The acclaimed photographer Erwin Olaf brings a brooding 1950s glamour to his tantalising pictures of women on the verge of an emotional storm. Kate Salter previews his new exhibition in London
For the past four years the inside of the Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf’s studio has been a kind of time warp. Enter the converted church hall on the outskirts of Amsterdam and you enter a world of 1950s American domesticity: ladies with carefully curled hair and twinsets, men in neat raincoats, and interiors filled with sleek mid-century furniture.
Olaf’s three photographic series, called ‘Rain’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Grief’, are all set in a 1950s America of his imagination. To make that imagination come to life requires meticulous attention to detail. For each image a set is built (taking three to four days), period furniture and props must be found, models cast and stylists employed to perfect the look. In fact, the studio takes on the characteristics of a film set, with Olaf as director. The results are photographs that blur the line between cinema and photography and have all the qualities of a film still.
Although Olaf, 49, is one of Holland’s most acclaimed photographers, his work is relatively unknown in England. With the publication of a glossy new book and an exhibition at Hamiltons Gallery in London, which opens this week, that might be about to change. The exhibition, Olaf’s first in this country, will focus on the last of the 1950s-inspired series, ‘Grief’, in which beautiful young men and women are caught on the point of emotional meltdown.
In person, Olaf looks almost as flawless as the models in his photographs, with blue eyes, blond hair, razor-sharp cheekbones and a beaming smile. ‘I had been looking at a lot of books, paintings and films to do with America in the 1950s – Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper and so on,’ he says. ‘I started thinking that the 1950s and early 1960s was such a beautiful era – how women wore their hair, the clothes, the décor of the houses.’
While many of Olaf’s models may be beautiful, and the interiors immaculate, there is tension and an air of melancholy in the pictures that Olaf says became a theme as soon as he began the first of the series, ‘Rain’: ‘The working title of “Rain” was originally “Happy”, but nothing made me more unhappy than the start of the shoot.’
Olaf had wanted to do something upbeat for the first shot of the series, a scene that captured youthful exuberance and innocence – but it didn’t go to plan: ‘Once everyone was standing there, I was looking through my camera thinking, “This is terrible. It’s pure kitsch what I’m doing.” I was trying to capture a time that didn’t exist anymore. So I sent all but two of the models away and told them to just stand there.’ The result is The Dancing School, an image of two chubby, forlorn teenagers standing motionless mid-dance lesson while rain spatters against the windows. Another in the series, called The Gym, seems even more desolate, with two brooding cheerleaders standing in a deserted gym, rain pouring down outside.
Next Olaf began work on ‘Hope’, which continued the theme of people caught in the moment between action and reaction, although the images are no cheerier than those in ‘Rain’. And while he says he goes to great lengths to create the right atmosphere and aesthetic with each image, what is really going on in Olaf’s photographs is always unclear. The girl in The Kitchen, sitting at a table with an untouched piece of cake, could be on the verge of celebrating; then again, she could be waiting for someone to come back into the room, or wishing she were somewhere else altogether. The young couple in The Hallway might be parting after a row, or about to reconcile. ‘For most of my pictures you don’t know what has happened, because I give you freedom. I want you to make up the story,’ Olaf says.
‘Grief’, completed last year, is the only series in which the models were asked to react to something. Because of this, Olaf says, a lot more depended on their ability to convey emotions in subtle ways. ‘The models are the most important thing because they have to tell the story. You can build the most beautiful set, have the most beautiful hair and make-up, gorgeous costumes, but if the look in their eyes isn’t right, then it makes a bad picture,’ he says. He was particularly pleased with the model Barbara, who is photographed sitting on a stool as she gets dressed. ‘With all the girls in the pictures I just asked them to sit or stand and think about something that might have happened and they’ve just heard the news. From that second I can only stand behind the camera and watch. Barbara decided to pull one stocking only halfway up her leg and to curl her toes in that way. I got goose bumps because I didn’t tell her to do that. There’s so much grief in those toes!’
Looking at the models who feature in ‘Grief’, it’s easy to assume that Olaf is preoccupied with beauty, especially as, judging by photographs of him when younger, he could have been a model himself. In fact, for most of his career Olaf has been known as a photographer who preferred the imperfect, the seemingly ugly and the downright weird. Beauty was something he shied away from in his pictures for a long time, he says, because of his experiences as a boy.
Olaf grew up in the town of Hilversum in the north of Holland, and says he was bullied at school. ‘I could never hide being gay, even when I was six,’ he says. ‘I lived in a little village and wasn’t much loved by the other boys. Boys can sense when someone is different.’ After he left home to study journalism in Utrecht, he began taking photographs. ‘Actually, I’m grateful for what happened to me as a boy, because when I left home I was immediately attracted to an underground world and people who were different.’
In the early 1980s he moved to Amsterdam and began asking ‘extreme types’, as he calls them, to come to his studio to be photographed. In 1988 he won Young European Photographer of the Year for a series called ‘Chessmen’. Compared with his later work, with the coiffured hairdos, pristine costumes and muted stillness, ‘Chessmen’ seems to have come from a very different person indeed. It features rather macabre scenes of bondage, where the cast of characters includes overweight women, dwarfs, giant dildos and a dead chicken.
Ten years later Olaf started to accept commissions for commercial work and in 1998 won the coveted Silver Lion award at the Cannes festival of advertising, for his slick but subversive campaign for Diesel. There were no naked dwarfs this time, but Olaf’s black sense of humour was still present: in the best-known image from the campaign a libidinous granny surreptitiously reaches towards the crotch of a sleeping old man (the advert was for Diesel’s ‘antique dirty denim’ range). The same year Olaf produced his series ‘Mature’, featuring ladies of a certain age in the kind of provocative poses more often seen on the pages of Playboy.
Since then, as well as doing campaigns for Nokia, Microsoft, Heineken and BMW, Olaf has occasionally ventured into the world of fashion photography. ‘I’m less afraid of beauty and fashion now. I never dared to touch it before, because I thought that was the “big world”. Because of that fear I was a little aggressive and wanted to produce pictures that undermined it – different-size women, older women. But in the past five or six years I’ve played much more with beauty.’
For a new series just completed, Olaf has again tinkered with the idea of perfect beauty. This time the young, beautiful models are caught at the moment of blinking, their eyes half closed. ‘There is one school of photographers who photograph “normal” people in natural poses – like the fat people eating ice-cream on a beach in Martin Parr’s pictures. I don’t like those kinds of photographs because I think the photographer feels superior to the subject. On the other side there is the high-gloss, fashion photography where everything is perfect. I don’t like that, either, so I have tried to find a middle ground.’
As he nears his 50th birthday, perhaps youth and beauty are on Olaf’s mind more than ever before. ‘In the end,’ he says, ‘beauty is just wrapping. And it doesn’t last.’