Jessica Voeten

Erwin Olaf: When it clicks. Johannes Vermeer Award 2011

‘The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.’ Oscar Wilde

A couple crosses the street diagonally, heading towards a neat row of houses on a quiet street in Amsterdam’s Rivierenbuurt area. The man, slightly older than his companion, is walking a few steps behind her. He seems to be drinking in the environment, or maybe he that’s just his excuse for his slow pace. She’s mentally rehearsing a list of things to do. Her demeanour, her gait, suggests impatience. She is already past the double green doors when he stops and looks at the nameplate above the letterbox. She senses that he’s stopped, turns around and walks back towards him. He says something to her as he nods towards the sign. She follows his gaze and says something back, sounding surprised. In his response, he matches her tone. Then she puts her arm through his and together they walk on, now side by side, at the same pace. In the square at the end of the block they turn the corner, still arm in arm and deep in conversation.

The fleeting scene, literally a moment in transit, has intriguing undertones. As I ring the bell next to the double green doors, I imagine what images the name there had conjure up for the couple when they read it. Probably they had moved on from it almost immediately, but fragmentary pictures could have lingered for both – a colossal woman tipping a little man over her head, an Adonis with a champagne bottle, a sad beauty beside a curtain, or the jeans ad in which an old woman grabs the crotch of the sleeping man beside her. . . Then the door swings open. All the possible images of Erwin Olaf are coming within reach.

Inside the fortress

The photographer describes the studio where he and his team work as a ‘fortress. The word implies something secret, but that might also be due to the wonderful world he conjures up with his photographs, short films and installations. The wide, deep building originally belonged to the Reformed Church on the corner, which was demolished in 1989. It was used as a social club, and traces of that past were still there when Olaf left his smaller studio on the Swammerdamstraat early in 2000 and took possession of the whole ground floor here. Shirley den Hartog, Olaf’s manager for 15 years, conducts a tour of the building. Left and right, doors and hallways lead to archives and prop stores, to the darkroom, the paint corner, the locker room, the kitchen, and courtyards with even more storage. The next street is a stone’s throw away.

“Erwin was shocked at first by the deplorable state of these maze-like, follow-your-leader rooms,” she says. Cosmetic enhancements did away with his objections, the main adjustment being the removal of the low ceiling in the large, almost square space in the middle of the building. Performances were once held on a small stage in the Reformed church club – a fact that really stands out when you think what the new tenant had in store for the building.

The transition from old to new was powerfully and immediately made – the church ministers who once inhabited the building were supplanted in every way. In 2000, in quick succession, the series Fashion Victims and Royal Blood sprang into life here. Dark and light and both bold and beautiful, they comment on superficiality. The first concerns the perverse seductiveness of the fashion world. The second addresses the similar worship of celebrities and the super-rich. No vice completely escapes the attention of Olaf’s camera. He perfects them, in the case of this series quite spectacularly thanks to Photoshop finishing. That first day I immediately saw an example: the development phases of The Relief of Leiden.

Olaf himself describes Fashion Victims as ‘obscenely civilized.’ Still, there is something Calvinistic in the windows of widely and expansively stretched naked body poses, genitals fully visible, heads tucked under the paper carrier bags of fashion brands. As so often before, in a play on the senses Olaf presents a reflected image, like a freakish Everyman, to the viewer, who becomes a Peeping Tom. You register the mirror when you read the brand names. To his surprise, the photos with the bags of the more expensive brands – Chanel, Yves St Laurent and Gucci – sold well, better than those of the lesser god Hugo Boss.

Due to the international nature of the market, Olaf opts for English titles – short ones, which he spends a long time thinking up. English sounds good: ‘Blauw bloed’ would be a far more clumsy title than Royal Blood for the series depicting historical figures – from Poppea to Princess Diana – in a symbolic way which is interwoven with their death or, in the case of Royal Blood – Jackie O, that of her husband. Olaf shows her twice: at 12:29 and at 12:30, without and with the blood splashes. All the characters, men and women, are dressed in white, with ash-blonde hair, and they all wear their bloody badge of identity – a severed head, a knife in the chest – with regal detachment.

The international attention that Olaf garnered with both series, especially with Royal Blood – Di, gave him satisfaction, and also proved his status. Fans of Diana Spencer – at her death in the Paris tunnel, Princess Diana, the divorced mother of the British heir to the throne – said it was a disgrace. Visitors to an exhibition in Ireland demanded that the photo was removed. That surprised Olaf. The portrait of a look-alike! During her lifetime, no one could not get enough pictures of her: her death was the result of an acceleration of fame and adoration. It had not been his intention to photograph look-alikes. Jackie O is only identified by the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy wore on that fateful day in Dallas in 1963. And only after the long-haired model was given a short wig to become Di in the studio on the day of the shoot did the resemblance become clear. It became an evilly iconic ‘portrait’.

Anger drove Olaf in those years, and he often admits nowadays. It wasn’t a bad motivator, as long as the viciousness resulted mainly in work that he liked, but that would change after the turn of the century.

Against the norm

Erwin Olaf Springveld was born on 2 June 1959, in Hilversum. He grew up with his two brothers in Hoevelaken, in the province of Gelderland. His father was an Ahrendt agent, who fared well enough to start his own business. The Reconstruction years brought scenes of real life into the living room through the television. His first experiences of the cinema, through a local club where he went with his mother, stimulated his imagination. Being teased for his burgeoning homosexuality gave him the impression that he was somehow abnormal. Eventually it wore off, yet stayed at the back of his mind. His drive to take a stand against the norm – everything that is considered normal – was nourished through this, in his daily life and work. He developed a tough sense of humour.

“You can fool people, you can totally hoodwink them,” says the photographer during a quiet moment in the summer, when the subject of Grief comes up – the series of sad women (and one man) which astonished both fans and critics of his work in 2007. “During the shoot with the girl in the brown dress we were prepared – the frame is close, and right next to her is a man constantly blowing eucalyptus into her eyes, so the tears keep welling up.” He chuckles. “That’s just the best.” He means it seriously, as befits a satirist.

If clients are guests in the studio, Shirley den Hartog would rather Olaf isn’t there. “If people praise Erwin for Grief, saying how personal and particular it is, he is immediately tempted to dismiss the photos as sentimental nonsense! It has nothing to do with him, is what he’ll say then. It’s typical of Erwan that he likes to leap over the edge of whatever he’s working on. He’ll yell, ‘Let’s just make a porn movie!’” She says that the inspiration for Grief was Olaf’s annoyance with reality TV – his disgust with the Big Brother phenomenon and the endless flow of cheap tears constantly emanating from the television set. He wanted to show people how to approach sentiment. How the lump in the throat should be done – that was the plan for Grief. It turned out rather differently.

Olaf got to know the big city only after high school. He had wanted to go to drama school. Then it became the School of Journalism in Utrecht, because he could write well. His photography teacher Dirk van der Spek saw him struggle with texts – he was never satisfied, always trying to improve them and advised him to pick up the camera instead. He lived in lodgings – “super hip” – and worked as a waiter. It was an exciting time. The sexual freedom, rebellion, the squatters movement, “speed and freaks”, everything he’d known nothing of in Hoevelaken. It was simultaneously seductive and frightening. It’s a measure of Olaf’s work that, with all its versatility, it always contains exactly this combination – and almost always with a twist.

After graduating he moved to Amsterdam, working as a volunteer photographer for Sek, the magazine of gay foundation COC, and as an assistant to André Ruigrok who taught him the principles of documentary work. Although Olaf, camera firmly in hand, had a new life and was making new professional contacts, he was not enjoying his work. All too often, he was disturbed to note that the composition of his photographs was spoiled by people who happened into the frame and just got in the way. But such an accident helped him occasionally, when an intruder in the image made a helpful counterpoint. In one of the few early documentary photographs that he still approves, something happens. During a bodybuilding contest, he shot two men from the bottom up on stage, one white and one black. One face is beyond our view; the muscular arm of the competition screens the other. Between them, the background converges on the plump figure of a man in a bathrobe. He could not and would not ignore such a happy combination of factors. His main problem in those days was that he had no influence on the lighting.

Except for in the reception area and technical room on the street side, in the corridor and through narrow upper windows in the meeting room and the kitchen, where occasionally the ghost of a cat sneaks past, not a ray of daylight penetrates Olaf’s castle. Black curtains cover the upper windows of the studio. It’s logical for a photo and film studio, but it is also characteristic of his oeuvre to fixate exclusively on the interior, and especially the private room. Within such rooms, he throws back the screens to show the sweltering reality happening behind them. He is a master at styling sneaky, invisible moments and staging them in a theatrical way.

The sets and staged scenes from his later period also keep the outside world at bay. But even in the early years, there is never a suggestion of a light source outside, as if the scenes could not bear the light of day. It fitted his themes and subjects – his diverse, mostly naked soloists, collected as Squares, according to their size. Most spectators probably found it difficult to look at these 1988 chess pieces, such as the voluptuous woman harnessed as a horse pulling the chariot of a helmeted warrior, without seeing them as attractions from an erotic Grand Guinol. In Body Parts (1992) he presents the erogenous (and surrounding) zones as trophies.

Distorted beauty

Like some descendant of Rembrandt’s Professor Tulp, Olaf bends over the human body as though he is an anatomist. To begin with, the skin: he is fond of the shadows that make the folds. Searching for the best contrast, he explores the body entirely. Then everything just below the surface: literally speaking, the muscles, tendons, and blood vessels; figuratively speaking, the motives, desires, the sensual sensations. Olaf’s face lights up when he talks about these, or for example about the facial muscles: “They can all do something, it’s almost choreographic, you can direct them!”

From his first photographic series, Olaf has played a provocative game with the viewer. Sometimes it seems as if he has a score to settle. Pour épater le bourgeois, to dazzle the philistines, the conventional middle-class men and women: just take a look at this! This element makes his scenes uncomfortable to encounter. The maître de plaisir attracts you at first sight with the eye-catching quality of his theatrical productions and their beautiful lighting, which runs counter to the inclemency of the tableaux.

In his early years especially, Olaf published photos that provoked violent comments. These recur in all descriptions, in every language: the fat, naked women in bondage, the men with erections caparisoned as sexual warriors, the dwarfs, the patent leather, the whips. It is also difficult to speak casually of the daring of his sado-masochistic or pornographic images, even though these are in themselves a commentary on the expectations and judgments of the images themselves. And the other images were mostly skipped over – images that gave an indication of the direction that Olaf would take.

The handsome youth Alandus wears over his naked body a tight-fitting strapless gown, nailed to the ground on both sides: an androgynous flower pinned in a vase. He exudes glamour, just like that variation on Johannes Vermeer, the girl with the pearls (1986). She is the beautiful sister in the Frau Holle fairy tale, for treasures flow from of her mouth. Or is she simultaneously the evil sister? Her pinhead pupils seem painfully shiny, splashing glimmering lights like the jewellery. Who is the fairest of them all? Olaf admired this Sabine, with whom he often worked at the time, as much as Ria, the fat woman who loved SM and gladly posed for him in that context.

Twenty years later, he made the series Couture for The New York Times Magazine (2006). The perfectly sized women in their highly priced garments from Armani to Versace can never have imagined such things, even in their worst nightmares. As though made of exquisite sugar dough, their fingers, legs and heads melt into the furniture, get stuck behind the wallpaper, or dissolve into the carpet. The laughter generating distortions of Photoshop simultaneously lure and attack.

In the tableaux of the last ten years, substantially less explicit than before, perfectionism works in an increasingly swindling way. He cannot, will not, stop manipulating. No cliché is too elevated, no stereotype too low, for him to spoil.

“The body is explicitly treated as a commodity, destined to be sold. That true worship is the subject of Olaf’s conviction,” wrote Vincent J. Soimaud and Simon Wallon in 2005 in WAD magazine about Fashion Victims. The same article also discusses an earlier, related series. Olaf tells how he asked his models for the Mature series (1999) to adopt a pose they themselves liked, and “afterwards I went out the door for four hours to buy cigarettes, and when I came back, I got what I wanted.” In Mature, the last photo series he completed in the old studio, Olaf presents ten women of (far) above 60, dressed and posing as pin-ups. With their pink pom-pom mules, transparent negligees, long wavy hairstyles, daring makeup and imaginative attributes, they are the grandmothers, if you will, of the starlets brought to life by the American pin-up artist Alberto Vargas in the 1940s with his brush and airbrush. Or maybe they should be considered as the starlets themselves, still fond of their proportions and the positions of the old days – on the noses of Allied bombers. Olaf graced his Mature models with the names of famous fashion models of our time – these are modelled in turn on the ideal images with which Vargas set the tone: anonymous versions of Hollywood sex bombs such as Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.

The American public, raised on the fame of the Vargas girl, was not amused by Mature. Putting the spotlight on stereotypes about age and female sexuality may have been Olaf’s intention, opined Lyle Rexer in The New York Times (February 25, 2001), but these images only confirmed the prejudice that sex is a privilege of youth and “Passion in maturity is monstrous.” The introduction of Olaf’s works flopped. The opposite happened with the next two series, Fashion Victims and Royal Blood, in which Olaf returned to his own time. The photographer again opted for the image making of ideal beauty.

Memory maps

How many pictures are there of his youth?

On a day without too many appointments, Olaf sits at the kitchen table. He doesn’t know, not many, at most a hundred. Home was not often photographed. His mother had a Kodak camera. “Of course, there’s a baby book with my birth announcement card in it.” Out of the wall cabinet with its sliding doors Olaf takes a big plastic box. He hasn’t looked inside it for a while now. The baby book isn’t there, but there are some ordinary – now old-fashioned – scrapbooks with ring binders and rice paper between the sheets. Polaroids and normal prints are neatly pasted in and have texts: names, places, and dates. In the snapshots, mostly taken indoors in the 1980s, Olaf’s friends and acquaintances are on view, or passers-by glimpsed in the Amsterdam nightlife scenes of that time.

One of the scrapbooks was shown in 1998 at the Eindhoven Photography Festival, in the exhibition Public/Private, in which professional photographers showed their private photos kept in shoeboxes, scrapbooks or folders. They were indistinguishable from the average holiday snapshots, noted critic Eddie Marsman in surprise, including those of Olaf, “a photographer especially noted for his groomed-to-perfection, extravagantly staged portraits. So are these special photos? No. Or rather, yes, a bit. Because if you stop and think about it, it’s actually a small wonder that a professional photographer knows how to maintain his detachment to snap away without paying attention to composition, light and framing.” (NRC Handelsblad, May 27, 1998).

The snaps were not completely private, Olaf says, because inspiration was everywhere: they were sometimes sketches. He has always worked associatively: “Fast capture is something of a reminder.” The styling will come later; it’s just the idea. All is not as easy as it seems. He gives an example. Dating from 1985, Joy is the portrait of the naked boy with the champagne bottle ejaculating in front of his genitals. The picture speaks for itself, but the story behind the photograph shows how, step by step, an idea can be developed. “In the early years, I’d drag all these people I knew from the nightlife scene in front of the camera. Then I’d see things that intrigued me and which I translated to the studio. One evening I met a cloakroom boy who, I thought, could look really horny. In the studio, I let him have his way with a carrot for a while, but I soon saw that it was nothing, it was all too literal. It didn’t work. Until I was visiting a friend whose refrigerator was filled with bottles of fake champagne costing 1.99 each.” Next day, Olaf bought 20 bottles. The seed had germinated, but it took 14 bottles before the idea really clicked: the champagne just had to erupt upwards, instead of downwards.

Joy was Olaf’s breakthrough, especially in the gay world, and in one fell swoop it made short work of any attempt by photographers following him to do anything comparable Not that that stopped many of them. Like every innovator, he found a following.

The successive discoveries – the boy, the full refrigerator, and the pose – are typical of Olaf’s jumpy mind and tell how much he is open to the happy coincidence. It is no calculation that leads him to strange images, but the ability to associate randomly in front of the prepared set.

Sometimes, an idea emerges by way of a disappointment. One night in the studio, a man being photographed by Olaf decided he didn’t want not be recognized. That episode provided the impetus for Fashion Victims. As Olaf had already begun Royal Blood, its darker counterpart had to wait a little longer.

The scrapbooks had long been put away. Springveld/Olaf had seldom looked into them anymore, but recently he’s been thinking of trying to do a project on them. The idea has yet to mature, but he tends to be somewhat autobiographical. Basically, he sees everything he does as part of his biography: “My photos can be viewed as a diary.” That diary is not always pleasant to look back on. He is again confronted with this in the selection for Own, the overview book appearing on the occasion of the Johannes Vermeer Prize. “I’m looking back again at how I was,” he says.

In 1987 he told Ingrid Harms of Vrij Nederland that he wanted to shoot chess pieces. “I find it a very intriguing game, it’s a war game in essence, very violent. It’s politics, refined and surreptitious. I want to make a calculating, mean people out of it. It will be something on the edge of SM. I want to make the people very beautiful.” The idea for the picture of the chariot was already in his head.

Chessmen, a key work from 1988, was awarded the first prize in the Young European Photographer Competition. Olaf is now struggling with the violent aspect: “It dates from a time when I thought I shouldn’t care about what I think and feel. I was stupid then. It was an angry time.” This anger – which he retrospectively accounted to bullying at school, the nettles into which he was pushed – finally abandoned him by Paradise (2001), the overwhelmingly explicit series of artists in a macabre circus. In a certain sense this series was the colour counterpart of Chessmen, but without any restrictions. Still he recalls with pleasure the preparations for both productions, the search for suitable models. He told Theo van Gogh, who wrote the introduction to the book Chessmen, that the voices of his models were his main inspiration. Now he says: “In those years I was greatly influenced by Witkin. Now I have trouble with it, because I am very close to it.” The pictures of the American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin are of a cruel (gay) erotic beauty, with an emphasis on brutality. That atmosphere, with quotations, is indeed found in Olaf’s Chessmen, but nevertheless with a lighter touch.

Gaze direction

Choreograph the gaze direction too. This is one of the credos of Olaf’s teacher, and still his mentor and friend, choreographer Hans van Manen (whose name has the same cadence as David Bowie’s). Van Manen means that his dancers should not only move with their bodies, but also with their gaze: the viewer observes what they see, and this interaction adds an extra theatrical layer. Olaf met him when he was commissioned to shoot his portrait for Sek. He has never forgotten he moment he arrived at Van Manen’s. For the first time he saw the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as other photographers and artists he did not know. Van Manen, in those years an avid photographer himself, taught him about the workings of light, how you can photograph nakedness in a functional way, and the most important lesson: “Always make your own work.”

It took a long time before the focus on eye-gaze direction extended to Olaf’s work. It seldom happens in his photographs from the 1980s and ‘90s, and never in a highly determined way. The look is rather suspicious and haughty, as in Alandus, or deliberately turned away. In the series Chessmen and Blacks (1990), his characters have no way of looking, even if they wanted to, separated as they are in their exhibitionist intimacy. No gaze for them, only that of the voyeuristic spectator, which they can feel. The eyes of the chess pieces are covered, blindfolded or closed, just as with Blacks. These baroque figures, caged in their ornate frames, are reminiscent of the fruit paintings of the 16th-century Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, only executed in contrasting blacks. Their miraculous occurrence has something of the characters that John Tenniel drew for Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but X-rated. In this case, there seems only a minimal chance that they will awake from a bad dream.

At a certain point, Hans van Manen put his camera away. Having two loves swallowed too much of his time. He had said enough in his photographic work and still had much more to say in dance. Olaf has clearly learned much from the way the choreographer treats his models – the dancers – in his working process. He gives them the space to summon something out of themselves – something they hadn’t thought possible – and then makes the right choice. It should look easy, according to another of Van Manen’s credos, in order to get the message of the aesthetics across. The viewer should never think, “Gosh, that’s smart!”

Since that first portrait, Olaf has photographed Van Manen every few years. In 2008, the silhouette of the photographer appears in the pupils of the choreographer. The effect is subject to many interpretations. We see what the sitter is looking at: a man behind a camera. Should we consider this as part of the moment, the life of the subject? Does the photographer not want to be left out, or is it a tribute to the choreography of the gaze? A look at Olaf’s earlier work shows that the effect was first used in 2001, for the portraits of Paradise.

On a rare summery afternoon, the green door of the studio in the Riverenbuurt is open. The late sun casts a beam inside. Olaf pops out. He looks as though he’s thinking about something. He’s writing a text, it must be finished soon, and he returns apologetically, to the desk next to which his electric bicycle is parked. The bike increases his range: his pulmonary emphysema, a genetic disorder, hampers him in a headwind.

Feriet Tunc, Olaf’s part-time logistics manager and a photographer himself, is happy to explain. He says that the powerful light umbrella that reflects everything causes the effect, and so gives rise to the reflections in the pupils. Once Olaf hears this, he allows himself to be distracted. “It happened by accident,” he says. “I only saw it afterwards.” In fact, the Paradise portraits weren’t what he intended at all. “After we had done the staged shoot for Paradise, Shirley felt that I had to produce the portraits. The makeup was so special, it would have been a waste not to do something else with it.”

Questioning his manager results in a slightly different version.

“It was indeed all about the beautiful make-up on all the models, but it was Conny [Conny Janssen, Erwin Olaf’s producer] who suggested it. Before that, I’d pressed him to make portraits. I think there is always something new to be conquered.”

Coincidence or not, Paradise proved a turning point in several respects. Over time, something would change the look of Olaf’s characters. Or his way of looking at them – and also at himself. Self-portraits “can be cleansing, even therapeutic.” The triptych I Wish – I Am – I Will Be from 2009 is unmerciful. The idealised self-image is juxtaposed to the reality and to a nightmare future vision of his progressive illness: the third picture shows him with an oxygen tube.

The attack on the USA on September 11, 2001, now ten years ago, got him thinking about the violent component of his work, which he had celebrated earlier that year to the point of absurdity in Paradise, the circus of unbridled lust. “After my 40th birthday, the aggression waned and I realized I have the honest ability to tell a good story.” Olaf extinguished his aggression by throwing oil onto the fire – “Not with a bang, but a whimper” – or so it seems looking at the Paradise tableaux. These images, packing such a heavy, premeditated punch, seem to leave something to be desired with their spit and image-spawning and chilling technical perfection. Olaf himself calls them “the epitome of the cliché. All my rage is compressed in them, with all the trimmings. I seem to be saying, ‘Look how good I am!’ The models, the colours, the lighting, the staging and the crazy finishing. I wanted to make a literal report of a party in the Paradiso and so we completely reconstructed the old basement. With everything that I put into it and got out of it, this series was an end of an era. I didn’t know that at the time though.”

Styles and stealing

Olaf has an urge to do violence to reality in a special way, to dress it up. “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.” That’s one of the sophisticated conclusions Oscar Wilde drew in his essay The Truth of Masks – A Note on Illusion. He wrote it in 1891, the same year as his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the main character is able to maintain eternal youth after he has a youthful portrait painted. This, concealed in a secret room, gets ever older, while Dorian Gray remains forever young. In his essay, Wilde refers to a controversy that arose at that time about costuming Shakespeare’s plays. He is annoyed by the claim that Shakespeare wouldn’t have dealt with clothes, and claims the contrary with a plethora of examples from the plays themselves. Attentive to the finest detail – the pattern of a handkerchief, the sleeve of a uniform – Shakespeare provides insight into his characters. No one was more brilliant in allowing such trappings to speak for themselves.

A portfolio is not a play, and Olaf is no Shakespeare. He puts his ideas about reality onto photographic paper through the medium of theatrical translation. Supported by contributions from his small group of trusted creatives and his production team, he crafts the sort of illusion that Wilde describes here: “Costume is a means of displaying character without description, and of producing dramatic situations and dramatic effects.” The right costume brings a character to life.

This applies to both his personal and commercial work. With his commissioned work – features for magazines, ads – he funds his personal films and portfolios. In doing both, he remains equally independent from the advertising industry and the art world. He likes that. He does the (well-paid) honours for Microsoft, Diesel, Heineken, and global companies in cosmetics, fashion, computers, design and the applied arts, even the humble food industry. They are treated to an amalgam of styles and sources, often referencing the visual arts, high and low: Magritte with a rain of cats and dogs for a mobile telephone company; 17th-century still lifes or party glitter, trompe l’oeuil and camp, Andy Warhol and Vermeer. The campaign for Diesel Jeans (1998) was awarded the Silver Lion at Cannes. In the most famous image, an old woman grabs her sleeping partner in the crotch, a quote from the famous duet Sarcasm by Hans van Manen (1981). That too is a lesson from the choreographer: ‘steal’ and make your own.

The commercial contracts often lead him to ideas, and vice versa. Even in the slickest advertising billboards or fashion photos there is always an imprint of his ferocious signature. This element also occurs in the short films and photos for charities, which are often playful and sometimes even tender hearted. A fight ends with a kiss, as in the short film decrying violence against gay people, but the blood has already been lavishly spilt.

Olaf’s sense of theatre is his trademark. His clients demand it. The viewer cannot avoid it, however much he or she may dislike the image. “I’m going to say something you will remember for the rest of your life,” said the curator of photography at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles when she looked at his work. “A series like Royal Blood, you know what we call it? Eurotrash.” Olaf was stunned. Art and commerce isn’t an obvious combination for everyone. Silver, his large retrospective exhibition in Groningen in 2003 was mostly well received, but Janneke Wesseling was critical in the NRC Handelsblad: “It is fashionable to claim that there is no difference between fine art and applied art. A misunderstanding, for the simple reason that an autonomous work of art is not made with a practical purpose. Art has a different rationale than practicality. The artwork is disinterested. It doesn’t have to please.”

That shook Olaf awake. “It was a mean piece, but I learned that I should just do what I want,” he says. “Until then, I’d still been wanting to please too much.”

If he hesitates about his work, Olaf goes for advice to Hans van Manen, as he did during this particular phase: “I’m a ping pong ball, I said to Hans, what should I do? Hans replied, “You can choose the direction you bounce in.” Then I made Separation, the transition point to Rain, Hope and Grief.”

Rubber doll

In the numerous interviews with him published over the years, his childhood is occasionally discussed. How his mother urged him to go out rollerskating with the other children, and that he stood forsaken and sad on the square staring at the window while his fingers plucked the leaves from a holly bush – an archetypal artist’s reminiscence of inevitable loneliness, but what child has never experienced it? For the artist, it becomes a later source of inspiration: the holly is Olaf’s madeleine. The sensation of the rubbery leaves is revisited years later, with Olaf’s short-lived SM experiences, through the medium of latex suits. It was not something he enjoyed, but the touch sensation gave him an idea. After the culmination of Paradise (2001), he made Separation (2003), a science fiction-like story in nine scenes. The characters, a mother and child, wear – or are concealed in – black latex suits: a second, impenetrable skin, removing every tactile possibility. The child has large questioning eyes, but an SM mask hides the mother’s face. In the four-minute movie of the same name, a father figure is added. The constriction of the trapped, lonely life remains, bolstered by the bleak flowery wallpaper and the cheerful colour accents of moving toys. Gloomy, but with a hilarious detail: the old-fashioned pot on the table containing – you know without seeing them – the floury potatoes.

What began as an exciting experiment surprised him with its results when he saw the finished product. Not that the Springvelds’ family life was bad, but he seems to have expressed his loneliness with Separation. He says, while his fingers move, “The rubber doll that you could bend so it could express emotion was a revelation.” He had opened the way to the next series, which gradually allowed the outside world in.

In response to September 11, Olaf felt the need to seize on something innocent. He came up with the hyper-bourgeois, safe world of Norman Rockwell. The sets of Rain (2004) are clearly recognizable: an ice cream parlour, a barbershop, a ballroom class and other interiors that fit the American Dream cliché generated by the post-war years. But the stiff, almost petrified characters in the uncomfortable light make the atmosphere of the scenes into a confession of the oppression he felt. Edward Hopper wins out over Norman Rockwell, to use another cliché. “We are in a time between action and reaction. We do not matter. We are overwhelmed, we are stupefied,” Olaf told Jan Tromp (in De Volkskrant) in presenting the series Rain and Hope in New York in early 2006. Hope (2005) embroiders on this theme. The scenes are warmer in tone, the characters are lost in thoughts that may be comforting, but almost certainly are not. The Classroom hangs at the conference table, between reception and studio, close to the cabinets with their archives. Is the girl pregnant? Is the teacher concerned about her, or does he desire her? It has everything to do with the passage of time.

In this series, a fragment of the outside world creeps in. There are rain-drenched windows, hinting at the possibility of deserted, dark streets, in Rain. Hope has something more: a house opposite, a fire escape, suggesting – perhaps – other lives.

For Grief (2007), Olaf prepared by studying images of the Kennedys’ Camelot fairytale. The light of the photographs from that time was a revelation. For the first colour images in the early 1960s, people posed in front of the windows so there would be enough light without using a flash. And so Olaf was forced to allow daylight to penetrate the curtains of the ‘grass widows’.


Everything is possible in the studio. The documentary photographer must be lucky enough to encounter what his picture needs. For Olaf, who prepares everything to perfection, the wait is also present. “I can outline the project idea in my head, even what the pitfalls are,” he says. “The rehearsal still doesn’t do it. When the performance begins on the set, then something has to happen. It’s then I think: ‘Oh, what should that girl do?’”

His favourite models have the ability to prepare their bodies for that crucial moment, in the way that (ballet) dancers on stage can release everything they have rehearsed. “Like all the muscles suddenly realize exactly what it’s all about. Before she went on the set for Grief, I briefed Romy De Vries to at as though she’d had a phone call with a terrible message. And suddenly she curled her toes inward. You cannot direct that, it’s a golden moment.”

The contrast between the ideal, perfectly sculpted women and their restrained grief is confusing. It’s a costume drama, similar to the American television series Mad Men, which started in the same year. Yet there is a difference. Mad Men characters are acting out being in the 1960s. Grief is a perfectly simulated memory.

Through the Grief and Rain series, he was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine to portray a series of newly married gay couples in 2008. Their cheerful, rather camp appearance provoked requests from Dutch celebrities who wanted their families to be portrayed in this vein – TV personality Paul de Leeuw and producer Reinout Oerlemans among them. As in the 17th century, it became fashionable to ask a famous artist for a conversation piece to hang over the (modernist) chimney – irony included.

Olaf is awarded the Johannes Vermeer prize for a lifetime of achievement. The photographs are closely linked to his other work: the videos, short films and installations. For Grief he also made a short film with a similar theme. Preceding this, he made the short film Le dernier cri (2006). The camera creeps through a time-bound ultra-modern interior reminiscent of Mon oncle and Playtime by Jacques Tati, but this is a thriller and further worked out, because the two women seem mundane monsters – the consequence of eternal-youth mania. He likes to quote. Rain has something of Bergman. Rouge plunges into the pig’s blood from Brian De Palma’s Carrie. La tristesse de riche (a wonderfully costumed comedy beside which the English Austen film versions look faded) is “un petit hommage à Luchino Visconti”. The love choreography Couple in House for the anniversary of Introdans (2011) recalls the key scene from Le souffle au coeur (Louis Malle, 1971), which Olaf saw as a teenager with his mother at the film club in Hoevelaken.

In 2010 came the diptych Dusk & Dawn, a lament. The staging and monochrome white and black were used and reused for a photo shoot and a movie. The pictures are intrusive bleak, worn by the hauntingly beautiful surroundings. The two films simultaneously progress in split view, building a tension from nothing but the anticipation of the viewer. A second viewing of the film is as exciting as the first. So the punchline in the final sequence can be revealed. Neither the white nor the black baby boy has a face. A boy’s voice says, “Mum, tell me, can I exist without content?” It is Olaf’s response to the criticism that he offers only form and no content.

The combination of black and white seems obvious. He often has them at hand. Now he draws on two very different sources of inspiration. Travel to destinations where he has commissions and exhibitions may be debilitating, but it offers fruitful chance encounters. With the opening of an exhibition in America, Olaf realised just how white (blank) his work is. The curator of the Museum of New York gave him access to a photo album from the turn of the last century by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), a fascinating, intellectually grounded and widely travelled photo-journalist. Her wealthy background meant she could afford to pursue her interests, and her long life produced an oeuvre of great historical significance in America. Her documentary photographs show ordinary people and capture different personalities, among them the writer Mark Twain and the black educator Booker T. Washington.

In the album, Olaf saw Johnston’s series of black students at the University of Hampton, Virginia. They look well taken care of: single girls in high-necked long dresses, the boys with their high collars, frizzy hair tightly restrained. For Olaf, it was a revelation. “I could steal a little of myself, after 20 years,” he said, referring to Blacks in 1990. He shot the series of pictures for Dusk and, when he had enough money (the set was long saved up for), the short film. Not long afterwards, in the breakfast room of a swanky hotel in Moscow he saw a striking scene. A blonde woman and her blonde child, dressed in white, were almost lost in the bright white environment. Hampton and Moscow were not that far apart; the theme was universal. He photographed and filmed Dawn, in which he minutely followed the scenario of Dusk to create a two-part work of just five minutes. His stay in Moscow in 2010 also resulted in the hotel-rooms series Hotel, where the gaze of paid women frustrates any illusion about warmth between people.

Tableaux vivants

Olaf’s work, from portraits to installations, is in the collections of individuals, businesses and museums all over the world. It also occupies public space: in Groningen there’s a 1996 urinal (for men and women), designed by Rem Koolhaas and decorated by Olaf’s fighting-dancing figures. Dancers are Olaf’s ideal models, because they’re accustomed to speaking with their bodies. He has regularly worked for dance companies: Introdans has been a regular client, the Nederlands Dans Theater less so. In 2009, dancers from the Hague company posed for him at their most vulnerable moment: after a rehearsal. The beauty of their fatigue is – Olaf remains true to himself – attractive. The National Ballet gives him regular assignments, such as the recent season photo as well as a series of campaign images for the upcoming productions of 2011-2012. In his Squares years, he portrayed a dancer, leaning forward in her tutu, as a forbidden fruit by Edgar Degas. Around the same time, there was a fuss about his picture for the perfomance Zuiden (1990), by Het Zuidelijk Toneel: a male torso with severed legs and almost completely visible member. The poster was removed under pressure from outside. With his poster for the company of Ivo van Hove the following year, Olaf tacitly commented on this: a woman sits on a swing with a sealed mouth and eyes covered.

He got the chance to work with actors in a big commission from the new De La Mar Theatre on Amsterdam’s Marnixstraat, founded by Joop and Janine Van den Ende. In 2010, five photographers were invited specifically to create a collection for the corridors and foyers. They got keywords: glamour for Viviane Sassen, public for Hans Eijkelboom, talent for Cuny Janssen, actors for Koos Breukel and stage for Erwin Olaf. Olaf’s contract specified the making of a series featuring “a cross section of the actors in the Dutch theatre world performing in scenes from important plays.”

In eight tableaux Olaf unites the different pieces (from Chekhov to Albee) by setting each scene in a location reminiscent of the old De La Mar theatre – the green room, the lobby, the box office, and so on. Olaf added an extra dimension: signs of additional characters, or rather people, in the shape of the ticket seller and house manager, the cloakroom lady, the dresser, and others without whom there would be no performance. The sets were so big that they had to be diverted to another studio. The complicated production lasted more than eight days. Given the detail and abundance of jokes and tricks, the finishing must have taken several weeks, or even months.

In the introduction to the book, Marcel Feil, curator of Foam, described Olaf’s “complex performances” as fiction. He compared them to movie scenes, and he termed the tableaux – with a probable sigh – as a type of staged photography “which is possibly more plausible than a painting.” Olaf’s style is not to everyone’s taste. If Feil had looked longer, he might have perhaps noticed what Olaf was aiming at. The scenes breathe something old and familiar. They possess the melancholy mood of James Avati. In the 1940s and ‘50s, his sensual paintings won the same classic status for American paperbacks as Alberto Vargas did for pin-ups.

Up until now, Olaf’s largest production – not only in terms of the number of characters, but also technically – is the monumental historical piece, The Relief of Leiden in St Peter’s Church in Leiden, that was commissioned by the University of Leiden and the Lakenhal Museum, as a successor of Matthew Bree’s eponymous 1817 work: “Thirty-six men, I was never so challenged.” The central image is so large (276 x 365 cm) that the file had to be printed using a special press in Germany, and even then there is still a seam. There are additional figure studies and still lifes. Olaf gets his original sketch out and places it beside a copy of the just completed tableau: “It’s not far away.” Speaking about the working process of a commission, specifically this one, he says, “First I’m excited. The plan sounds good and I get total freedom. After that I dislike the client, because then there are various requirements. The thumbscrews are tightened. For Leiden, suddenly all these additional people had to be represented, Mayor Van der Werff and a Minerva figure. I realized that the painters of the 17th century also had to do this. Then comes the third phase, which is very traditional: conscientiously let the technique perform optimally, because the world must see it. That’s the meaty part. Then I think of Leibovitch and Avedon. I need to be able to stand on their shoulders. Finally, I am glad I did it.”

Out and Own

The sum of the Johannes Vermeer Prize – 100,000 euros – is intended especially for “the creation of a special project.” Olaf mentions the word landscapes. Outside? Yes, outside. He doesn’t know more than that yet, although it seems a revolution in his oeuvre. One of his very few forays in this area was his 1991 series for the architect and designer Borek Sípek. The village in Slovakia, with frames like trompe l’oeuils, is so cinematic that it seems a backdrop. The residents, in their very best, have the appearance of characters and are posing as if nothing is unusual about the lush glassware and furniture in and around their shabby environment.

Olaf has wanted for some time to go back to his roots: work on a small scale, with one light, in the dark room again, doing little technical tricks. Everyone in the studio knows, but for now work goes on as normal. The organisation of photo shoots in the studio and outdoors, developing plans for assignments and personal work, and one of the most important tasks: completing the big overview book. Own must replace the previous books. Because so much more work has been added, and also because the errors and inaccuracies in previous books make them eyesores. Certainly the order of the selection is not chronological. The stage in the studio is strewn with (colour) copies of his entire oeuvre. The shortest route to the kitchen is blocked by it, so everyone has to walk in an arc around the mosaic. But the eyes can wade through it without embarrassment. It’s the puzzle of Olaf’s passion for the unusual – with here and there a stately portrait of Princess Máxima for example, commissioned by the Algemeen Dagblad (2010), or A Journey to Excellence (2010), a portrait series of seven prominent Dutch people, including Johan Cruyff, Joop van den Ende, Janine Jansen and Hans van Manen, commissioned by fashion brand Louis Vuitton. The series was donated to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

For both fashion and advertising assignments, and also for specials in magazines, Olaf is happy playing with the art of the past. Sometimes in a major way, with the dull, bare gray walls and the northern light from a window from a Vermeer. He fits into the Dutch tradition by finding new forms for it. The hyperactive characters from the early years have gradually given way to a more subdued cast. Are his portraits of fat women, virile men or royal victims any different from the vanitas paintings of the past? Death lurks. Their rigged, scanty or bloody clothing is no armour against transience, as the 17th-century raspberries and peaches of Adriaen Coorte (one of Olaf’s loves) still warn. Olaf never gets enough of people, but gradually he is taking the still life genre seriously, in commercials, features for magazines and in his own work. Under the title No One Cooks Here Anymore, The New York Times Magazine published Olaf’s vanitas series in May 2009. Today’s wasteful man or woman has no patience for allegories, so the photographer shows the passage of time instead. In a costly stainless steel hi-tech kitchen, cobwebs and dust witness that no one has ever set foot, and decaying, mouldy, spoiled food has a mortal beauty. At first, Olaf needed people for excessive scenes. Now he’s content (occasionally) with merely a fly on a lump of rancid butter. In his personal work, the still lifes become increasingly meagre, reduced to a single branch in a vase, as in Fall (2010). In that series, Olaf establishes the ultimate consequence of the human gaze: that blinking moment, just before closing the eyes.

At the very end – the deadline is in sight – there is a shoot for a poster. Met alle respect (With all due respect) is the name of Theo Maassen’s new theatre programme. During lunch at the kitchen table in the middle of summer, the commission has been discussed. As he smears peanut butter on bread, Olaf spouts additional ideas for the set. It’s about ‘cousins’ and ‘doubles’. On the Monday of the shoot, his intent becomes clear. In the studio a small set stands next to the podium. Four models with different physical characteristics take turns posing for Olaf. Their faces will be mixed with that of Theo Maassen. “What will you use?” asks Maassen. Olaf’s permanent makeup artist Annemiek Bohnenn has meanwhile adorned him with a flaxen beard and closely cropped hair. “I think those twinkling eyes are beautiful.” They huddle together over the newly created pictures of the model on the screen and discuss the most suitable poses for Maassen. Olaf apologizes to the model. He should just stand still. Olaf points to the screen. “The skin of the forehead is beautiful. But the border around the eyes might even be used, I don’t know how far we can go.” Photoshop will show which clips of facial expressions can be fitted. It is re-shot, because the light on the left of the model is not to Olaf’s liking. The first assistant moves the octodome, the light umbrella, two inches. Olaf directs further: “Smile. Too much, just a kind thought.” It’s precision work. “The Aryan has arrived,” says Conny Janssen. The shoot is a little behind schedule. A blonde boy walks into the studio. After lunch he will be modelled on the picture of the Norwegian gunman Breivik that hangs in the makeup room. Olaf points to the screen: “Look, it’s about the inner kindness.” Maassen nods. “It is very simple,” says the photographer. His facial muscles say something else.

On leaving the fortress, there’s no one in the quiet street. It is difficult to bring the couple from before to mind. He wore glasses? Wasn’t her hair dyed a dark shade, which gave her face a hard look? They seemed ordinary. But that detail, the craving that just flashed up in them – perhaps you could do something with that.

English translation: Jane Szita, Amsterdam

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