Born in Hilversum in the Netherlands in 1959, ERWIN OLAF has lived in Amsterdam since the early 1980s, where he currently works from his studio in a former church hall.
Mixing photo-journalism with studio photography, Olaf emerged on the international scene in 1988 when his high-impact Chessmen series was awarded first prize in the Young European Photographer competition, followed by an exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. Since then, in each successive photographic series, Olaf has continued to explore issues of gender, sensuality, humour, despair and grace. While his early work was printed in documentary-style black-and-white, he slowly introduced color and then digital manipulation, as well as exploring new possibilities offered by video and film. Often one photo-series is created in direct contrast to the previous one – Mature (1999) golden-hued portraits of elderly women in the poses of kittenish supermodels; Fashion Victims (2000) as a lewd commentary on the consumerism of sex and designer labels; Royal Blood (2000) minimalist white-on-white portraiture depicting the vengeful nature of members of the aristocracy who have suffered unsavoury deaths; Paradise (2001) a dark and baroque underworld of gleeful clowning and lunacy; Separation (2003) portraying an ice cold and introverted family in a sterile living room; and his three most recent series Rain, Hope and Grief, a return to classic imagery with minimal computer retouching. His 1991 film Tadzio has been followed by comic videos for children’s television, short documentaries, music clips and commissions from the Dutch National Ballet. More recently, Olaf has been creating films and video-installations in which he utilises the same models who appear in his photo series, but playing the roles of different characters, as though his moving images provide a parallel history to his color photographs. These short films have been selected for film festivals all over the world. Solo shows have been staged in such institutions as the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt; MOCCA, Toronto; Galleria Arte Moderna, Bologna; Montevideo Institute, Amsterdam; Muzeum Sztuki Lodz, Poland; Chelsea Art Museum, New York; the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney; George Eastman House, Rochester; the Museum of Modern Art, Moscow and Space E6, Shenzhen, China. In 2008, a new book of Erwin will be published by Aperture that will be launched during the Solo exhibition at the Photomuseum Den Hague, The Netherlands.
Over the years many of Olaf’s works – from his unabashed nude portraiture and intense symbolism to the unflinching gaze in his blood-drenched images of staged violence – have provoked controversy. Not surprisingly, this ability to attract attention has seen his work embraced by the advertising world. He has produced commercials for Lavazza, BMW, Microsoft and Nintendo, among others. In 1999, his worldwide campaign for Diesel Jeans won him the coveted Silver Lion at the Festival for Advertising in Cannes, and he was awarded the same prize two years later for his imagery produced for Heineken. Among his many international art and media prizes, in 2006 he was awarded Photographer of the Year in the International Color Awards & 2007 he won the award of the Artist of the Year of the Netherlands (Kunstbeeld).
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