Erwin Olaf: A Hesitant Beauty

© Erwin Olaf ‘The Hallway’ from the series ‘Hope’ 2005

The things you don’t show can say more than the things that are made visible.


Traditionally, narrative art such as history painting or book illustration focused on the key points in the story: the decisive moments. The narrative was understood as a journey with a final destination: the triumph of heroic legend, the irresistible crisis of tragic drama, the happy ever after of romantic fiction. In literature and in historicism, events have a destiny. Even when tragic, they comfort us with the illusion that life has order and purpose. But life is a continuous weaving and fraying, ravelling and unravelling without end. Pivotal moments come and go, their outcome often arbitrary. Most of life is lived in the extended interstices, the prolonged periods of everyday uncertainty: waiting, hoping, fearing, anticipating, regretting…

The Dutch photo-artist, Erwin Olaf, came to discover in these moments of hesitation a poignant beauty that transcends mere prettiness or the allure of tidy perfection. While his very earliest work was made with all the self-assurance of youth, his interests quickly shifted from a celebration of his own sense of empowerment to concerns about those whose freedoms are curtailed by others.

At the age of forty, he began his most productive and perceptive phase of art-making. Middle age brought with it a maturity that saw beyond the myth of progress. As the grand illusions of destiny were cast aside, what took their place were empathy and a deeper, less certain insight into the human condition. His tableaux retained their polished artifice, but they abandoned the dramatic determinism of classical theatre. There is no neat denouement here. Characters are introspective rather than dynamic; the narrative caught in a moment of aesthetic hesitation that haunts each carefully choreographed scene with an existential question mark.

Alasdair Foster


When did you begin to make photographs?

When I was eighteen years old, I left home and went to Utrecht to study journalism. To be honest, what attracted me was not so much journalism, but the Flower Power attitude I witnessed when I visited the school open day. It felt like the big world was waiting for me!

I struggled with written journalism and was overwhelmed by the total freedom of student life. One of the teachers, seeing my situation, introduced me to photography. From the very first lesson, I was in love with the medium: the cool weight of the camera, the grain of the film, the smell of the darkroom, the magic when paper is immersed in liquid… I was fascinated by the power of making images.

The first major series of images you published was called ‘Chessmen’. How did that come about?

In Europe at that time there was a sense of impending doom: the economy was bad, the Iron Curtain was strong, nuclear war seemed always a possibility and terrorism was increasing. A publisher offered to make a book with me, but it would require at least thirty-two images. I did not feel that I had enough good images to fill all those pages. But, that night, on the radio, there was a program about chess. One of the speakers spoke enthusiastically about this “war game” with its “thirty-two warriors”. Here was the idea I was looking for!

I created two aggressive battling tribes, each trying to overpower and enslave the other. To this day, I do not understand why one group would wish to exert power over another, often without any reason. ‘Chessmen – XXIV’ is the central picture from the series. The human figure is transformed into a beast of burden, on its way to war. The body expresses great strength and the position of the hands and uplifted leg suggest a dynamic forward motion.

With your next series, ‘Blacks’, there is clearly a particular tonal palette that links the work, but what about the psychological or emotional intention?

The series was inspired by something the Afro-American singer Janet Jackson said: “In complete darkness, we are all the same, it is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us, don’t let your eyes deceive you.” This was 1990 and, among my social circle, there were serious concerns about racism and other forms of violent discrimination. I wanted to address this and, building on Janet Jackson’s idea, I created a royal court of people who were all toned black.

‘Olivier’ was the last image I made in the series and it is still very dear to me. The spots over the eyes are the only white patches in the whole series. They cover the eyes of the man, which for me has a strong symbolic meaning: as we say in the Netherlands, “fate is blind”.

There then comes a break of several years. What took you away from your art practice?

From the end of the eighties, my career got wings. There were so many commercial assignments that I drifted away from my personal work.

What brought you back?

Two women… I shot an advert for Diesel Jeans that involved a sexually extrovert old lady. The photograph won a Silver Lion award at the prestigious advertising festival in Cannes. Working with the old woman was such great fun that she motivated me to go back to my personal work. I had also just invited my former intern, Shirley den Hartog, to come work for me. She agreed on condition that I started making my own artistic work again.

So, to celebrate my fortieth birthday, I created the series ‘Mature’. I placed an advert in the newspaper asking for female models over the age of sixty. The series was inspired by American pin-ups from the 1940s and 1950s, the decades when these models would have been young women. For me, the series is a celebration of life – and aging – with all its ups and downs.

‘Claudia S., 63’ is the most vulnerable portrait from the series and consequently one of the most successful. The lady gives herself completely to the camera, which I respect so much. It is the look in her eyes that makes this picture so emotional for me.

© Erwin Olaf ‘The Ice-Cream Parlour’ from the series ‘Rain’ 2004

Three interconnected series followed: ‘Rain’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Grief’. How did they evolve?

In the Netherlands, in the first years of this century, there was some strong anti-American feeling. This made me angry and I wanted to make a series celebrating the sense of freedom I associate with the USA. I took my initial inspiration from the paintings of Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) [whose optimistic illustrations of American domestic and suburban culture were extremely popular in the middle of the twentieth century]. It was planned as a light-hearted series with the working title of ‘Happy’.

© Erwin Olaf ‘The Dancing School’ from the series ‘Rain’ 2004

The first picture was ‘Dancing School’. I had originally cast four people for the scene. However, looking through the lens at the various cheerful poses, I felt increasingly unhappy – incredibly so.  After several attempts, I was so desperate that I told the models to just stand still. They were just two people waiting and staring, thinking of nothing, waiting for nothing. As it turned out, this was a much closer reflection of my feelings than the happy scene I had initially envisaged. The series was renamed ‘Rain’.

What was it you captured in this new series that resonated for you?

For me, it has everything to do with the moment between action and reaction, the moment between happy and sad.  The emptiness one feels when the beloved says: “I do not love you anymore”. The moment just before you fully comprehend what has been said; the impact it will have on your life and future. It is as if, at that moment, I enter the room and take the picture: too early and yet too late.

© Erwin Olaf ‘The Kitchen’ from the series ‘Hope’ 2005

How did your next series, ‘Hope’, come about?

My money was finished after six pictures, but I still felt that it was not complete. I could do better. So, when – following a very successful premiere of ‘Rain’ at Paris Photo – a New York gallery approached me for an exhibition, requesting that I make some new pictures, I was glad to do so.

For me, ‘Hope’ is deeper and more detailed than ‘Rain’; the lighting, the colours and the acting are better. ‘Hallway’ [the image at the top of this article] is full of minute details to trigger the viewer’s imagination: the placement of the flowers, the rain outside the window, the number on the door, the way the man is standing, the girl with her shoe dangling from her foot … Over the past decade, such details have become more and more important to me. The hands of the big girl in her lap in the empty kitchen and the look of the teacher in the classroom. These things touch me: the beauty and isolation and vulnerability.

© Erwin Olaf ‘The Classroom’ from the series ‘Hope’ 2005

When a scene is coming together, how do you know when you have captured the image you want?

This is something I never know before it happens. It is the most mysterious moment during a photo shoot: knowing that you have it. The older I get, the more insecure I become about this moment. In a way, each tableau is a very controlled fantasy world, but I am always waiting for something unexpected to happen. This anxiety gets stronger with every new series I make.

© Erwin Olaf ‘Barbara’ from the series ‘Grief’ 2007

In ‘Grief’ there is a change of styling…

After ‘Hope’ and ‘Rain’, I finished with the Norman Rockwell look, but I still felt that the story had to develop further. I began researching recent American history and photography. I was moved by images from the early 1960s depicting John F Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. The theme of ‘Grief’ grew out of this sense of hope dashed by the assassination of the young President.

© Erwin Olaf ‘Troy’ from the series ‘Grief’ 2007

Strangely enough, a few months after it was finished, I came to realise just how important this series was to me. It went deeper than I had expected. I realised that this series is also about my own youth. It reflects my mood when I was making it, though I did not fully realise at the time. I think it functioned as a kind of therapy, to help me accept my pulmonary emphysema [a progressive lung disease]. 

Tell me about ‘Dusk’ and ‘Dawn’. The darker part of the series seems to build on ‘Blacks’ – at least formally – but the construction of the scenes seems also to grow from the way figures inhabit space in ‘Rain’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Grief’.

© Erwin Olaf ‘The Mother’ from the series ‘Dusk’ 2009

‘Dusk’ was inspired by the beautiful but disturbing photographs of African Americans made by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952). For me the series is about absence. In this case, the absence of a father from a middle-class family. I find the design of clothing and interiors of the 1900s compelling in the way they offer no room for sincere emotions. One can only implode.

Shortly after I shot ‘Dusk’, I was in Moscow and stayed at a very chic hotel in which the breakfast room was totally decorated with pale cream and white. During my breakfast, a mother entered the room followed by her two young sons. All three had pale skin and light clothing. They were beautiful, but unaware of it. They made me think of how the absence of a beloved person is a painful and universal emotion. I decided to contrast ‘Dusk’ with the pale colours of the Russian situation. I called the series ‘Dawn’.

© Erwin Olaf ‘The Mother’ from the series ‘Dawn’ 2009

What have you learned about yourself over the years, through the process of making these photographs?

I have learned that the things you don’t show can say more than the things that are made visible. I can decorate, style, dress, make-up and light whatever I want, but when the characters do not interact with each other in that special subtle way, the atmosphere is lost and the image will fail.

However, when I had finished ‘Dusk’ and ‘Dawn’, I also realised there is a very important balance to be struck between form and content. When does form take over from content – style from meaning? The older I get, the more I find myself contemplating this dilemma.

© Erwin Olaf ‘Clärchens Ballroom, Mitte’ from the series ‘Berlin’ 2012

In the series entitled ‘Berlin’ the setting is Weimar Germany (1919–1933) but the action is often dominated by children. What led you to cast children in such commanding roles?

I was in an airport when I had the idea of working with children. There were many Dutch children there and each had a distinct ego. I came to realise that, over the past thirty years, European children have been given more authority. I found this interesting – they are still innocent and yet they have already gained authority. Adults no longer rule the world. I took that idea and blended it with the period look of the Weimar Republic.

In ‘Clärchens Ballroom, Mitte’ – which is based on one of my favourite paintings by Otto Dix (1891–1969) – what touched me was the melancholy smile of the red-haired woman. It says everything I want to express about the relationship between youth and age.

© Erwin Olaf ‘Masonic Lodge, Dahlem’ from the series ‘Berlin’ 2012

The children may be innocent, but their wielding of power seems quite dark. I am thinking here of an image like ‘Masonic Lodge, Dahlem’.

This was the first picture we made. Usually, when I begin an image, I have only the outline of an idea but, in this case, I had a very clear picture in mind because I had dreamt it. The strong athletic sportsman, dressed in the 1930s fashion, is overwhelmed by the power of his young accuser. The scene expresses precisely the fear I have when thinking about people who want control other people’s thoughts, behaviour, and sexuality. 

What draws you to this method of making staged photographic images?

I love to create my own world, it is a natural thing for me. To translate what I observe in external reality into my own personal world, where I can oversee everything. That said, I have to admit that I have recently started to feel the need to go outside and transform external reality into my dream world. That is one of the reasons I created ‘Berlin’, and I am now working on a series inspired by Shanghai. Even so, I am still trying to tame reality to become my dream world.

© Erwin Olaf untitled from the series ‘Shanghai’ 2017

What ideas will you explore in the Shanghai series?

I have travelled to Shanghai several times for my work. I am fascinated by the dynamics of the city. Compared to New York – which I see as a bit of a tired old lady – Shanghai is a very large young girl who is eating everything: emotions, space, private life…

It gave me the idea to make a series like ‘Berlin’, set against the architecture of the 1930s, but with a different emotion more suited to Shanghai. It has evolved into a series about saying farewell to an old way of life; about leaving or the end of a relationship.

© Erwin Olaf untitled from the series ‘Shanghai’ 2017

What is the most surprising response you have had to your work?

It is usually women that express their opinion about my photographs, not often men. But, recently, I was cycling through Amsterdam and feeling very uncertain about my latest work. A family was waiting on the curb for the traffic lights to change. The father, just a very normal man, called out to me: “Hey, you! Erwin! You… Respect for your talent, respect for everything you do, keep on going man!” Then he and his smiling wife and two boys waved to me and crossed the road. It made my day!

Biographical Notes

Erwin Olaf was born in Hilversum, The Netherlands, in 1959. He first emerged on the international art scene in 1988, when his series ‘Chessmen’ won first prize in the Young European Photographer competition. Since then, he has won many international art and media awards, including the Grote Paul for the most famous Dutch photographer (2003); Photographer of the Year at the International Colour Awards (USA, 2006); Kunstbeeld magazine’s Dutch Artist of the Year (2007), and the Johannes Vermeer Prize (2011). He designed the national side of the euro coins for King Willem-Alexander in 2013 and served as the official portrait artist for the Dutch royal family in 2017. In 2019 Olaf became a Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands after five hundred works from his oeuvre were added to the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Erwin Olaf’s work is included in many public and private collections, including the Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. He passed away on 20 September 2023.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the December 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was staged photography.

First published in English at Talking Pictures in December 2020.