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Photo book sketches by Ed van der Elsken acquired by University Library

Leiden University has acquired previously unknown dummy material by Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken (1925-1990). These are sketch versions of the photo book Sweet Life from 1966, which give unique insights into the creative process behind the photo books.

At the same time as the acquisition by Leiden University, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has also acquired new photo material, partly through procurement and partly in the form of gifts. These new acquisitions mean that the work of Ed van der Elsken is now firmly anchored in two public collections in the Netherlands. The purchase of the dummy material was funded by the Rembrandt Association, with support from the Acquisition Fund of the BankGiro Lottery and the Mondriaan Fund. 

World trip

In 1959 and 1960 Ed van der Elsken and Gerda van der Veen, his second wife, spent 13 months travelling around the west coast of Africa, continuing to Asia, via Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, and eventually crossing the ocean to the United States and Mexico. Besides photos, the two artists made brief travel reports for the Dutch broadcasting company AVRO that were later televised. In the years between the artists' travels and the publication of the work (around 1961-1965), Van der Elsken made a number of sketches of the photos in order to determine the lay-out for the book. 

Unique material

‘Although the photo books have been published internationally, pre-studies and dummies are unique material that really give you a feel for the artist and his skills,' says Maartje van den Heuvel, curator of Photography at the Leiden University Libraries. 'By comparing pre-studies you can see the creative process behind Sweet Life and the kinds of doubts and considerations that occupied Van der Elsken when he was preparing the book.' Along with the notes that the photographer made on the dummy material, the sketches give a unique insight into his thought processes. 'Particularly given that Sweet Life was close to Van der Esken's heart and it is a powerful expression of his artistry, this is a fantastic find and a very valuable acquisition,' Van den Heuvel explains.

Collection of versions of the sketches

Since 1975 Leiden University has had four of the five sketch versions of Sweet Life in its Library collection. The recently purchased dummy material was discovered among the Ed van der Elsken Estate, and its acquisition completes the Library's collection of dummies. With the acquisition of the newly acquired sketches, the second pre-study for Sweet Life, for which Van der Elsken sketched all the photos by hand on separate sheets, now comprises 73 pages rather than the previous 32. The fourth pre-study, made up of loose pages on which hand-made photo prints are affixed, now has 110 pages with the addition of the newly found 86 sketches.  In the present digital era, it is hard to imagine just how labour-intensive this kind of work was in the 1960s.  

Research and teaching

Leiden University has some thirty dummies of famous Dutch photo books by Johan van der Keuken, Ed van der Elsken, Emmy Andriesse, Willem Diepraam and Koos Breuke, making the Leiden collection the most significant source for photo and art-historical research. Items from the collection are regularly loaned to museums. 

122 photos to the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum, which already had more than 300 photos by this eminent Dutch photographer, has also extended its collection: 61 photos have been donated to the collection by the Ed van der Elsken Estate,  and a further 61 photos have been purchased. These are photos of his travels in Central Africa and Japan, and photos taken in Amsterdam. The works, both donated and purchased, are already part of the Ed van der Elsken - Camera in Love exhibition that can be seen in the Stedelijk Museum until 21 May. 

Photos: pages from the newly acquired dummy material for Ed van der Elsken's book Sweet Life, from 1966.