Erwin Olaf (born in Hilversum, the Netherlands, 1959) emerged onto the international art scene with his series Chessmen, which won the Young European Photographer of the Year award in 1988. This was followed by an exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, with subsequent solo and group shows at major museums and galleries worldwide, including Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Málaga, Spain; Museu da Imagem e do Som, São Paulo; Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago, Chile.
Starting his career as a photojournalist documenting the nightlife of the 1980s, Olaf increasingly sought and defined his own subjects, often explored in series of works in black and white (Squares, Chessmen, and Blacks) and color (Mind of Their Own, Rain, Hope, Grief, Dusk, and Dawn). In recent years he has developed his themes through the form of monumental tableaux, for which he adopts the role of director as well as photographer.
His most recent work, in Berlin, Shanghai, and Palm Springs, sees the conclusion of the three-part project Shifting Metropolises (working title), a series of artworks looking at internationally renowned cities undergoing seismic change in the modern world. Rather than fabricating a controlled studio environment, in this trilogy Olaf has shot on location for the first time, retaining his characteristic cinematic associations to produce a body of work wrought with the genuine emotions and neuroses of these places and their inhabitants.
Olaf’s bold approach to his work has earned a number of commissions from institutions, including Louis Vuitton, Vogue, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, for which he designed the 2016 Catwalk exhibition, including a promotional video and photographic campaign. He has been awarded Photographer of the Year in the International Color Awards 2006 and Kunstbeeld magazine’s Dutch Artist of the Year 2014, as well as the Netherlands’ prestigious Johannes Vermeer Award in 2011. Additional international awards include the Silver Lion at the Cannes Advertising Festival and a Lucie Award for achievement in advertising, both in 2008.
Olaf has screened video work at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum at FIT, New York; and Nuit Blanche Toronto, with a live score commissioned for his series Waiting. He has also projected his thirty-channel video installation L’Éveil onto the Hôtel de Ville for Nuit Blanche in Paris, curated by Jean de Loisy (director, Palais de Tokyo). In March 2018, the Museu da Imagem e do Som in São Paulo hosted a retrospective of his work.
In 2018, the Rijksmuseum acquired five hundred key artworks from Olaf’s forty-year oeuvre for their collection. This followed official portraits Olaf made for the Dutch royal family in 2017–18 and his designing the new euro coin for King Willem-Alexander in 2013. Rutger Pontzen, art critic for Dutch newspaper the Volkskrant, said, “Controversial or not, Erwin Olaf does give a picture of the Netherlands . . . and that makes him distinctive in Dutch photography. . . .
In other words, his oeuvre belongs to the cultural heritage.” Now internationally renowned, Erwin Olaf’s photography remains an essential part of Dutch culture. Taco Dibbits, Rijksmuseum director, says, “His work is deeply rooted in the visual traditions of Dutch art,” and consequently Olaf is “one of the most important photographers of the final quarter of the twentieth century.”
In 2019, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and Fotomuseum Den Haag, the Netherlands, will host a joint solo exhibition for Erwin Olaf to commemorate his sixtieth birthday and celebrate his forty years of photography. The Shanghai Center of Photography will also host a solo exhibition that year, and the Rijksmuseum will host an exhibition with a selection of works acquired from Olaf in 2018.
The artist lives and works in Amsterdam.