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Erwin OlafReview - Erwin Olaf
by Erwin Olaf
Aperture, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Nov 25th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 48)

Erwin Olaf works both as commercial photographer and an art photographer.  This book contains photographs and a DVD with 5 short films of a few minutes each.  Some of the photographs look like video stills from the films, while others are more clearly posed because they are static.  There's a useful essay by Alasdair Foster explaining something about how the photography and the film relate to each other in exhibitions, and what order the different projects were made in.  Olaf's own website also gives a helpful overview of his work, with small versions of his photographs and extracts from his films.  The photographs are clearly staged with careful choice of models, clothing, and set.  They are often menacing and melancholy in their tone.  The cover photograph  is a good example: a young woman wearing dress that looks like it comes from the late 1950s stands outside a hotel room.  We can see the door number and the wood paneling of the corridor.  She has one hand on the door frame and her other hand up on her neck, and she gazes into the distance, not at the viewer, looking worried.  In another picture, we see more of the corridor, with the same woman, this time leaning back on the wall more provocatively, with her hands behind her back, her right foot lifted slightly out of her shoe, and her hips leaning forward.  She looks toward the floor.  In front of her, a man in a raincoat, shirt, tie, and sweater, stands completely still with his arms at his sides, looking down in front of him.  The corridor is dim, and the small lights on the wall do not seem to illuminate it.  Most of the pictures in the book seem to be set in an earlier decade, with a hint of caricature.  This is clearer in a photograph with an older teacher and a young woman in a classroom.  There are old fashioned desks lined up, and mathematical symbols on the blackboard.  The teacher is white haired and balding, while the student is blonde with long hair pulled up into a pony tail.  She has on a tight sweater, a short skirt, and a blouse and tie.  Her blouse is untucked and her socks are not pulled up.  The two people do not look at each other.  There's a hint of sexual inappropriateness here, and close-ups of both figures in other pictures show him looking guilty and her looking pouty and sullen.  Another set of pictures with an Asian woman and an older nurse standing in a doctor's office, both looking ashamed and upset, has a similar feel.  Similar emotions are depicted with two cheerleaders in a gym and two boxers in a boxing ring.  One of the films shows a group of people sitting around a dining table, not eating or communicating with other.  All these images suggest isolation and deferred pleasure in a world that puts a premium on appearance. 

The production qualities are high: it is clear that each image took a great deal of preparation.  The presentation is mannered, as if in an attempt to draw attention to the effort it took to make them.  Often, the images are quite beautiful.  When the models are not attractive, it is clear that they have been made to look that way, and Olaf is drawing attention to their age or bodily imperfections.  The most adventurous piece is the short film "Le Dernier Cri" which is set in Paris 2019, in a house with a modernistic/retro feel to it -- a woman is using a vacuum cleaner that looks as if it from the 1950s.  Another woman comes to the door and we see that both woman have bizarre facial implants with geometrical objects, to make themselves more attractive.  It is like seeing body piercing for the first time: shocking and a little enticing. 

So Olaf's themes are about modern unhappiness, the focus on beauty, and the depiction of people.  Many pictures have a hint of absurdity, and this seem sly and artificial.  They are extremely self-conscious.  It's easy to find them interesting and clever, but it is hard to love them.  Browsing through Olaf's website, there's more diversity there, and he clearly has a great deal of creative energy.  His work is very distinctive; if would be hard to mistake his work for anyone else's.  Even if he doesn't seem to be saying anything very new, his style is admirable. 

Link: Erwin Olaf website

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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