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 was born in Hilversum in the Netherlands in 1959. He was first recognised internationally in 1988 after winning the Young European Photographer of the Year Award for his series ‘Chessmen’.


Olaf started his career by documenting 1980’s nightlife, but soon explored his own series and subjects in both black-and-white and colour. He now shoots tableaux style images, adopting the role of both director and photographer, opting for a cinematic style embedded with stillness which seeks to express the sitter’s genuine emotions and neuroses.


Olaf’s highly theatrical mise-en-scenes recall the early ’60s, underscored by a diluted colour palette. Influenced also by his own travels and accompanying feelings of transience and anomie, Olaf’s models often gaze into the distance and evoke an uneasy, disconnected sense of mystery. Their cinematic nature reflects Olaf’s evolution as an artist, leaning towards more complex narrative.


Olaf is very strongly attached to his Dutch roots so choosing to capture such an iconic landmark in Amsterdam appears natural. In the words of Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum, “[Olaf’s] work is deeply rooted in the visual traditions of Dutch art,” making Olaf “one of the most important photographers of the final quarter of the twentieth century.” Here he uses his knowledge and affinity towards Dutch art in order to represent another culture living within the wider Dutch community.


Olaf’s bold and theatrical approach to photography has earned him commissions from Louis Vuitton, Vogue, and the Rijksmuseum amongst many others. Erwin Olaf is today one of the leading living contemporary photographers in the world. In addition to many international awards over the course of his career, his work is held in many private and public collections internationally including, amongst others, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain in Paris, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow or the Art Progressive Collection in the United States.


The artist lives and works in Amsterdam.