A year ago in this blog, Matthew Carson highlighted some of the lesser-known classics in the ICP Library collection. One of the books he wrote about was Ed van der Elsken’s Sweet Life (1966). As one of my all-time favorite photobooks, Sweet Life is an incredibly beautiful collection of rich inky high contrast gravure images taken in 1959-61 during van der Elsken’s 14-month journey around the world. It is also an invaluable resource for drawing attention to van der Elsken’s role as a “photographer’s photographer” – a visionary whose raw cinematic stream-of-consciousness aesthetic found only a limited following during his lifetime, yet is now cited for presaging the contemporary diarist work of photographers such as Nan Goldin. Travelling with his wife Gerda van der Veen to West Africa, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, the United States and Mexico, Sweet Life also documents van der Elsken’s initial photographic exchange in what would become a 30-year ongoing relationship with Japan and the postwar Japanese photographic community.
His raucous and slightly irreverent text, which accompanies the images in Sweet Life, describes his first impressions of Japan as he photographed small fishing boats along the southern Japanese island of Kyushu from the deck of a Dutch freighter on his approach from Hong Kong via the East China Sea. As a photographer who was fully engaged with the world around him and saw his photographic subjects as his friends and “co-stars,” van der Elsken wasted no time in meeting many of the most influential Japanese photographers, editors and curators in the 1960s Tokyo scene. Among his early acquaintances was the Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe, whom he met at a Christmas Eve party held at the offices of the Tokyo-based VIVO photography agency in 1959 (Ortmanns). Until van der Elsken’s death in 1990, he and Hosoe would remain in close contact through a regular correspondence and van der Elsken’s frequent trips to Japan.
It is, in fact, Hosoe who was responsible for the Japanese publication of Sweet Life. After many delays and difficulties finding a publisher for Sweet Life, van der Elsken finally secured a deal with the Harry N. Abrams publishing house. Given van der Elsken’s inventive design for Sweet Life, which includes many large format full-page bleeds, different covers for each foreign language publication, and gravure printing of his dark dramatic black-and-white images, Abrams decided to contain costs by printing in Japan. At the time, van der Elsken did not yet have a publisher for a Japanese edition and was working with Hosoe and several other editors to see if one could be secured. Hosoe, who was also instrumental in supervising the printing process, became one of Sweet Life’s main proponents. It was 1967 and Hosoe was teaching once a month at the Tokyo Photographic College, where he proposed to the director of the college that they finance the publication of 3000 copies of a Japanese edition. In exchange, 2000 copies would be used as a teaching resource and distributed to students at the college; the remaining 1000 would be sent to other interested photographic organizations and schools. In congratulating him on the imminent Japanese publication of Sweet Life, for which Hosoe wrote a commentary, he joked to van der Elsken in a 1968 letter that he and his Tokyo Photographic College students would have to suffer from van der Elsken’s photos as a consequence of now being required to use the book in the classroom (Ortmanns).
The dialogue between Hosoe and van der Elsken was one of mutual respect — an exchange that benefited both and included quite a few critiques and studio visits. On one occasion, shortly after their initial meeting in December 1959, Hosoe invited van der Elsken to his exhibition at the Toshi Center Hall in Tokyo and asked him for feedback on his work. Among van der Elsken’s many observations was the comment that Hosoe’s photographs were purely Japanese in their sensibility. Hosoe was quite taken aback by this statement since he had worked very hard to expunge all “Japaneseness” from his images. However, after some consideration, Hosoe saw the virtue in van der Elsken’s words and approached his next body of work, which included the photobook Otoko to Onna / Man and Woman (1961), with his Japanese roots in full view (Ortmanns). In addition, He also showed his appreciation for van der Elsken’s critique by inviting him to write a commentary for the book, whose images explore a highly charged and austerely staged heterosexuality through a purely Japanese sensibility.
Within the stacks of the ICP Library, there are several other photobooks by Hosoe and van der Elsken that provide small insights into how their friendship and admiration for one another may have influenced their respective work. Of particular interest is van der Elsken’s De Ontdekking van Japan / The Discovery of Japan (1988), a collection of photos taken in Japan over a 30-year period. Similar to Sweet Life, De Ontdekking van Japan is also a travel diary from a very personal perspective. Van der Elsken’s photos do not try to show the stereotypical Japan of travel brochures, but rather use diaristic and cinematic snapshots to reveal the real Japan and daily lives of his friends and “co-stars” in crowded streets, clubs and theaters. Designed to highlight the divide between his earlier and later photos, the book is punctuated at pages 62-63 by a double spread of photographs and text that show many of the people who became his friends and colleagues in Japan. Among these images are glimpses of Eikoh Hosoe accompanied by van der Eksken’s comment that Hosoe is “Mister Japan-photography” – further affirmation of the importance of their friendship and dialogue.
Included in van der Elsken’s De Ontdekking van Japan text that praises Hosoe is a mention of his “wonderful and important books” Barakei / Ordeal by Roses (1963) and Barakei Shinshuban / Ordeal by Roses (1971). The Aperture Foundation reprint of these images can be found in Barakei / Ordeal by Roses: Photographs of Yukio Mishima (1985), which is also in the collection of the ICP Library. An intense and surreal group of images, the book presents the famed dramatist and writer Yukio Mishima in highly staged often homo-erotic scenes that push the boundaries of reality as they verge on a dangerous romantic absurdity. Apparently, upon van der Elsken sending Hosoe his commentary for his earlier Otoko to Onna / Man and Woman (1961) he also included a letter with a note at the end that challenged Hosoe to expand his photographic genre beyond the deceptively simple formality of Otoko to Onna / Man and Woman. The results can be seen in the surreal images of Barakei. It seems Hosoe airmailed one of the first printed copies of Barakei / Ordeal by Roses (1963) to van der Elsken (Ortmanns).
Initially, upon viewing Hosoe and van der Elsken’s images, I had the impression of dramatically different sensibilities: one austere and planned, the other a world traveler’s kaleidoscopic encounter with 60s counterculture and exotic street life. However, threads of their dialogue can be seen in their common interest in the dramatic: Hosoe preferring the drama of the stage and van der Elsken embracing the cinematic narratives that relate to his dual role as a filmmaker and photographer. Both use the camera as a device to capture a drama: for Hosoe that instant is summarized within a clearly defined formality, while for van der Elsken it is an “indecisive moment” (Parr & Badger, The Photobook: A History, Vol. 1) with an improvisational exuberance akin to French New Wave cinema. Without a doubt, both approaches contributed to a rich dialogue between the two photographers and greatly influenced the irreverent and wildly experimental visual aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 70s Japanese Provoke era.
In writing this post, I am indebted to Dutch photo editor and researcher Frank Ortmanns. He kindly provided me access to his 2007 unpublished master’s thesis Ed van der Elsken’s Japan.
Otoko to Onna / Man and Woman (1961/2006 Nadiff facsimile)
Barakei / Ordeal by Roses: Photographs of Yukio Mishima (1985) TR654 .H67 1985
Hosoe books not mentioned, but also of interest at ICP Library:
Embrace (1971) TR675 .H67 1971
Embrace (1977-reprint) TR675 .H67 1977
Kamachitai (2005 – reprint) TR654 .H67 2005
Eikoh Hosoe’s Photographic Theater: Ukiyo-e Projections (2004) TR654 .H67 2004
Ed van der Elsken:
Sweet Life (1966) TR790 .E48 1966
De Ontdekking van Japan / The Discovery of Japan (1988) TR820.5.J3 .E48 1988
Ed van der Elsken books not mentioned, but also of interest at ICP Library:
Love on the Left Bank (1956) TR820.5 E48
My Amsterdam (2005) TR659.A57 .E57 2005
Bagara: Photographs of Equatorial Africa (1961) TR790.C33 .E48 1961