IN FOCUS: Erwin Olaf | The New ‘Face’ of Shanghai | PHOTOFAIRS

IN FOCUS: Erwin Olaf | The New ‘Face’ of Shanghai

© Erwin Olaf, American Dream, Self-Portrait with Alex I, Palm Springs, 2018


2019 marks the fortieth year of distinguished portrait photographer Erwin Olaf’s career, and sixtieth birthday. In celebration, multiple galleries across the world are hosting exhibitions to showcase the diverse portfolio of the Dutch artist. From Hamiltons Gallery, London, whose owner Tim Jefferies has chosen to highlight the ‘Women’ Olaf has impressively illustrated, to the Shanghai Center of Photography (SCoP), who has highlighted the mis-en-scène element of Olaf’s work in their exhibition ‘Parallel’. PHOTOFAIRS interview Olaf to gain a compelling insight into his monumental career…


“[Digital photography and photoshop] has been a ‘silent revolution’. It has provided everyone with the possibility to ‘paint’ with photography”

Congratulations on your many global solo exhibitions in 2019! The exhibitions all celebrate your impressive forty-year career in photography. What are the most dominant changes in contemporary photography you have witnessed over this period of time?
The most important one on the surface I would say is digital photography and photoshop. This has been a ‘silent revolution’. It has provided everyone with the possibility to ‘paint’ with photography, and it has made photography super accessible to everyone. 


© Erwin Olaf, The Hallway, Hope, 2005


The exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag presents your most recent series Palm Springs for the first time. The series depicts and triggers memories of midcentury California, as an idyllic promise land, whilst simultaneously illustrating the 21st Century realities. What stimulated your interest in this society and area of the US?
I am very interested and fascinated by what is going on with the have’s and have-nots in the world right now. People seem to connect more and more in the online world, but in real life we retreat into our own bubble. This is also what I felt in America, people are closing the gates of their gated community and live in their own world, where as outside the world is in turmoil.  It is the clash of these different worlds, the getting together that interests me. 


© Erwin Olaf, The Family Visit, The Niece, Palm Springs, 2018


As part of this exhibition, you will be displaying twenty photographs by famous photographers from Bernard Eilers to Robert Mapplethorpe who have provided inspiration to you throughout your career. How did these individual photographers help to shape your identity as a photographer? And how did you decide to curate these images?
They are partly my education into photography, partly they are what made me love photography so much, showing me a language without words, that evokes ideas, teases me, triggers me, teaches me. The curation was a trip down memory lane to look back on who inspired me, and what was possible to obtain for the exhibition. A little bit of both.


Displayed at the exhibition at the Shanghai Centre of Photography this year are images from your series Shanghai, 2017, part of a three-dimensional series visually demonstrating changes occurring in Berlin, Shanghai and Palm Springs. In your artist statement on the series, you explain: “Shanghai reminds me of a young, confident adolescence full of boundless energy, convinced of its own power, and doing whatever it takes to reach its potential ”. How did you illustrate this perception in your images?
I illustrated this in the ‘new’ face of Shanghai, the part that is asking or demanding the old part (be it traditions, architecture, or physical features) to make space for the new. You can see it in the girl who has changed her eyes, the rumble of the old buildings that make space for the new. The elder lady waiting for her eviction.


               © Erwin Olaf, Huai Hai 116, The Seated Lady, Shanghai, 2017                                                           ©Erwin Olaf, Fu1088, Portrait 01, Shanghai, 2017


You also discussed in your artist statement for your Shanghai project that you purposely experimented with a commercial and advertisement-style aesthetic to replicate the metropolis of Shanghai, despite usually avoiding this approach. How did you decide to implement this into your photography?
I felt this story demanded that approach because of the high gloss of the city. I could not work with that background and not try to catch the appeal of this booming giant that is Shanghai.

Your work varies across a multitude of mediums, from 3D photography to installations and sculpture. How has your experience been of experimenting with various forms of photography and its presentation?
I feel you can tell a more detailed and complete story when you use different kinds of media. So it is enriching the story. My experience so far has been good, I hope to further explore this path in the future.


 © Erwin Olaf, (Installation) in Rabouan Moussion, Paris, Troubled, 2017


Finally, your solo exhibition open now at Hamiltons, London, provides a snapshot into the female portraits captured throughout your career. Do you have a favourite from the images presented at the exhibition, and if so why?
They are all my favourites of course!


 © Erwin Olaf, Hamiltons Gallery, London, Women, 2019