Erwin Olaf has a problem. He’s happy. It’s a feeling he can’t shake. Just two hours off a plane from Europe, he proclaims his answers will be short, but then discusses his work and himself at length, with a sparkle in his eye and with frequent giggles. “Well, I’m a big mouth, always too talkative,” he cracks later, when I remind him that he’d promised to be gruff.
The award-winning Dutch photographer is in Hong Kong to unveil the series of black-and-white photos he shot in champagne house Ruinart’s old chalk cellars in Reims. The commission continues a career that’s successfully managed to bridge the worlds of commercial and fine art, but this work is markedly different.
In the series of 26 images, his camera homes in on the cellars, proclaimed an historic monument in 1931. Up-close images capture dough-like rock formations and cracks spread across ageing walls like roots on dry soil. In others, Olaf’s lens zooms in on childlike etchings daubed long ago by visitors tramping the dim tunnels. It’s a study of minute detail far unlike the posed, ultra-styled shots that made his reputation. Why?
“I used the rules of old-fashioned photojournalistic photography. You crop from reality. I used strong black and white, made it a little bit grainy. It reminded me of my own journalistic photos from the ’70s and ’80s,” he says. “I wanted to get away from the whole idea of advertising.”
Olaf, now 57, moved from his hometown of Hilversum in the Netherlands to study journalism in Utrecht. His earlier works borrowed from his training and are certainly gritty; his 1988 black-and-white Chessmen series, for which he won Young European Photographer of the Year, depicts morphologically diverse nudes in various degrees of bondage with props such as medieval weapons and horned helmets, engaged in bizarre activities.
But by 1999, when he took an assignment for denim brand Diesel, which sought a more subversive look for its Dirty Denim campaign, his painterly lighting and carefully posed style had emerged. The campaign photo of a denim-clad, grey-haired woman grabbing the balls of the sleeping grandpa next to her won him a Cannes award and boosted his client list, and he went on to shoot campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Bottega Veneta.
His personal work was as slick as his billboard jobs. In the 2004-8 series Rain, Hope, Grief and Fall, Olaf recreated a kind of ’50s Americana, with studios bathed in light showing seemingly perfect people glazed in artificial expressions. By 2012, he moved out of the studio and into historic buildings in Berlin, for the series of the same name, creating stylised images that played on relationships between the young and old. His nudes proffer flawless velvet skin and provocative poses.
Much of his work confronts class and race, sexuality and beliefs – issues he dealt with in his own life. A gay icon in Holland today, he was bullied about his sexuality as a youngster. “When you come out of the closet when you’re 15, you’re not done by 18. Of course, you’re fighting your demons. Art works like therapy,” he says.
In other pieces he poses questions and prompts conversations, as with his nudes. “Skin is such a beautiful thing,” he says. “In art, the nude was always considered beautiful. Now men are allowed to show nipples when women are not. Why is that?”
He approaches client work with the same intent as his self-conceived projects, and never feels torn between both worlds. In fact, briefs helped him up his game technically, and anyway, he says, there’s as much fashion in art as there is in advertising or couture. His mission is always purity, which he achieves by keeping out of what’s current, instead igniting his inspirations inside empty museums, watching old Fellini movies and dipping into classic literary works and historic photos.
“What I like as an artist using photography as his instrument is to work with the rules and laws of fashion and advertising photography, but to give it a content of my deepest feelings,” he says. “I have to make something I can really defend. Otherwise you have to lie and lie and lie all the time. You have to say something is wonderful when it’s terrible. That’s not my character.”
Honesty is important to this “conformist” Dutchman. “Everyone in Holland is conformist,” he says with a roll of his blue eyes and a chuckle.
Gradually he’s moved away from ads and into pure art, and to film. He’s working on a full-length studio feature that he’ll direct. In photography he has relinquished much control in the studio and is whittling down his team and working independently, as he did with the Ruinart project, created with just one assistant. And even as his health deteriorates – he suffers from emphysema – he finds high points. “Every day you have to count your blessings,” he says.
Which brings him to his current predicament. His happiness. Is he done with his demons? “I have to say that it’s a really dangerous period for me as an artist,” he says, laughing. “It’s something I’m thinking about a lot.” One hopes it’s enough to spur him to work.