There is a book called The Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, French novelist and the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, which chronicles lives and anxieties of Parisians in the 1950s. At the center of the book is enigmatic and waiflike figure of Louki who passes through this dimly-lit world of writers, criminals, bon vivants, and drifters, without others fully understanding her.
Modiano was inspired by the photographs of Ed van der Elsken, whose camera followed an equally elusive and ephemeral girl named Ann through the bohemian left bank of Paris in the early 1950s. This work, published in 1954, under the title Love on the Left Bank was one of the first photographic works to record the birth of rebellious youth culture in Europe. Ann was fictional (van der Elsken used an Australian artist named Vali Myers as his model), but the world she occupied was real enough — the circle around notorious and charismatic Guy Debord, a group known as Situationist International, whose interests were mainly focused on avant-garde art, urban planning, cinema, and Marxist theory, and whose ideas were later recycled into punk and cyberpunk movements.
van der Elsken’s photos were a window into the world of anxiety and uncertainty. Due to war and influx of foreign refuge writers, “for the last time—Paris was the capital of Europe,” as historian Tony Judt put it, but France had gone through a humiliating occupation by the Nazis and was fighting attritionary colonial wars in Africa and Indochina. In 1944, a French policy paper grimly observed, “If France should have to submit to a third assault during the next generation, it will succumb forever.” For young people in van der Elsken’s photos, like Jean Michel Mension (seen in the photos teaching a girl to how to smoke hashish property and later to become famous during the 1968 student uprising), this Paris was stifling, full of ennui, and unbearable.