If a picture is worth a thousand words, why does Erwin Olaf’s photography leave us speechless?
Interview by Tim Warrington.
Tim Warrington: How did you come to design the Dutch Euros coins?
Erwin Olaf: It was a really amazing experience. Twelve artists were commissioned to make a design, with only three making the final round. I was one of those three! I tried to make a design that had an extra layer to it – not just a pretty design. There are many rules for designing a coin (durability, fraud resistance,etcetera) and it was a great challenge to meet all the technical requirements. The Dutch landscape is made up of a lot of different elements, and I tried to incorporate these elements into the design by using different facets to create the portrait of the king.
Speaking of monarchs, if you were commissioned to do a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, how would you shoot her?
I always try to capture someone’s personality in an aesthetic way, so I would try to do that. But it really depends what the portrait is for.
What can you not live without?
My partner, Kevin.
Your photographic series include titles like Grief and Royal Blood. What is that about?
With Royal Blood I was interested in society’s fascination with death – this combined with our obsession for youth. The worldwide outpouring of grief for Princess Diana was a good example of this, a kind of mass televised hysteria, which truly fascinated me.
What was the reaction to your image of Princess Diana?
Largely positive but some people were offended. I kind of understand that reaction. She was adored by the people, but also she was the most recent person depicted in the Royal Blood series. I really like the portrait. I never intended to cast a look-alike, but once the model put on the wig, she looked a lot like Diana. It was a bit unsettling.
In the classic novel Brideshead Revisited, the character Charles Ryder says, “a camera is a mechanical device which records a moment in time, but not what that moment means or the emotions that it evokes. Whereas, a painting, however imperfect it may be, is an expression of feeling – an expression of love. Not just a copy of something.”
Is this accurate? No, I don’t think so. A photograph can evoke an emotion just as much as a painting. I think Charles Ryder was a bit short- sighted! I tried to capture the subtler emotions of sadness with my Grief and Rain series, for instance.
“I’m always interested in why something is a taboo. How did it become one?”
If you could shoot anyone anywhere, who would it be and where?
I don’t have a fascination with celebrity, so I can’t really give you a name. I’ve been blessed to have photographed so many interesting and fascinating people all around the world.
Are there photographic taboos – lines that you shouldn’t cross?
I’m interested in taboos because they’re subject to time and society’s views. I’m always interested in why something is a taboo. How did it become one? I like to push the envelope by exploring these taboos visually.
Who is your favourite photographer?
I have a lot of respect for journalistic photography – the mother of all photography. Other than that, I don’t have a favourite photographer, but I do love JH Lartigue and Irving Penn.
“With razor-sharp aesthetic intuition, Olaf purposely conceals his themes… yet in the end, his unconventional style never fails to deliver dramatic visual and emotional impact.”
Have you blurred the line between art and advertising?
Not really, there’s always a very clear line between art and advertising. I’ve used elements of advertising – mostly technical – in my personal work, but the distinction is very clear. In advertising there is always the product!
Tell us about the Milkshake Festival.
In the heart of the summer we have a big outdoor party in Amsterdam. We’re trying to reach all audiences, hoping for a lot of fun and a little more mutual understanding between people. It’s a celebration of diversity. I’m thrilled to be
a part of it.
If you could have one thing, what would it be?
[Laughs] World peace, of course.
What has been the most rewarding highlight of your career so far?
My career in itself is the most rewarding highlight in general. It has been such an amazing and rewarding ride. That said, the design of the coin was very special; receiving the Johannes Vermeer prize [a Dutch prize for the arts]; having my work exhibited all around the world; the reception of my installation work. The Keyhole [his installation from 2011/2012] was an artistic breakthrough. It was fantastic to have different fields of my work come together.