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Book Review: Love on the Left Bank by Ed van der Elsken

Publishers have responded to the demand for collectible photobooks in a variety of ways. Errata Editions reissues highly valued titles, like Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring (reviewed here last week), but resizes them to fit a uniform template. Not that I don’t want the whole collection. The reissue efforts of Dewi Lewis Publishing may not have the depths of the growing Errata catalog (up to a dozen and counting in the Books on Books series), but they have created magnificent facsimiles of a number of classic photo books, from William Klein’s New York (its reissue now out-of-print and collectible) to Martin Parr’s The Last Resort (reviewed here last month), to this week’s title.


Dutch photographer Edward van Elsken published over 20 photobooks in his lifetime. His 1956 classic Love on the Left Bank is a fine example of the photobook as visual literature, for in spirit and texture it comes off as a marriage between Kerouac’s On the Road and Robert Frank’s The Americans (separate if related works — advantage, Frank).

This fictionalized book-length photo essay follows the ill-fated love affair of a Mexican hitchhiker with a woman of Paris named Ann against the backdrop of a Left Bank that was then one of the great epicenters of art and culture. High-contrast, grainy black and white film captures the excitement and energy of youth and the city, and the varied page layouts keep the narrative moving. Spreads of jagged smaller panels feature plenty of white space, and Parisian shop-fronts that look as if they were made by an Atget who didn’t have time to stop and dream. These alternate with full-bleed two-page closeups of lovers and other strangers. The images are at once historical and timeless, though some of the Gill Sans-laid text has dated, with exchanges like, “You dance like an African negress” answered by “I’d like to have a child by a negro.”

“Ann” was actually Australian-born dancer/artist Vali Myers, who moved to Paris in 1949 and lived at New York’s infamous Chelsea hotel for a while — a few of her paintings in fact still adorn the hotel’s storied walls. Myers’ drawings are featured throughout the book as well. If Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris transports you to the Paris of the twenties, then the gritty photos and rhythmic page layouts of Love on the Left Bank will transport you to 1956.

About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.