Love on the Left Bank by Ed van der Elsken

It’s a brave book – especially one straight out of the style manual for reportage – that straight out tells you that narrative you are about to read is “entirely fictional and not related to any living person”. Welcome to Love on the Left Bank. It’s an unsettling, beautiful, pretentious and altogether wonderful journey into a bohemian world long gone, if it ever existed at all.

In the 1950s Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken settled in Paris. Settled may be the wrong word. Moved and became invigorated. His record of the community he fell into, in a Boho chic quartier, was published in 1954. It tells of the infatuation of the Mexican Manuel for the unobtainable Ann who “dances like a negress”. It’s just as well that the reputation of photography books does not stand or fall by the political correctness of the language that accompanies the images.

Ann is not real. Well, not in the sense that she is a person called Ann. She is Vali Myers, an Australian who later became muse for Patti Smith and who spent her life dedicated to art – indeed became a recognised artist herself. She is the ideal and idealised beatnik. Beautiful, free and prone to brooding reflection whilst drinking coffee. Other characters may or may not be real and if they are the text may or may not (probably not) be factually correct. Either way, I’m partial to Jean Michel whose pregnant lover bit off his ear when he walked out. He is photographed with bandage and a not particularly mournful expression.

Paris looks beautiful. Images are flung out – a page opened at random could yield on full page portrait or a dozen almost contact prints. The people are just exotic enough and all young, idealistic, full of life and earnest about their need for art and experience. The only old people allowed are kooks, like the man in the old Japanese hat. This could all be unbearable – the kind of thing that forty years later Common People would lance so effectively. But it isn’t. This monochrome world, a decade before the true break out of a formalised youth culture, is enticing.

After this, van der Elsken moved back to the Netherlands and worked primarily in colour. Vali Myers plunged into art. And “Ann”? Well, Ann stayed on the left bank falling in and out of love, in and out of bed. She and her friends. They stayed locked in a black and white world, stirring coffee, cadging cigarettes and waiting. Always waiting. Literal truth or not, Love on the Left Bank captures the restlessness of being young. It’s universal and magnificent.

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