Sweet Life

Sweet Life [by] Ed van der Elsken.
New York, H.N. Abrams 1966.
R TR790.E48 1966

Anyone who has experienced the library and classes at the ICP school knows which classic photobooks are frequently checked out for study: Avedon, Penn, Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and William klein, etc.  These photographers and their books are with good reason the more popular choices when comes to studying the masterpieces of modern photography and photobook making. Although as well as these obvious classics there are many other lesser known (and lesser used) classics here in the library: Kenneth Josephson, Harry Callhan, Saul Leiter, Ray Metzker, Lillian Bassman, and many many more. We do have some 20,000 photobooks in the ICP library and there are numerous lesser known [and lesser used] classics lurking on our shelves. There are even some relatively unknown items waiting for your perusal and discovery within our open stacks.

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The lesser known classic that I stumbled upon this week was the truly brilliant book from Ed Van Der Elsken – Sweet Life – it is book that is a sheer delight and a positive inspiration – well worth an examination (reexamination) by any photo student, enthusiast or expert.

It is a stream-of-consciousness visual diary photobook depicting a fourteenth month on the road experience travelling in West Africa, Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico and the USA (1960-61). Ed van der Elsken named the book after a steamer in the Philippines and describes his quest thus:

‘I didn’t understand one damn thing about it, except that it’s enough to keep me in a delirium of delight, surprise, enthusiasm, despair, enough to keep me roaming, stumbling, faltering, cursing, adoring, hating the destruction, the violence in myself and others.’

This true classic with 153 b&w gravure images featuring dynamic layout effects such as double-page bleeds, crops, and the running of images together. As well as producing the photography Ed van der Elsken was also responsible for the text and design.  Located in the Rare book area at the ICP library this book is complete with the original dust jacket although it has a broken spine (which was not an uncommon injury for this title as it was not originally bound that well).

About matthew carson

Librarian & Archivist at the International Center of Photography
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