Beats as much as by Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Van der Elsken was instinctively drawn to one of the great characters of that time and place: Vali Myers, an Australian artist-in-exile who was friends with Cocteau and Genet and later became a muse for the young Patti Smith. (Myers was responsible for the lightning bolt tattoo on Smith’s knee.) Van der Elsken cast the long-haired, enigmatically beautiful, and mercurial Myers as the book’s main character, Ann, whose wild life he evokes through the nighttime streets and after-hours bars and jazz clubs of the Left Bank. The book’s fictional love story brings to mind the energy and anarchy of that lost time.

First published in 1954, Love on the Left Bank is a profane hymn to a time and a place, and to the people who created it in their own image. Among its real-life characters is Jean-Michel, a member of the collective Letterist International, to which the Situationist activist and thinker Guy Debord also belonged. (Apparently, the back of Debord’s head is visible in one photograph.) Van der Elsken snapped Jean-Michel as he instructed a girl how to “smoke hashish in the right way . . . the cigarette not held in the mouth, the smoke inhaled together with air from the cupped hands.” Here, fiction and reality, documentary and staged narrative meet, and one can sense the unruly beginnings of the youth culture of rebellion, rule-breaking, and left-wing activism that would so define the following decade.

As one gets older, one realizes that, as the musician Brian Wilson once told me in an interview, “everything is beautiful at the beginning.” Those words have haunted me in the long winter of global capitalism, where Debord’s “society of the spectacle” has become an unreal and relatively unquestioned reality. Love on the Left Bank now seems like a report back from another impossibly distant time when, to paraphrase Debord, it seemed reasonable to demand the impossible. It makes me feel I was born too late and in the wrong place. “I report on young, rebellious scum with pleasure,” van der Elsken once said. Who would not wish to have been one of those rebellious scum?

Sean O’Hagan writes about photography for the Guardian and the Observer, and is also a general feature writer.

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The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.

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