Ed van der Elsken was born on March 10, 1925 in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In 1937, wanting to become a sculptor, he learned stone-cutting at Amsterdam's Van Tetterode Steenhouwerij. After completing preliminary studies at the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs, the predecessor of the Rietveld Academy (dir. Mart Stam), he enrolled (in 1944) in the professional sculpture program, which he abandoned to escape Nazi forced labour. That year, after the Battle of Arnhem he was stationed in a mine-disposal unit where he was first shown Picture Post by British soldiers. Later, in 1947, he discovered American sensationalist photographer Weegee's Naked City. These encounters inspired his interest in photography and that year he took work in photo sales and attempted a correspondence course with the Fotovakschool in Den Haag, failing the final examination. He subsequently gained membership of the GKf (photographer's section of the Dutch federation of practitioners of the applied arts).
At the suggestion of Dutch photographer Emmy Andriesse (1914–1953), he moved in 1950 to Paris. He was employed in the darkrooms of the Magnum photography agency, printing for Henri Cartier-Bresson (who was impressed with his street photography), Robert Capa and Ernst Haas. There he met (and in 1954 married) fellow photographer Ata Kandó (b. 1913 Budapest, Hungary), twelve years his senior, living with her three children among the 'ruffians' and bohemians of Paris from 1950 to 1954.
Ata was a principled documentarian whose pictures taken in the forests of the Amazon among the Piraoa and Yekuana tribes are her best known, but her more poetic leanings, exemplified in her Droom in het Woud (Dream in the Wood, photographed 1954 in Switzerland and Austria, published 1957) must also have been an influence on Van der Elsken and his decision to move from newspaper reportage to aim to become a magazine photojournalist. Consequently, much of his work documented his own energetic and eccentric life experience subjectively, presaging the work of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin or Wolfgang Tillmans. Thus his adopted family and their lives became the subjects of his photographs along with the people he met, during this Paris period, including Edward Steichen who used eighteen of the photographer's Saint-Germain-des-Prés images in a survey show (1953) Postwar European Photography and another in "The Family of Man", and also probably met Robert Frank (who found and introduced European photographers to Steichen.
Another encounter was with Vali Myers (1930–2003) who became the haunting kohl-eyed heroine of his roman à clef photo-novel Een liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1956; its English-language version was titled Love on the left bank).