press release

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag & GEM-Museum for Contemporary Art
16 February 2019 till 12 May 2019

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and The Hague Museum of Photography are to honour one of the Netherlands’ most famous photographers, Erwin Olaf (b. 1959), with a double exhibition. Olaf, whose recent portraits of the Dutch royal family drew widespread admiration, will turn 60 this year—a good moment to stage a major retrospective. The Hague Museum of Photography will focus on Olaf’s love of his craft and his transition from analogue photojournalist to digital image-maker and storyteller. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag will show non-commissioned work by Olaf from 2000 to his most recent series "Palm Springs" (2018), on display for the first time. Olaf will be showing his photography in the form of installations, in combination with film, sound and sculpture. Together, the exhibitions will constitute the biggest retrospective of Olaf’s work ever staged, spanning the period from the early 1980s to his most recent work. In the words of Erwin Olaf: celebrating 40 years of visual freedom.

Erwin Olaf was studying journalism in Utrecht in the 1980s when, having noticed that he was unhappy, one of his lecturers pressed a camera into his hands. "I loved the thing right from the word go," says Olaf, "the weight, the cool metal in my hand. It felt so natural. And when I took my first photographs, I knew I had found my calling." Olaf began taking journalistic photographs, worked for progressive magazines and volunteered for COC Nederland (which represents LGBTI interests). In his early work Olaf often depicted the human body quite graphically, breaching the restrictions on sexuality, the body and gender. He describes himself at that time as an angry adolescent, though his taboo-breaking work was highly significant in terms of visual freedom in the Netherlands.

Early work at The Hague Museum of Photography The exhibition at The Hague Museum of Photography will start with Olaf's early work. "Chessmen" (1987-88) was one of his first non-commissioned series. Olaf portrayed the game of chess in a series of provocative images, featuring people with visible genitals, kinky attributes and bondage outfits. The series did not go unnoticed. He received criticism for it, but also the Young European Photographers Prize.

Another early series shows the engagement that has remained important throughout Olaf’s career. "Blacks" (1990) is based on a song by Janet Jackson with the line, "In complete darkness we are all the same. It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us." The series reflects Olaf’s battle for equality, but also his technical skill. In these baroque portraits, literally everything is black as coal, yet Olaf managed to give the images a rich tonality. A self-taught photographer, he has shown himself to be a master, not only of old-fashioned darkroom processes, but also of new techniques that have emerged in rapid succession since the digital revolution. He did pioneering work with Photoshop in the famous series "Royal Blood" (2000).

Besides his own work Erwin Olaf will be bringing together 20 photographs by photographers who are his most important sources of inspiration, ranging from a vintage still life by Bernard Eilers to self-portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra. By showing these pictures alongside his early work, which is imbued with his love of his craft, Olaf will give visitors to the Museum of Photography an idea of what has shaped him as a photographer.