His unique light, the colors and aesthetics in his work, they all add up to the portrait of a unique artist-photographer.
Erwin Olaf “narrates” stories for viewers who read a picture beyond the obvious, sometimes with substantial messages and some other times with self-criticism. The nude acquires meaning, messages are conveyed, communication with the observer is achieved.
The Dutch artist is timeless and narrative, with stories that achieve perfection, even in the smallest detail.
You have studied journalism but finally you followed the art of photography. What was it that fascinated you in the world of images? Do you remember the first image you’ve captured?
I don’t remember the first image that I captured, but the first few that I did in the school of Journalism I do remember. I just felt very at ease with this medium as a way to express myself, and the love was mutual. With photography I seemed to be working very well.
Was there any particular person who motivated you to follow the art of photography? What advice did you get at the beginning of your career, if any, and from whom?
One of the teachers at the school of Journalism advised me to continue with photography. He noticed that I was more passionate and better suited for photography than for journalism. Afterwards, Hans van Manen (fames Dutch choreographer) helped me out a bit, he gave me lots of good advice and motivation.
You capture people with distinctive characteristics rather than models. How do you proceed to the final choice?
I love people with character, whether they are models, or “real people”. Usually I am looking for something (a certain “message to communicate”) in a photo, so I try to find someone who is suited for that. It’s a very instinctive choice.
You are a photographer who is widely known due to a particular lighting identity and moreover, through the social messages on several issues that are passed through your art. What are your feelings and also the process before setting up a photo shoot?
Mostly I have creative ideas that I want to explore. Once the idea (which can come from anywhere – inspiration comes from my own life, but also I am influenced by what is going on around me and in our society) is more concrete, I meet up with the people that I want to execute the idea with. It goes back and forth until we start shooting. I discuss my idea with the make-up people, with the set designer, and that way the idea crystalizes.
Your photos are the result of an entire mechanism of people who work together for the final result, especially when it comes to advertising. Would you like to describe us a typical month of a photo shooting preparation?
I don’t shoot so much commercial work anymore, I am more focused on my personal work, and on special projects.
Those projects are usually big assignments, and they require a lot talk with the people who give the assignment. Its key to know what people want and what they are expecting. Typical is a lot of emails and phone calls back and forth, castings, talks with the retouchers, set designers, etc. etc.
Your pictures are based on stories of different people at different times and places with a particular light identity and an atmosphere that limits the darkness. Are they stories that Olaf wants to tell, are they imaginary images or real images reminiscent of the past?
The images are a pallet, I would like my viewer to make up their own discourse. I don’t mind sending them in a certain direction, setting the outlines, but for the colors and details, I would like my viewers to reflect on the images and make their own of it.
What are the reasons that would make you reject a photographic work for advertising purposes?
I don’t work for cigarette companies for a long time now. Other than that, it just depends. But as I said, I don’t do so much advertising anymore, I can thrive by just doing my personal work, and that makes me very happy.
Do you consider film as a medium that gives added life to your still images?
Film is just a very different medium from photography, it is a medium on its own, and can be used in different ways.
For instance, I have been making more installations now, (for instance Waiting, 2014 and Keyhole, 2012) and with these, film is one part of the work.
When you shoot moving images on their own, it is more about the story, and less about the esthetics. So in that respect you are right.
25 years of work, reputation and recognition, awards, exhibitions, publishing. Which elements in life bring you true happiness and fulfillment?
All these combined of course. There are some things like the design of the Dutch euro coin was something very special to me, it will be one of those things that I will remembered by. Also my latest installation ‘Waiting’, I am so happy with the outcome. So my work (and partner) make me very happy… and lying on my couch, looking outside, listening to the birds…
What would you advise a young photographer?
Work hard, get a signature as soon as possible, try to catch attention of the powers that be.
What is it that people with successful careers overlook and realize many years later?
I don’t know, I hope I haven’t overlooked anything. I don’t like to repeat myself too much, to stick with the same success story and keep repeating that, maybe that is something?
Is there any chance to do a photo concept inspired by Greece in the near future?
If someone invites me there is a chance. Greece is a beautiful country with a very rich history.