Stylized photos by Dutch master go on exhibition

Liu Xiaolin
"Parallel," the recent exhibition at the Shanghai Center of Photography, turns out to reveal a more personal and intricate side of Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf.
Liu Xiaolin

Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf is perhaps most widely known for his stylized, meticulously staged photography, which can be provocative and daring.

He has shot commercial photos for international brands like Louis Vuitton, Microsoft and Heineken, and his fashion shoots have been published in fashion magazines and newspapers, such Vogue and The New York Times.

The works of this award-winning photographer have been shown in major galleries and museums around the world.

“Parallel,” the recent exhibition at the Shanghai Center of Photography, turns out to reveal a more personal and intricate side of Olaf — the subtext behind his visually polished works.

The solo exhibition, running through May 30, includes some of his early signature works, such as the “Chessmen” series that won him international recognition in 1988, and the commissioned works he undertook for the De La Mar Theater in Amsterdam.

Most of the works in the exhibition come from private artistic projects where he explores techniques and storytelling. A selection of images from his trilogy of “Shifting Metropolises” — a recent project involving three international cities, Berlin, Shanghai and Palm Springs — reveals his reflections on a changing world.

The Berlin segment observes parallels between the interwar period (1918-39) and the modern-day city. It shows he was “unsettled” by the similarities and feared for the near future of Europe when making the series in 2012. It also illustrates his realization of “how massively the power of children has increased over the last several decades.”

Instead of photographing in an obsessively staged studio, it was the first time that Olaf went out to shoot on location, retaining his signature cinematic presentation.

Five years later, he turned his camera to Shanghai. Describing the city as “a young, confident adolescent full of boundless energy,” he said he was drawn to its “micro-world.”

“(It is) a world built up by 24 million individuals, all with love, hate, sadness — all emotions,” he added. “People can be crushed very easily ... that’s what I want to visualize in my fantasy.”

He translates what he saw on the streets into this set of photographs, such as a girl who just had eye surgery and bandages over her eyes. His still-life images serve as relief, of sorts, from the intense portraits and provide a way for him to play with reality, such as the photo of a vase of plastic plum blossoms that may deceive viewers into believing they are real.

Harmless tease or surreal beauty on the surface, it is Olaf’s invitation to the audience “to make their own stories.”

“I think one of the biggest feats of art is when I look at good pictures, photographs, paintings, music or movies and am so impressed that it inspires stories in me,” he said.

In an effort to attract viewers, he added, “I don’t mind putting a crack in beauty because beauty itself is boring.”

In the last 15 years, Olaf has been exploring the choreography of bodies and their relationship with nature.

“You can tell so much of a story without telling any story,” he explained.

The balance of setting and body language are revealed in the series of “Rain” (2004), “Hope” (2005) and “Grief” (2007).

Artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer are a constant inspiration.

“Here’s a very simple painting of a very simple thing,” he said of Vermeer’s 1660s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”

“It gets my mind going.”

Nearing age 60, Olaf is turning his attention to themes of decline. In “Separation” (2003), he studies his mother dying, both as a son and as a photographer.

Self-portrait has become a way to channel his visual art creation and “fight my own demons or conquer problems worrying me.”

“It’s better to photograph myself in my artworks then to shout on the streets,” he joked.

After being diagnosed with emphysema, he did a portrait set entitled “I Am,” “I Will Be” and “I Wish.”

“It’s like therapy,” he said. “You became less angry when making these self-portraits and accepting your future.”

Being sexually active in his 20s and ambitious in his 30s and 40s, Olaf noted that “the advantage of growing old is getting less aggressive.”

He added, “When you are young, you think, ‘Oh no, I have plenty of time.’ And now you think, ‘No, no, no, I go on a holiday, now!’”

Special Reports