Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf holds a singular position in the world of photography. Staying close to his unique personality, he has developed his own identity while looking at the history of photography and art. His mission is to “create emotion in one hundredth of a second”. To show the hidden identity behind the mask has become his trademark.
Recently, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam has acquired a core collection of Erwin Olaf’s work. The 500 selected works will be displayed in a solo show planned for 2019. Additionally, and to celebrate the photographer’s upcoming 60th anniversary, both the Gemeente Museum and the Photography Museum in Den Haag will host large-scale exhibitions of his work. Erwin Olaf has just created the official portrait of the Dutch Royal Family.
For the past 40 years, Erwin Olaf has produced what is an exceptional body of work that not only can be said to “give a picture of The Netherlands” [Rutger Pontzen, art critic for De Volkskrant, May 2018] but also consists of both commercial work next to his own artwork. His unique universe gives a lot of clues as to how advertising photography can survive and continue to engage and inspire audiences.
1 — Can you describe the process and your approach in commission work as opposed to your own artwork?
Erwin Olaf — At the end of the day, when it comes to commission work, you have to remember that you are selling a product. And so, I am always thinking of what is best for the product and the brand to make a connection with the audience for a specific purchase behaviour to be made. This creates certain parameters that need to be respected throughout the process. With my own artwork, the connection to an audience can happen in many different ways, so I can go in many different directions as I create my own universe. I still bring my own personal style to commercial work. The difference is that the client is more influential throughout the process.
2. How is shooting for advertising in beauty and fashion different from shooting from your own artwork?
Erwin Olaf — Shooting for advertising is a bit more of a technical and defined process. There are certain things that need to be featured and expressed for the brand to resonate. In beauty shoots for example, we know we are focusing on the face, the muscles and the skin, but there is still some freedom in how we position the model, how we light and capture her beauty. Every subtle change matters. That is where creativity comes in — being open to discover just the right positioning. When shooting for my own artwork, I do less thinking and planning — I let things happen and allow myself to be surprised along the way.
3. What makes for a good advertising photograph in your view?
A good advertising image is one that offers the audience something unexpected and at the same time reinforces the brand. The photograph has to bring about a unique emotion. It has to give the viewer permission to engage and put themselves in the place where the model or product is being shot. They have to be able to see a little bit of themselves in the image. The best advertising photographs are the ones that transcend barriers and allow the audience to desire the lifestyle being presented.
— Erwin Olaf
4. When does a photoshoot start to be a campaign and how does it become a successful campaign?
Erwin Olaf — Throughout a photoshoot, you begin to find common themes that work. Certain lighting techniques, angles and expressions begin to make sense. You develop a campaign by finding these design elements throughout the series of shots that connect to the whole brand. Once you find the core elements that thread throughout the images, you can take a few more chances to find highlights that complement the campaign, making it even more successful.
In the end, you find you have created one image that everyone is very proud of. You can measure its success by how long the style you created endures. If what you shot remains as the foundation of the brand for years, and you see the techniques and elements being replicated over time, then you know you’ve done something special— Erwin Olaf
5. What place it occupies in your work today and where do you see advertising photography heading to?
Erwin Olaf — Today, shooting for advertising occupies about 20% of what I do and the rest is artwork. During a recent trip to Shanghai, I was inspired to begin shifting my focus toward creating films and other ways of presenting moving imagery. The future of advertising is most likely going toward the combination of moving and still images. It is intriguing, because at the moment I use it as well in my own portfolio. I love the art of photography and also the quality of printing, but I also see the value and impact of film.
Regardless of what I do creatively, though, I will stay as close to my own personality as possible. To continue to work on the type of projects that move people, sharing who I am inside. Giving them my history and my philosophy through my work — that is what I will continue to do.
— Erwin Olaf