Sunday's Photography Book Review: Erwin Olaf "I AM"



This weekend I had the chance to visit the impressive exhibition of Erwin Olaf, at the Gemeente Museum in The Hague, as well as at its neighbor GEM, the photography museum of the city. Two great exhibitions packed of photos of the great Dutch artist, which I truly suggest you not to miss as they will be in The Hague until June 16th 2019 only!


As you know I love photography books and I love reading on Sunday's. So this week I am going to summarize for you in a bit more than 5 minutes all the main points of the marvelous "I AM" exhibition's book, an overview of the last 30 years of Erwin Olaf's career, from "Black" (1990) to "Palm Spring" (2018).


So take a nice coffee or tea, sit comfortable and enjoy the reading!



Before starting though, I read something at the very beginning of the book which really helped me to understand Olaf's style and re-connect it immediately to the photographs I saw at the exhibition, therefore I want to share this with you first..


While Olaf started as a photo journalist, he has always looked for experimentation and new ways of expressing his observations and strong messages. Olaf knows that photography is the art of realism, however he creates a personal form or reality, giving photography more than a function a goal of beauty, involving a creative decision-making process. In this creative process, for Olaf the key factor is the light, which "floods a space and lends volumes and figures their plasticity and color". The appropriate use of light make things tangible and give expression and direction to the composition. Together with light, the atmosphere in Olaf's pictures are created by the use of the space, with its decor and interiors, always mostly enclosed and carefully prepared for the photography set. The way images are cropped and framed gives the focus to the whole message, while emotions are always expressed by body language and glances, by the way neck and shoulders are angled towards the viewer.


So now let's dive now into the book itself, more than 300 pages with more than 20 series presented, showing quite a change of style and experimentation along the last 30 years of activity of this amazing photographer.


The series "Black" (1990) was inspired by Janet's Jackson "Rythm Nation" lyrics: "In complete darkness we are all the same, it is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us". So in front of examples of racism, Olaf thought he could create a group of people who are all the same. The style he used is a mix of English Victorian and French Tromp l'Oeil. Amazing the final results of these pictures, as Olaf printed all the layers and tones of black and black-on-black in the darkroom and managed to give different shades of black to the final picture. Like in a staged photography, Olaf became like a director of different royal household characters, creating photographs like carved cameo's depicting people each one with their own personality.


"Mature" (1999) to overcome the challenge of aging, and still being able to create glamorous portraits. In this series the lighting plays a central role, as well as the setting and make up of the models.

"Fashion Victim" (2000) is pretty harsh to me, focusing at the sexual orientation of fashion and fashion campaigns in the last years.


"Royal Blood" (2000) celebrated the invention of Photoshop. Olaf has been one of the pioneers of digital photography transforming his pictures in painted pixels. He created this series in opposite response to "Mature" and its aging skin and people, therefore using young models and glamorizing violence and the always more recurring attraction for blood, violence and celebrity ("live fast, die young").


The series "Paradise" (2001) is inspired by the parties at the Amsterdam legendary music venue Paradiso and it is still connected with the previous series "Royal Blood" and theme of violence. This new series was inspired by a painting from Rubens which Olaf saw at the Museo de Prado in Madrid, "The rape of Hippodamia". Olaf used Photoshop heavily and mixed the theme of the Ruben's paining with the colors of the crazy parties at Paradiso. He also tried to crop the picture to the maximum, asking himself which was the minimum a viewer would need in order to recognize a portrait. So cool to be able to see Olaf's reflection in the eyes of the beautiful ladies photographed in this series, while taking their pictures!


"Rain" (2004) and "Hope" (2005) are the result of a period of thinking for Olaf, a period of pause, with a step back to the classics of Norman Rockwell, a period between the happiness of the American 50's and still the aftermaths of 9/11 events which left the world paralyzed between action and reaction. And Olaf asks himself how can a photographer represent that moment between action and reaction.



"Grief" (2007) inspired by "the Kennedy years" and the 60's, uses very soft light and in incredibly re-constructed interior decor typical of those years. Olaf describes this series as the one expressing "the moment just after an event sinks in", so when you have a story, you need waves and rhythm to express it, you cannot always have high waves, peaks and a fast rhythm, you need quite moments sometimes to acknowledge the event and "reflect on what you have just seen". This series is made of a lot of still life which can help create a story with a crescendo, clarifying what you just saw and anticipating what you are going to see.


A new moment of reflection, a space between other series, "Fall" (2008) shows Olaf's interpretation of still life in portraits, alternating beautifully composed portraits with still life, so to invite the viewer to reflect upon what just seen and prepare for the new photo. I am totally in love with these portraits from Olaf! Incredible how he manages to express emotions using facial expressions and the positioning of the body more than the lighting itself, which is very soft and almost difficult to recognize and study in these portraits.


At the "I AM" exhibition there are also videos, and they are amazingly built in Olaf's photography style. Olaf wants to create almost a fashion set which interests and attracts the viewer, however he then gives it an unexpected twist which makes the viewer step back and reflect. So the 2009 "Dusk" video, all in black just like the 1990 series "Black", is beautifully composed, until when the little child giving the back to the viewer turns around and reveals no face! "Can I exist without content?" the boy seem to ask his mother. "Down" (also 2009) is the opposite, a white ambiance, a sense of perfection, then the father looks at his baby in the crib as sees that he has no head and no shape and he seems to ask "Tell me.. how long can one exist without form?".


"Keyhole" (2011-2013) is represented in its beautiful pictures talking of today's people living closer to each other as moving to compact and over packed cities with very thin walls, yet isolated and lonely, knowing less and less of each other. Olaf's installation created for this series is also present at the Gemeente Museum in The Hague and you can physically experience the uncomfortable sensation and feeling of spying through a door whole. Yet what you see inside the room at one side of the installation is exactly the same you see in the room at the other side, the only difference is that on one side there is a woman, at the other side a man. They do the same thing, they are alone and sit with a child on their lap. The book "I AM" suggests here that our imagination starts making stories out of what we see, but we have partial information and what we might create with it can be totally different from reality, it can be totally right or totally wrong.. Pretty interesting, as this is exactly what I also experienced! Independently from right or wrong, the situation which came to my mind when looking at the woman with the child has been totally different than the one that came to my mind when looking at the man with the child. How can it be??



The series "Berlin" (2012) depicts the dark years of a city in transition between freedom of speech and democracy in Europe and the more preeminent role given to children in our society: children are only concerned about their own world and when they look at us they seem to say "Go away, it's our time now", dismissing the adults' world around them.


In the same year, the other series "Jewish" brings attention to the theme of discrimination and to a community in Amsterdam which is still today discriminated but yet determined to stay and exist, invisible just like the gay community, yet who exists regardless.


"Waiting" (2014), a real study of facial expression and body language, represents people waiting for someone who never shows up. It touches base again on the themes of "Keyhole", the themes of people being distant from each other, of the difficulty of getting in touch with each other, of intimacy which is not possible to reach privately anymore, yet happening easily publicly,


"Skin Deep" (2015) was triggered by a visit of the Iranian President in Italy, when the Italians covered the nude roman statues in order not to offend the political guest. Olaf got upset from this denial of common humanity and historical beauty and composed this series as a homage to human existence and beauty, although he is aware that although this is possible in art and painting, in photography this is easily and wrongly tagged as pornography.


"Shanghai" (2017) was inspired by a trip Olaf made to China, when he started seriously thinking what could happen to individuality in such big cities, and portrayed isolation and alienation in such a vertical mega-city of 24 million people at the time.

And the beautiful "Shanghai" series includes also pictures on plastic or glass surface which instead of being what I thought, revealed to be videos when, all of a sudden, the models slowly move and turn towards the viewer, delivering softly a core message of individuality: "Hear me!".


"Palm Springs" (2018) is a sudden step back to the style of the 60's and the first landscape photography for Erwin Olaf, although we can still find some indoor photography showing Olaf's classical beauty and use of lighting and minimalism. "Palm Springs" is a mix between the photojournalism of Gordon Parks and the good 60's of Normal Rockwell and is part of a trilogy of "city-series" after Berlin and Shanghai. The photos in this series depict a new Palm Springs which is not the one of the reach american society and of the american pool parties from the 70's anymore: Palm Springs today is poisoned with profit and sex, smog in a militarized environment where the gap between the reach whites and the poor blacks is too noticeable. So beautiful how Olaf, in the picture where he stands himself by the pool, is capable to give the viewer again the sense of a deep quite and reflective pause, allowing us to connect with this new reality and opening our eyes to the topics of climate change, phenomena which is ruining "the paradise which we have tried so hard to maintain"..



Well guys, here it ends my quick book review and I hope I was able to give in few minutes a good idea of this 300+ pages book (and related exhibition!) full of amazing pictures and packed of interesting concepts and key points of Erwin Olaf's life.

I truly think every photographer should have this book in his/her library! Don't miss it!



The SPBR (Sunday Photography's Book Review) article is based on photography books: I read a book and I make a summary of what the editor writes, highlighting what I consider important and adding my own comments, idea and perceptions. This means that the main idea is extracted by the text included in the books and written by their contributors.

- All pictures included in this article are from Erwin Olaf's exhibition and book "I AM", excluding the ones where I appear. Pictures might be subject to copyrights: all rights are reserved to the author.



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