Erwin Olaf a is a veteran of the editorial and commercial world, having collaborated with brands as diverse as Bottega Venetta and Microsoft. His worldwide campaigns for Diesel Jeans and Heineken won him the coveted Silver Lion at the Cannes Lions Festival for Advertising, and in 2010 Louis Vuitton commissioned Olaf for a portrait series in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Olaf’s art captures the unspoken and the overlooked, which typically resist easy documentation. His work inherently addresses social issues, taboos, and bourgeois conventions in a highly stylized and cunning mode of image making.
Olaf’s often controversial images have been shown at world-renowned institutions including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Bilbao Art Centre, Bilbao, Spain; Modern Art Gallery of Bologna, Bologna, Italy; and the Museum of Modern Art.
His recent work includes an eponymously titled book for Aperture that takes a noir and muted spin on classic mid-century Americana, as well as the design of the 2014 Dutch Euro coin currently in circulation. We caught up with Olaf to discuss identity, future forays into film, and his current show, “Waiting” on view at Hasted Karaeutler Gallery until February 28th.
Why do you make the work that you make?
The second question is the easier one to answer. I make the work because I am compelled to. I do it as a means of expressing myself. I do, however, like as many people as possible to see my work.
I don’t really know why I make the work that I make, specifically. It is a way to deal with my own emotions and feelings sometimes. Other times, the work is a translation of what is going on right now in society, stuff that touches me or makes me angry, or things that I am going through. My personal work is like a journal.
You’ve talked before about your interest in masks and the role they play in identity. Do you think this extends beyond photography, into the ‘real world’?
Not for myself – I am truly very happy with my own self right now (I would love to be fitter, not ill, etc.) but all in all, I am very comfortable in my skin, so there is no need for role play. I do enjoy diversity – I especially like the more colorful fruits, and the ones that are less common.
How do you create complex narratives within single images?
I am looking more inwards these days for my narratives, and as I grow older there is more to tell. Also the issues that I am concerned with are more complex than when I was younger, and this is reflected my work.
Your work carry a deep emotional weight for the viewer. As their creator, do your images have the same impact on you?
Some of them do, but the weight is a different one from that of the viewer. I sometimes have a strong connection with my subject, be it a regular person or a model, and this connection results in a moving photograph. The viewers can see something completely different in the image, they recognize the strong result, but are moved by something unique.
The style of your work has been compared to that of many groundbreaking artists. How do you use inspiration from the past and create something unique?
I have been influenced by filmmakers and photographers from the seventies and eighties (from my youth and early adulthood- artists like Visconti, Fassbender, Helmut Newton etc). I grew up in a creative surrounding in Amsterdam in the early eighties, and that scene and my curiosity from early on have shaped me into the artist that I am now. I’ve always got my antenna up, and get inspired by everything, even if the inspiration isn’t directly translated in my work.
How has your foray into film impacted your photography and how has your deep knowledge of photography supported your work in film?
I am a studio photographer mostly, highly stylized as the say, so to work in film was an adjustment for me. I had to accept that moving image is less controllable than still image, and also that there is a different contact with actors as opposed to models. Basically everything is different on the outside, but the content, the inside character of the work is the same, the heart of the work is still Erwin Olaf.
Tell us about your current show “Waiting.”
The show gives a great overview of my years at Hasted Kraeutler, and also showcases some of the pieces that haven’t been exhibited before. The number of pieces is also dictated by the space, but I feel that they give an appropriate feel of my work. I am so happy that my installation “Waiting” is exhibited at the gallery – installations are a new format for me, and it is a challenge to translate my intention into a 3D piece of work.
Is there a story behind the title?
The installation is a study of the gestures of waiting. Nowadays, no one is really waiting anymore. Everyone has a smartphone with which they can kill time, so I was really interested in what happens when people have to wait again, without any device at hand. The collapse of posture, the inconvenience, it’s a state that is being seen less and less.
Do you have any creative muses?
Mostly my models, all the people who give spice to life, the salts of the earth, but to be honest, I don’t really have muses. I get inspired by the people I work with, but there is no long term inspiration…maybe my partner?
What else, if anything, do you want to tell us?
Go see my show! Also, I am going to shoot my first long feature film, an adaptation of a book by Arthur Japin. I am very excited about that.