Marlene Dumas

Photographs that like Books and Films that like Photographs

Marlene Dumas on Ed van der Elsken

Choosing ten photographs…

I very nearly confined my choice to the only book by Ed van der Elsken that I have in my possession, bought secondhand on the Nieuwmarkt during the late 1970’s. That’s where I was living at the time, as a twenty-three-year-old art student; Ed used to live there too. It was my first room in Amsterdam, my first book of photographs in the Netherlands, Bagara, from 1958. It wasn’t so much the individual photographs that caught my eye (aside from that one of the dead little elephant) as their interrelationships and the succession of images, the highly varied sizes and uncommon layout. A lot of deep-black printing ink, no white edges. His photographs of the Banda tribe, famous for their wall paintings, fascinated me. I selected one photograph from this group, a black ‘Snow White’, sleeping on her bamboo bed, with drawings on the wall behind her.

Hanging on the wall of my studio on the Prinsengracht during the late 1980s, were lots of pictures. Among them, an invitation to an exhibition of Ed’s, depicting a photograph of a young woman (Paris, 1954) doubled by the mirror against which she nestles, his muse at the time, Vali. This photograph I’d really like to see again, now with that of a beautiful kiss in which the many arms play a lead role. He found it important to write his own texts for these books of photographs. This fusion of documentation and fiction gives rise to the first docudrama, Een liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint Germain des Prés (Love on the Left Bank) (1956) and Vali was now called Ann. The British magazine Picture Post changed the ending of Ed van der Elsken’s text as his reference to a contracted venereal disease was considered indecent. I decided to use the original last page of this photo novel.

From his big travel book Sweet Life (1966) – which included photographs of places such as South Africa, India and Japan – I selected images of the United States and Mexico. It’s striking how he deliberately came up with an affectionate title for photographs on not-so-light topics.

The way in which Van der Elsken incorporated photographs, texts and depictions in his films is remarkable. Van der Elsken’s final film Bye (1990) even includes X-ray photographs of his fatal tumors and his very own commentary on them.

Ultimately my selection had largely to do with artistic expression, with cultural rites and places where art manifests itself: the façade of a Harlem bookstore during the 1960s; the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1961 – literally and figuratively white – (what a wonderful coincidence that Rineke now has a show there); the winner of a Miss Artist Model Competition (which reminds me of my daughter and which was taken in the year I was born, 1953); two grainy nocturnal photographs (no flash allowed) of Chet Baker’s performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in 1955, another of a Mexican religious ritual involving a drunk pilgrim, sleeping on the ground.

Last of all I chose photograph no. 213, which Van der Elsken described in Once Upon a Time 1925-1990, as his final photograph: ‘the picture I never took.’ This invisible photograph is my number ten.

Ed van der Elsken | Photographs that like Books and Films that like Photographs. Written for and first published (in Dutch) in Look Ed! Images from the archive of Ed van der Elsken selected by Marlene Dumas, Rineke Dijkstra, Marijke van Warmerdam, (cat.), Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, 2012; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts | On Others, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014 [Translation of ‘Foto’s die van boeken houden en films die van foto’s houden’ by Beth O’Brien].