The images in his head are always very strong, even if he does not know beforehand what they mean. Photographer Erwin Olaf works intuitively and only sees afterwards what his photo series are about. As Palm Springs, his new work on display since this weekend at the double exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum and Fotomuseum in The Hague. 'For me, fantasy is the cork on which I float in this life. It makes my life more beautiful and bigger.'
The retrospective nicely captures the development in Erwin Olaf's work. He gained fame for his taboo-breaking photo series of constricted naked people (Chessmen, 1987-1988) or elderly pin-ups (Mature, 1999), in the new millennium his work became more subdued, with series such as Grievance (2007), about grief and loneliness. From 'scandal photographer', he became an arrived art photographer, having had the honour of taking the state portraits of the royal family last year.
Look at me
The work from those early years, still impressive to see, elicits a smile from its creator. 'I look back on that older work with mildness, it sometimes gives me a lump in my throat,' Olaf says. 'What a struggling man I was then. I see a lot of aggression, I did a lot to attract attention. This is me, listen to me, look at me. My pictures could be overwhelming as a result. Men between their thirties and forties are all eager to sit at the top of the monkey rock or climb up. I felt I had to prove myself enormously. Because I was gay, because I had done the School of Journalism but not the Rietveld Academy - only then are you really an artist - I was very insecure.'
He still is, he confesses, but by now that uncertainty has gripped him less because experience has shown that he always manages to wash his pigs in the end. 'After I turned forty, that passion for proof slowly calmed down, and I started to realise that my opinion is not necessarily the most important one, that I don't hold the truth. That also brought about a big change in my work. I have started to photograph more openly, giving more space to the viewer's interpretation. Why should I be on top of that monkey rock? Why am I so great? I have learned to put things into perspective.'
Now turning 60, Olaf feels like an older man, both physically and mentally - and he does not find that unpleasant. Due to his pulmonary emphysema, he may have to take it easier than he used to, but he still works his ass off sometimes, such as for the series Palm Springs, which he made last autumn and is now on display for the first time at the retrospective.
As always, the work reveals itself to be socially critical to the good listener. His photographs, where every detail has been thought through and everything is exactly in place, tell a story that often only unfolds when you look more closely. Also for himself, by the way. Usually Olaf only sees what an image means afterwards, he says. 'Through one of the models, a beautiful, older woman with a full figure and grey hair, I was given an image of an aunt in an awkward situation with her niece of 14. She had to wear a green mohair jumper, I felt, and she had to be Catholic, so she got a gold cross. No idea why - until a short time later I suddenly read the news report again that in Pennsylvania, priests had been making their abuse victims wear gold crosses for the past decades so that their colleagues could recognise children who could be sexually abused. Suddenly I had my story.'
The photo in which Olaf stands at the edge of the pool, with a young man in swimming costume in the water, subtly makes transience visible: the irrevocably advancing age, the yellowing grass - and thus also contains a hint to the climate issue. 'The Kite', a photograph of an African-American mother picnicking with her daughter near a wind farm, proved to be yet another wonderful representation of the theme of racism. Olaf: 'Hanging in the tree was a broken kite with an American flag on it. I asked the girl if she wanted to look at that kite with her hand over her eyes. I started clicking and suddenly I thought: screw it, now it looks like she's saluting a gravesite with all those white crosses. African-Americans were never allowed in the army until there was a shortage of cannon meat.
Thus, the entire series turned out to be Palm Springs about the decay of our society, about sexual abuse and the deep-rooted racism that is in all of us - topics that have occupied my mind a lot lately. It may be objectively less bad with discrimination than it used to be, but it is experienced as more intense because it is actually no longer acceptable. But should I think of making a photo series about something like this beforehand, it would fail.'
Thus, his work subconsciously has a therapeutic effect for him. 'In 2003, for example, I had Separation made, large prints of mother and child figures in latex, which symbolised skin, protection and, at the same time, a certain inaccessibility. Those prints would go to the Groninger Museum, and it wasn't until I was alone in my studio and looked at one of those pictures - two women's hands and a child walking towards them and raising its little hands - that I realised: this is about me and Mum. Even when you are very small and surrounded by all the love in the world, you are actually deeply alone. That intense feeling of loneliness is not only with the child, but also with the mother - even if they are two people who love each other terribly. I make something and only later see what it means. With that, that subject has then gained a place for me.'
Of course, the exhibition also features the beautiful portraits of the royal family, for which Olaf rightly received much praise last year. While Queen Máxima radiates energy, the close-up picture of King Willem-Alexander shows moving vulnerability and gentleness. The fact that Olaf would design the new euro coin was already a big surprise - 'I can probably make a sketch, I thought' - but that he would get the honour of portraying the members of the royal family was something he never expected. 'In the Spanish Vanity Fairthey had printed my photo of the queen and her three daughters alongside free work featuring a man with an erection, and my self-portrait from when I was 30, also with an erection. Above it the headline: "Scandal photographer photographs the Queen!" Of course the royal couple, the RVD and all other advisers know what I used to make. We had meetings about it and finally decided: we are going to do it. So I think that's really fantastic about our country and our royal family.'
The double exhibition can be seen at the Gemeentemuseum and Fotomuseum Den Haag until 12 May. A major exhibition at the Rijksmuseum will follow from 2 July.