The daring vision of legendary Dutch street photographer Ed van der Elsken (1925-1990) has been revived in feest, a new book by Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. After acquiring his entire archive in late 2019, the Rijksmuseum and the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam put together this remarkable collection, including many forgotten photographs.
A manic spirit suffuses feest, which follows a previously unknown design by Van der Elsken himself, first laid out with scissors and masking tape in 1960 and then rediscovered in the acquisition. Feest is the Dutch word for “party,” and the book serves as a visual hymn to chaos and celebration. Van der Elsken explores the gamut of partying, from military parades and theatrical performances to dress-up events, nightclub shenanigans, and more.
It’s a perfect theme for Van der Elsken, a famous charmer who could insinuate himself into any situation and chat his way into the confidence of any subject. He never shied from humanity, nor from any characteristically human expression, no matter how ebullient or excessive. feest is full of joy and wit, but the photographer’s genius was to push past the merely fun into territory that can feel at times queasy-making.
Considered one of the greatest photographers to come out of the Netherlands, Van der Elsken’s images are at once rugged and discerning. He possessed a rare aptitude for capturing the rough drama of human existence. He once said, “I celebrate life. I’m no more complex than that. And this means I celebrate everything: love, courage, beauty, but also rage, blood, sweat and tears.”
But not perfection. Van der Elsken banished composure from his work. Nothing is poised, everything is unstudied. Looking at his photographs, one senses his voracious appetite for action. He watched for the way that people become possessed — by a feeling, a moment, a song, an encounter — and he never missed an irrepressible gesture. feest is a monument to our exultant pleasures, our fleeting bliss, and the way we like to party.