Erwin Olaf

Erwin Olaf is one of Holland’s most acclaimed contemporary photographers. Famous for his mis-en-scène and highly theatrical compositions, Olaf weaves complex and dramatic narratives into his still photographs. His work is frequently exhibited and included in numerous contemporary art and photography museums internationally.

Erwin Olaf
A Streetcar Named Desire, 2009
Chromogenic print
35 3/8 x 50 1/8 in.
Edition of 15
© Erwin Olaf

Staging dialogues

 

Angels in America, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Sunshine Boys, Three Sisters, Amadeus, Cyrano, and Waiting For Godot.

 

In celebration of the reopening of the grand DeLaMar Theatre in the exciting theatre and nightlife district of Amsterdam, the theatre invited Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf to create a photographic series featuring classic 20th century plays. In his own inimitable manner, Olaf, known for his passion for flawlessly conceiving scenarios, made eight stills and portraits of imagined stage productions, setting them in an equally imagined DeLaMar theatre of the fifties.

 

By taking care of the scenic and lightning design in his typical, immaculate  ‘Olafian’ way, the dialogue from each of the plays is dotted with references to the stages he created. The fact that Olaf worked with real actors and comedians rather than with models encouraged him further in his role as a theatre director. The vibes from each ‘still’ pull us in, making the plays not only about the external drama (a play about a play) but about the drama’s inner core meaning also. As such, in this DeLaMar series, Olaf not only vividly captures the essence of the plays but he also manages to accurately convey the realm of thoughts of the playwrighters.

 

In the photo Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s play of 1953 and styled as “a tragi-comedy", Olaf creates a sense of blankness but with a little hope. As the two main characters Vladimir and Estragon ponder the purpose of their lives, Olaf has them sitting down under a tree which becomes a significant stage prop in itself as it is from this very tree these vagabond companions need to fail to hang themselves.

 

Another somewhat dark comedy is the play by the American playwrighter Tony Kushner, Angels in America. A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991).

Kushner’s subject, the American psyche, is told in the story through the life of conscience-torn or self-deluded characters who are thrown together into the mixer of human emotions and left to battle it out between themselves. Olaf chooses the most dramatic scene for his composition in which the angel pays Prior (who has AIDS) a visit. To enhance the profound meaning of this final moment, Olaf, just as Kushner would have instructed, ensured that the rope was visible from which the angel hangs from the roof of the theatre. The objective here for Olaf was the same "estrangement effect" which Kushner attempts, serving to remind us that all we see is created and artificial thereby enhancing our feelings of magic.

 

In his ‘still’ from the American playwright Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), the leading southern ‘belle’, Miss Blanche DuBois is nowhere to be seen. Olaf chooses instead to feature the other main character: the rough, uncouth and selfish Stanley, desperately crying out in the rain on the street (named Desire) for his wife, the young Stella. An almost fatalistic look crosses her eyes when she descends the staircase, expressionless, since she can’t help herself feeling possessed by him. The action is depicted as taking place in front of the theatre’s box office.

 

Olaf rightfully focuses on the awkwardness and helplessness inherent in the depiction of a dysfunctional marriage in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Martha’s seduction of the young guest Nick has a forcible nature to it while her husband’s response to this provocation by holding Nick’s alcoholic wife captive in dance is evocatively captured in the picture. The additional character of a showgirl has been introduced to the scene who looks on with complete disinterest and with seeming contempt for the institution of marriage. This girl clearly is not afraid of Virginia Woolf or should we say ‘life’.

 

It is in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (produced in 1972) that style takes centre stage. How elegant Clark looks in his stubborn reluctance to retire from performing as his vaudevillian partner Lewis leaves by the theatre exit to a seemingly brighter future having broken up their ‘Lewis & Clarke’ act. Without knowing the play, we discern immediately how life is not about ‘holding on’, but about ‘letting go’.

 

This advice sounds just right for the three sisters, Olga, Maria and Irina of the play of the same name (The Three Sisters) written in 1900 by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The three women brought up as socialites in Moscow are subsequently confined to a dull life in the country. In Olaf’s composition they divide the stage up between them yet on closer examination they all seem to be preoccupied with their individual frustrations. Perhaps it is in this play we are reminded the most of Olaf’s earlier series Rain, Hope and Grief.

 

What a clever shot, the one of Cyrano the Bergerac! In this play, written by Edmond Rostand in 1897, Olaf was not afraid to revisit the balcony scene in which Cyrano helps his friend Christian find the right words with which to woo the beautiful Roxane. Not only do the costumes provoke great admiration but the perspective that Olaf has chosen signifies the supplication of Cyrano’s own will as he loves the lady equally but is afraid of humiliation due to his ugly nose! The angle has another surprise. Because of this angle we can also see that there are two characters, probably a director and a casting director sitting in the audience, as if the actors were auditioning, leaving us feeling more voyeuristic than ever.

 

To finish the evening as it were, we are about to see Amadeus (the stage play written in 1979 by Peter Shaffer which he based upon the Russian libretto Mozart and Salieri of Alexander Pushkin in 1830). A divinely spectacular and wonderfully brilliant photo of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart jumping up in the air like a mad dog throwing his musical scores about him with abandon. The jealous and envious mediocrity, Salieri, looks on abjectly. He appears intensely hurt and perhaps irritated by Mozart’s self-absorbed ingenuity. We see how here again. Olaf treats us to a feast of the senses!

 

Without doubt, the question of liberty, whether social or psychological, which is evident within the dialogue of all of these featured plays appeals to Olaf, who in his own fabulous way has weighed, contemplated, reflected and visualized this “La Condition Humaine” throughout the years in its innumerable different layers of meaning.

 

Text by Fiona van Schendel, M.A. in History and journalist, Amsterdam.