Photography Legends #3 – Erwin Olaf

Born in Hilversum in the Netherlands in 1959, Erwin Olaf lives and works in Amsterdam since the early 80’s. Mixing photojournalism with studio photography, Olaf emerged in the international art scene in 1988 when his series ‘Chessmen’ was awarded the first prize in the Young European Photographer competition. Since then Olaf has continued to explore issues of gender, sensuality, humor, despair and grace in each successive series.

Printing his early work in documentary style black-and-white, he first gradually introduced color and then digital manipulation. There is great contrast between each series. In his four most recent series Rain, Hope, Grief and Fall, Erwin Olaf returns to classic imagery with minimal computer retouching.

Video and film offer new possibilities to explore. His first film Tadzio (1991, co-directed with painter F. Franciscus) was soon followed by comic videos for children’s television, short documentaries, music clips and commissions by the Dutch National Ballet. Recently Olaf has created autonomous video works like Separation, Rain and Grief, starring models who also appear in the accompanying photo series. In the films they play a different character, as though his moving images provide a parallel history to his color photographs. These short films have been selected for film festivals all over the world.

Over the years many of Olaf’s works – from his unabashed nude portraiture and intense symbolism to the unflinching gaze in his blood-drenched images of staged violence – have provoked controversy. Not surprisingly, this ability to attract attention has seen his work embraced by the advertising world, resulting in commercials for Lavazza, BMW, Microsoft and Nintendo among many others. Lately Erwin is frequently shooting in commission for magazines such as The New York Times Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine, Elle and Citizen K.

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