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IMAGES ©ERWIN OLAF, COURTESY HASTED KRAEUTLER GALLERY

WHETHER CAPTURING FINE-ART OR
COMMERCIAL IMAGES, ERWIN OLAF
IS SEEKING TO CREATE A DREAM
BY ROBERT KIENER

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The magic
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may be one of Europe’s most famous and sought-

after commercial and fine-art photographers, but you’ll never get
him to admit that. As we sit in his cluttered Amsterdam photography studio and sip strong, hot Dutch coffee, he stops me
mid-sentence when I begin, “Many people describe you as an artist, so—”
“—No. I don’t think of myself that way,” he says as he sets down
his cup. “I don’t like the terms ‘fine art’ or ‘artist’ and I always describe myself as a photographer. Let time decide if I am an artist
or not.” He pauses for another sip of coffee and adds, “Also, that’s
for someone else to say, not me.”
Someone else already has. Reviewers at The New York Times, England’s The Daily Telegraph, and Aperture magazine have praised
his work, and he’s received a slew of prestigious prizes, includ-

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PROFE S SION A L PHOTOGR A PHER | M AY 2015

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ing the Silver Lion at the Cannes Lion Festival for Advertising
as well as the Johannes Vermeer Award, Netherlands’ state prize
for the arts. Both his commercial and fine-art photography have
been exhibited in scores of galleries and museums and included in collections around the world. Francis Hodgson, former head
of Sotheby’s photographs department, recently described Olaf as a
perfectionist and a virtuoso.

COMMERCIAL GROUNDING
Like few other world-class photographers, Olaf, 55, has become known
and admired as much for his commercial photography as his fineart (he prefers the term “free”) work. Although he now spends about
75 percent of his time creating fine-art photographs (with prints selling for $12,000 to $20,000), he’s still committed to commercial work.
“I love the combination of doing both types of photography,” Olaf
explains. “If I only did free work or only did commercial work, I’d
get bored. I feel extremely lucky to be able to do both.”
He regularly receives editorial assignments from clients such as
The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Elle, and other international
publications and is in high demand for his advertising photography.
As he flips through one of the several published collections of his
work, he points out a striking photograph created for Diesel Jeans in
1998. It’s a fun, provocative image of an elderly man and woman wearing
jeans and sitting on a couch. The woman is brazenly grabbing the man as
he dozes. Think Norman Rockwell meets Robert Mapplethorpe. “That
was one of the photographs that won awards and helped get me noticed internationally,” he explains. “It got me a lot of commercial work.”
Olaf opened his studio in 1985, and it was the award-winning

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Diesel Jeans and Heineken campaigns of the late 1990s that established him as one of Europe’s most in-demand commercial photographers. He was flooded with assignments from high-profile
clients including Nokia, Microsoft, and BMW. But with success
came a challenge. “I was burning out with all the commercial
work and began to lose myself in it,” he explains.
His studio manager, Shirley den Hartog, reminded him that he
had to continue to do his own work. “She really saved me,” remembers Olaf. “She made sure I made time for my free work, even
if it meant turning down commercial assignments.”
Paging through Olaf’s fine-art photography is like flipping through
the chapters of his life. “My free work is a diary of sorts,” says Olaf.
“In my 20s I was full of testosterone and very, very interested in sex.
Maybe obsessed!” Extreme, outlandish models, provocative nudes,
bizarre poses, and bodies are everywhere in those pictures.
“In my 30s I was more aggressive, very ambitious,” he says. His
images during this period were about breaking taboos, raising
awareness, and exploring issues like class, race, and sexuality. “I was angry and
wanted to change the world.”
Later series, such as “Rain”
(2004), “Hope” (2005), “Grief”
(2007) and “Fall” (2008), are
moody and atmospheric as
well as personal and often
surreal. “In my 40s and today
in my 50s I suppose I am more
reserved, sometimes even sadder, and more subtle.” There’s
a sadness, an emptiness, here
that’s missing in the earlier
work. Art critic Jonathan Turner writes, “In these photographs Olaf plays games with
the idea of cold reality versus
cruel artifice, capturing that
precise moment when innocence, hope, and joy are lost.”
Olaf’s later fine-art photography is also more painterly
—“I now use the camera as
a paintbrush,” he says—
and it’s also cinematic. He
often designs intricate, finely
detailed sets and positions
his carefully chosen, flawlessly dressed models like a
film director composing a
scene. A set can take several days to build and often
requires hard-to-find period
furniture and props. Much
of his staff, including set
designers, costumers, and
makeup artists, comes from
the film industry.

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Nothing is left to chance. Composition is as important as lighting. He takes Polaroids and uses a laptop to help compose a finished shot, which he often captures with a 6x6 Hasselblad. “I like
soft box lighting and fill-in lighting that doesn’t overwhelm a subject. Light shouldn’t be too noticeable.”
The detailed sets help him create what he calls “my own fantasy,
my own dream world.” He confesses to being inspired by a wide
range of artists, especially painters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Johannes Vermeer, Edward Hopper, and even Norman Rockwell, as well as film directors such as Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini. “I steal from wherever I can,” he jokes.
Details matter. Pointing to one of his portraits from his 2005 “Hope”
series—a forlorn-looking woman standing near a white telephone
—he explains, “It had to be a white telephone; I felt black would be
wrong.” In another carefully staged shot from 2012, a stern young frecklefaced boy wears black leather gloves as he sits in an oversized chair.
“Why the gloves?” I ask.
He pauses, his bright blue eyes sparkling. “I don’t know. But I

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do know that details like this help tell a story. I want to tell a story
about which I don’t know the outcome. I used to want to shock
people with strong images; now I want to give them the ingredients and let them make up the story.”
His fine-art photographs are all about capturing what he calls
“the moment.” He explains, “No matter how much planning goes
into a shot, it’s all about the magic moment that everything comes
together and you get the photograph you’d hoped for. It’s that split
second that conveys emotion, fantasy, magic.” His most recent
book of fine-art images is “Erwin Olaf: Volume II” (Aperture).

ALWAYS STRETCHING
Although he now spends more time on his fine-art photography,
Olaf remains fiercely committed to his commercial work. He explains that both sides of his work influence, inform, and feed the
other. “My commercial clients have taught me so much,” he explains. “For example, after learning to shoot horizontally for a
billboard client, I began using that format in my free work.”
Thanks to his success, he is free to turn down commercial
work if he decides it’s not challenging or suitable. (He accepts about
20 percent of what he is offered.) For example, ever since
he was diagnosed with emphysema, Olaf has refused to photograph
tobacco products. He also turns down politically oriented work.
“I want my commercial work, like my free work, to entertain,
uplift, and educate. To do that I need to bring three elements into
assignments; the Erwin Olaf part, the part of the client and

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their message, and the final part—the unexpected.” He’s also leery
of repeating himself. “I am 55 and I have to be careful not to
create an ‘Erwin Olaf industry,’” he explains.
Several months ago he was on a commercial assignment for
a champagne house. The shot, a typical Olaf production, featured an elegant model posing in period dress in impeccably lit and
staged champagne cellars. “I had worked out the theme with the
client, who had given me a lot of freedom,” remembers Olaf.
He finished the shot, and the client liked it. But Olaf
didn’t. “It was too close to work I’d done before,” he says. “I
thought, ‘This looks dishonest.’”
He discussed his feelings with the client and they agreed to let
him reshoot. He transformed the composition, eliminating the
model and photographing an evocative still life of the champagne
in the historic cellars. “The picture was completely different from
what we’d originally talked about,” says Olaf. “But both of us are
happy with the results.”
By holding up his commercial work to the same standards as
his fine-art work, Olaf continues to maintain his reputation as a
master of both fields. He is, as just about everyone—except
Olaf—will admit, an artist. •

erwinolaf.com
Robert Kiener is a writer based in Vermont.

Reprinted from May 2015 Professional Photographer magazine with permission.
Copyright a Photographers of America • www.ppmag.com

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EDITOR’S NOTE

LEADING LINES

OWNING
YOUR GIFTS

GOALS ARE GREAT;
SO IS APPRECIATING WHERE YOU ARE

u Photographers Randy McNeilly, M.Photog.MEI.Cr., CPP, API, F-ASP, and Erwin

COMING NEXT MONTH
Acres of potential
John Stalzer and Mackenzie Duncan find creative
contentment and solid business far from the
madding crowd.

©STALZER PHOTOGRAPHY

A competitive education
How Doug and Laura Bennett elevate their art
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Olaf have little in common. McNeilly, a highly credentialed PPA member for
26 years, has more than 600 merits to his credit. He’s been deeply involved in
PPA at the national and affiliate levels and is known for his family portraiture.
His highly regarded photography
affords him a nice living.
Sometimes we’re aimed so dili Erwin Olaf is a European phogently at what we want to attain
tographer who’s earned acclaim
that we don’t recognize and
for both his commercial and fineappreciate what we already are.
art image making. His photography
has been praised in The New York
Times, and he regularly receives
assignments from clients such as Vogue, Elle, and other international publications. His highly regarded photography affords him a nice living.
Maybe they’re not so dissimilar after all.
Take a look at their profiles in this issue. While it’s true that the products
of their labor are very different aesthetically, I see their work as analogous.
Both have, over extensive careers, been able to recognize their strengths and
then direct their energy toward their greatest abilities. That sounds straightforward, right? But embracing one’s strengths is not necessarily easy: Professional goals and artistic aspirations can serve as blinders to what actually is.
Sometimes we’re aimed so diligently at what we want to attain that we don’t
recognize and appreciate what we already are.
Writer Cary Tennis pens an advice column that used to run on Salon.com.
Several years ago in answer to a woman frustrated by her lack of self-worth, he
wrote, “The way you are now is the way you are loved. Those who love you do not
love this other person you wish you were. They do not even know who that person is. The way you are now is the way you are loved.” I find that a powerful reminder to fully examine where I’m at when I’m reevaluating where I want to go.
What McNeilly and Olaf have in common is an ability to understand and also
welcome that which makes them one of a kind in both a visual and business
sense. What makes each unique is what makes each successful.
Life would be poor if we didn’t have objectives; it would also be poor if we
didn’t appreciate the gifts we bring to our work and our world. •

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Reprinted from May 2015 Professional Photographer magazine with permission.
Copyright a Photographers of America • www.ppmag.com

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