Erwin Olaf

Posted on: April 15th, 2008 by: Zack Seckler

Written by JoAnne Tobias
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagrams by Gil Andrei FontimayorFinal image

“All dressed up and no place to go,” says Erwin Olaf, describing the image that jumped into his mind as soon as the New York Times Magazine asked him to photograph this year’s couture. “I wanted to have this woman more or less locked up in this beautiful environment,” explains the Amsterdam-based photographer.

Before each shoot, Olaf thinks about what story he wants to tell and what lighting would best describe the mood of the fantasy that he wants to share. For the couture shoot, Olaf decided to implement “fresh” lighting.

To that end, Olaf used a total of nine lights to flood the set, there were to be no shadows on this set, no ‘negative light’. He used two Bowens heads to illuminate the windows from the back of the set, five Bowens soft boxes rigged above the set to light the room and talent, a Bowens soft box below the camera for fill and a Profoto ring flash to make the dress pop. Olaf shot with a Hasselblad 504CW using a 120mm lens and Kodak Pro E100G transparency film. He made exposures at f/16 at 1/500th of a second. The special effects were done using CGI. This bright, clean atmosphere would reflect the mood of the sixties as well as highlight the sparkle and detail of the dresses.

Born in 1959 in the Netherlands, Olaf initially studied as a journalist. He soon discovered that this was not a good fit, that during interviews he enjoyed talking more than listening. One day a teacher of photography handed him a camera and his future was instantly decided. “From that moment it was like a hand and a glove that fitted.”

Within fifteen years, Olaf transitioned from photojournalism to landing the big, international advertising assignments. By the late eighties, Olaf’s unique look yielded a steady upward trajectory of success.Side view of lighting

Whether as a commercial photographer or as an artist, Olaf uses photography to tell stories. He constructs his own sets instead of relying on serendipity of shooting whatever the location has to offer. Not only does Olaf avoid unsightly sockets, but in creating his ideal world, Olaf is able to translate the fantasy in his head into a powerful image for viewers to engage with. “It adds a little surrealism to the images.
You show what’s going on in your mind,” says Olaf. “And you invite the viewer to take a look and react.”

Creating these fantasy worlds has proved so rewarding to Olaf that his ratio of commercial work to fine art has begun to shift in favor of fine art. “The older I get, the more I start to feel that I use the camera as an instrument, as a painter uses a pencil.”Overhead view of lighting

Although he still finds the international ad work to be inspiring, Olaf relishes the creative freedom of personal projects. “Every picture that I didn’t do for an assignment, but more for expressing myself, you can see at that moment my state of mind.”

Olaf discovers that his art only improves as it gets more personal, more surreal. “I don’t want to entertain you anymore,” says the Dutch photographer. “As a viewer, I’m doing it more and more for myself and I think it’s therefore getting stronger.”

Olaf was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:

F STOP: Tell us a little bit about this shoot. How did this idea come up?

Olaf: Yes. When I was asked to photograph the couture shows this year I immediately had “All dressed up and no place to go” in my head. That was my story for the whole series.I wanted to have this woman more or less locked up in this beautiful environmental house that was too empty, too clean. The New York Times gave me an incredible amount of freedom…there was no interference, not at all. Complete freedom. You need to photograph in Paris. Because it’s couture there is only one piece of each dress. In order of ranking, let’s say by magazine, you are allowed to borrow the dress for one or two hours for the shoot. The fashion editor went to the shows and picked the dresses and then they made a scheme for when each dress would be in the studio. I had to work very quickly. With hair and make up included, I had one and a half hours for each shot. We built a set in Amsterdam, my hometown, and transported it to Paris where we built it up and did pre-lighting the day before.

F STOP: How did you transport the set to Paris?

Olaf: By van. We broke down the parts and then rebuilt it in Paris.

F STOP: How long did it take to build the sets?

Olaf: A day in total. It was one set with several usable angles. We only had to take it apart and transport it to the other side of the studio when the angle of the camera was changing from left to right. It was a quite efficient build. We would decide the angle for the next shot just before a new dress would arrive.

F STOP: What was your approach to lighting this shoot?

Olaf: The interior design and story was quite sixties. I wanted to have really fresh lighting from the films, the movies of that era. I had Dustin Hoffman’s film The Graduate a little bit in mind, that kind of light. We put all sorts of boxes above the set to give it all fresh lighting, I think about eight. We also put a lot of light behind the windows so that the material of the dress would sparkle and shine because, of course, the dresses and the girl are the most important part. They have to look beautiful.

F STOP: Do you work almost exclusively on sets?

Olaf: Yes, yes. Not so much on location.

F STOP: Why do you like about working on sets?

Olaf: Because then I can really create my fantasy, my ideal world. I can put the ceiling where I want it. The ceiling is always the most difficult thing because the ceiling on location dictates a lot of your light, the angle. (A Set) gives you a little puzzle, you know? What’s wrong with this world,? What’s going on? Is it real? Is it unreal? It adds a little surrealism to the images. It is my dream world. It’s my quest because I’m so fed up with so many years of stupid German photography of realistic people, and realistic landscape, and realistic people from the forest, the realistic whatever, you know. It’s kind of torture when you are in a museum.

F STOP: What appeals to you about that fantasy world?An image from Olaf’s portfolio

Olaf: Because I idealize it. I can make my own world. I can create my own bubble. And you can play with your viewer, you know. You can show what’s going on in your mind and invite the viewer to take a look and to react to it.

F STOP: What do you want the viewer to take away from your images?

Olaf: You cannot dictate to people. Letting them create their own fantasies may be the goal. Letting people dream a little bit.

F STOP: So you want fantasy not just for yourself and your own images, but for people to create their own as well.

Olaf: As long as it creates an emotion.

F STOP: Do you think there’s not enough fantasy in photography in general?

Olaf: I think the times are changing a little bit. There was a dictate in fashion from the art photography of the last 20 years that it was not allowed to have any fantasy. Nowadays, sometimes you think it’s too much–it’s so much idea and so much fantasy, so much atmosphere and surrealism. I’ve started to become more and more realistic in my photography. Photoshop is the biggest revolution in photography since the invention of photography. You see people playing with it in incredible way. Commercial photography is maybe a little bit too much in the surreal, fantasy world and art photography is too much in the realistic world.An image from Olaf’s portfolio

F STOP: Where do you see your work fitting into that? I know you do both fine art and commercial work–do you identify particularly with one more than the other?

Olaf: That is something that has been changing in the last ten years. I always saw myself as a photographer and I still like the art of photography a lot. The older I get the more I start to feel that I use the camera as an instrument. Like a painter uses a pencil. I get the need to create work that you would call fine art and do less big campaigns, although I do get a lot of inspiration when I do advertising work.

F STOP: But are you more interested in the fine art world now?

Olaf: Yes. But when I’m saying yes, at the same time you think, ‘no, no, no, it’s not true.’ It’s because the advertising world is also very interesting and inspiring. Originally I was doing 80% advertising, 20% fine art and nowadays that has changed into 45% commercial, 55% percent fine art.

F STOP: Was your Grief series was done exclusively as fine art?

Olaf: Yes.

F STOP: I’m very interested in that series. It’s a real a departure from what you’ve done in the past. I’m curious to know how you came to produce that body of work.

Olaf: For Grief I wanted to make compositions with a lot of light. I came across photography from sixties, from John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy. They’re intriguing. I think it had to do with the invention the small camera and 35 millimeter film. You could photograph on a higher resolution and pictures started to look less stiff. When I was four or five John F. Kennedy was killed. I remember seeing pictures of the little girl kneeling in front of the coffin and the mother. I wanted to combine that with the idea of using material with a lot of light and a lot of windows for the Grief series.
F STOP: So is the talent in your Grief series supposed to be mourning or grieving for JFK?

Olaf: No, it’s more a starting point. Because then you tell too much story and force your viewer to follow your story. I don’t want that. I remember an old neighbor who had cancer when nobody talked about it. In the sixties you didn’t even pronounce the word. Cancer is spelled with a K in my country. Then we just said ‘K’ and nowadays I cannot watch television at night without seeing four or five people crying on all the channels. But in the 1960s people kept their sorrow within their own house. That was one of my starting points. (In the series) these anterooms are completely clean and she just came back from the hairdresser and has a beautiful dress, but still you can feel this enormous amount of sorrow in the house.

F STOP: That’s interesting. I’m curious to know about the evolution of your style and vision as a photographer. You’ve been around for awhile and you’ve produced an incredible body of work. How you would describe your style to someone else, how your technique and vision has changed over the years?

Olaf: My breakthrough was in ’83, in Holland. There was a big squatters movement; the time was quite liberal. Looking back, for the first ten years I was really screaming for attention. I was photographing acquaintances and friends who were also quite aggressive and open minded and rebellious most of the time. It started out like photojournalism. Then from the early ‘90s to the beginning of 2000 I did mostly assignments. In 1998, my manager Shirley asked, “Why don’t you start to work and do things for yourself?” I had become more and more unhappy about only doing assignments. As you can see, every series I do for myself is more autobiography…I don’t want to entertain you anymore. Do you understand what I’m saying? As a viewer, I’m doing it more and more for myself and I think it’s therefore getting stronger.

F STOP: How did you actually start off in photography? How did you get interested in it?An image from Olaf’s “Grief” series

Olaf: I was a student at the school of journalism and after a year I discovered that writing was not my biggest talent. I did a photography course, and from that moment it was like a hand that fit in a glove.

F STOP: How did you make the transition from journalism into advertising?

Olaf: I met a photographer who was an acquaintance of Robert Mapplethorpe. He taught me how to work in the studio. From 1983 till 1985 or 1986, I was doing both photojournalism and studio photography. I was discovered by youth magazines. I did little portraits and later I did covers. Bigger magazines in the Netherlands started to show interest, and also a little bit in foreign counties. In 1998 I did an assignment for Diesel Jeans after David La Chapelle He was doing it for a long time and they wanted to change the image and give it a dark atmosphere. One of my pictures, Dirty Denim, where all of the ladies grab all the men’s like balls in this old people’s home, was rewarded with a Silver Lion. Then everybody started to call.

F STOP: Tell me about the role that nudity and sexuality has played in your work. We see a lot of that, especially in the early work.

Olaf: It’s interesting because many people mix sexuality with nudity. And for me, of course you know, when you’re in your early twenties, you have a lot of testosterone. You’re horny as hell. Even now, I express myself well in that sense. But there always has been another element of sexuality, freedom and the body. I photographed a choreographer, a friend of Robert Mapplethorpe. I came into the house and the walls were covered with his work. That was part of my education. I was a photojournalist photographer and then I saw all this liberty and freedom, all these bodies on the walls. A photographer like Mapplethorpe, of course, was top of the bill at that time. It opened up my mind and put the doors wide open. I started to photograph the student body. My way was a little bit more joyful and playful. Like the boy with the champagne bottle between his legs, or the cross-eyed girl looking in the eyes of the other girl. Things like that, not so serious. I think I photographed a lot of big women because I like the kindsAn image from Olaf’s portfolio of shadows and light that happen with these bodies when you photograph them in black and white. Skin and black and white go hand in hand, they’re beautiful. Also the male body builder is very strange kind of archetype of the human being. Also dwarves, little people. I was intrigued by those specific forms, so in that sense nude photography did not always have a sexual aspect.

F STOP: What inspired your move from black and white to color?

Olaf: Photoshop.

F STOP: Photoshop?

Olaf: Absolutely. I hated color photography till the early nineties… When Photoshop came along I could control the colors like I could control black and white in the dark room. This was really an eye opener for me. In the beginning I was aggressively against Photoshop. The first series I did with color was called Mind of Their Own, which was portraits of mentally disabled people. I burned the negatives to create a dream world. It was the first time I gave in to color photography. The strange thing is that I burned the negative because I was a little bit against Photoshop because I though “why, spend $1000 on Photoshop when I can burn the negatives in ten seconds for $1?” But after that I really started to embrace Photoshop.

F STOP: Do you have a standard kind of post-production regime?

Olaf: I work with several retouchers for every project. It’s like in the film industry, there’s an editor. I see myself more as a director nowadays than as a pure photographer.

F STOP: How do you approach lighting for a specific shoot? Do you always approach it the same way?

Olaf: I think that at least one light should come from the camera.

F STOP: A ring flash, you mean?An image from Olaf’s portfolio

Olaf: Could be ring flash, could be the soft box just above the camera or just under the lens, or a combination of those. Every time it’s a new thing. I’m talking about color photography. If I’m doing black and white, sometimes it can work with only one lamp. For the rest I always go in and say, “Okay, let’s put something there, there and there.” And then sometimes it’s ridiculous, over the top. Too many lamps and you don’t know what you’re doing anymore. Sometimes you do only one or two and it’s excellent and works within five minutes. Sometimes you have an off day and sometimes you have brilliant day.

F STOP: How do you approach lighting a set?

Olaf: It depends on the idea. In general, I start to think about the lights one or two days before the job. First, I decide whether it will be moody or fresh. That is something that I decide quickly. If it’s fresh, let’s say, I would need a lot more lamps. Then I discuss it with my assistant and he makes a proposal. Most of the time he puts it on the set and takes a Polaroid. And then I start to adjust. I take away things or add things. Sometimes this works really well and sometimes you need to start all over. Then we start to build lamp by lamp.

F STOP: What do you like about 60s and 70s lighting? The top light?

Olaf: It communicates that we are in artificial world, because it’s not natural. I prefer a little softer, and not really hard light, but soft box light most of the time. But it is a dream world, you know.

F STOP: And everything in your shoot reinforces that?

Olaf: Yes, it comes all together and it builds up to one atmosphere.

F STOP: Do you want to viewer to feel that it’s a dream world subconsciously or do you want it to be very overt in the open?

Olaf: I want the subconscious. If you look at my website you see some images that are of course surreal. This is a dream world – or a nightmare.