Jazz by Ed van der Elsken
...but Van der Elsken's is the work of an authentic jazz fan and a maker of authentic photobooks...

Ed van der Elsken Jazz

The 1950s consituted a golden age for jazz music. The decade was also renowned for classic small-camera photography, much of it as rough and ready as the best experimental jazz. The two art forms combine to perfection in Ed van der Elsken's gem of a book, Jazz.

Jazz is an elusive art form, and there would seem to be two aspects to pinning it down in a photobook: the form of the photographers and the form of the book. Van der Elsken's assiduous attention to both makes this modest volume probably the most successful of the numerous attempts to do so. Jazz is a spontaneous, fluid, improvisatory art, best caught on the wing, and this generally means photographing in a variety of illlit places. Formal, carefully lit studio portraits may be perfect for album covers, but they hardly catch the essence of a performance. Small cameras and available light, using a slow shutter speed, are much more effective ways of ambushing the practioners of what Whitney Balliett called the 'sound of surprise''.

The form of the book itself owes much, one suspects, to Klein's New York, and possibly to Brodovitch's Ballet. As with Sweet Life, the covers varied according to the country of publication. Inside the book begins with an image of crowd 'digging' a concert, then builds into a series of variations on the relationship between performers and audience, constructed in much the same way as a jazz musician constructs an improvised solo. Pages are split into two-, three-, four-, and six-part image combinations, resembling the clusters of notes in a saxophone or trumpet run. Graphically, vertical clusters of images suggest piano keys, while horizontal, stretched images recall held notes. The result is not just a succession of musicians' portraits, or even a documentary record of performance, but a book that visually echoes the music itself. Other photographers, perhaps closer to the jazz community, have made books on the subject, but Van der Elsken's is the work of an authentic jazz fan and a maker of authentic photobooks.

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger: The Photobook A History volume I: Memory and reconstruction: The Postwar European Photobook

Ed van der Elsken Jazz Photography

Dutch Eyes Nieuwe geschiedenis van de Fotografie in Nederland

Photography between covers

Dutch Standards in the Photobook a History Parr Badger

Going Dutch Ed van der Elsken

Amsterdamse Concertgebouw jazz foto’s

Jazz by ...William Claxton, William Klein, Ed van der Elsken



I know I have already made my favorites list for 2007 but I do want to slip one late arrival in under the wire while we still have a couple days left. Jazz by Ed Van Der Elsken, originally published by De Bezige Bij in Amsterdam in 1959, has just been released in a facsimile edition from Karl Lagerfeld’s Edition 7L in Paris. This is one of several books that Edition 7L has created a facsimile edition of and in each case they have done so with beautiful results. This small book, unassuming from the outside with its 6 ¾ by 7 ¼ inch trim size, reveals itself within the span of just a few pages to be a remarkable document in both photography and book design. Elsken’s small format camera and fast speed film is the perfect combination to catch the spontaneity of what is transpiring both on stage and in the crowd. Within a few frames he shifts our vantage point from passive observers of the musicians to placing us in the shoes and on stage among the players. Jumping from wide shots to extreme close-ups, the strength of the photography is its ability to be as energetic as the music.

The design, also by Elsken, is another achievement in raising the energy level. The page layouts have their own rhythms and structure that are as metaphorically musical as necessary to create a visual accompaniment that expresses the excitement felt while listening to the music. The book starts with the crowd responding to the first notes and the layout progresses in a fairly traditional way until Miles Davis steps to center stage; Elsken makes a double page spread out of a vertical photo and turns Miles sideways so he defies gravity.

Parr and Badger in their citation of this book in Photobook Vol. 1 name William Klein’s New York as a likely influence to the design. I would add that some of Elsken’s page layouts echo the John Hermansader and Reid Miles Blue Note album covers of the late 1950’s with their heavily cropped and contrasty photos of musicians emerging from the darkness. For me, one of the more seductive qualities of the book is how the difference in the coarseness of the film’s grain varies from photo to photo and becomes another element in the design. Few of the images in Jazz escape with their original Leica proportions intact. Elsken crops the images down to their purest form and mostly for the sake of the book’s design. In one particularly creative page, Elsken splices the faces of Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge onto the same head to form a tenor sax and trumpet playing hybrid. The book ends with a sequence of Sarah Vaughn building to a final never-ending note. The production work on this facsimile edition was done by Steidl. The original was printed in gravure and with this edition; Steidl has accomplished a beautiful faux-gravure printing that is ever so slightly silvery-blue in tone and deeply rich. The paper choice and tack sharp grain of Elsken’s photos complete the feeling of vintage gravure printing. The texts by Jan Vrijman, Hugo Claus, Simon Carmiggelt, Friso Endt and Michiel de Ruyter along with a song list of recommended listening appear in their original Dutch. A separate thin-paged booklet of English translations sits in the endpapers. The regular edition retails for only $30.00 which I find surprising inexpensive considering the fine quality. There is a special edition of 1000 copies also available for $100.00. This special edition is a facsimile made from an original copy of Jazz from Ed Van Der Elsken’s estate where he had written the names of all of the performers in silver ink directly onto the pages. 5B4