Award-winning and bestselling photographer Erwin Olaf has released a selection of his work, a haunting and visceral look at taboos, in his latest book Erwin Olaf: Volume II. Following the release of his debut monograph Erwin Olaf (2008), Olaf has built upon his highly polished and stylised imagery in his most recent work, resulting in a collection which is tangibly atmospheric – both seductive and unsettling in turns. Schön! speaks to the photographer about taboo, beauty and the experience of photography.
What motivated you to publish a second book? What differentiates this text from its predecessor, Erwin Olaf?
The difference with my second volume at Aperture is that it is more sinister than the first one. The mood of it is much darker. My work is usually a reflection of my feeling towards society, and what is going on right now in the world is rather dark. This volume is more about sorrow.
How do you think that a photograph is best enjoyed; for example on a screen, at an exhibition, in a book, in a frame?
I believe that the best medium to enjoy a photograph is within a book for its intimacy, and an exhibition for enjoying installations at their best. When you see an installation you perceive all of the cross references, you can enjoy the different parts of the work. These are best enjoyed in an exhibition. Also, the experience of the viewer is more intense, more confrontational with the content and the form of the installation at an exhibition.
Your images instantly engage the viewer. What is the reaction that you want to provoke?
I don’t aim to provoke, I want to be honest with my feelings and my work. I don’t want to avoid my own feelings and the way that they inspire my work because some of these feelings deal with sensitive issues.
Your style is extremely polished. Is this an indication of your interpretation of beauty? And are beauty and perfection something that you seek in your photography?
No, Beauty in my work is a lubricant to engage my viewer, to catch the attention. But looks can be deceiving, what initially draws you in is not what it is all about.
Also, I am fascinated by the way beauty works and what beauty does with people. My use of a polished style is a choice, much like the way that so called documentary photographers choose a certain set up/frame. For them it’s a choice to leave certain elements in the photograph (like a powerpoint for instance). The form is a choice, but the content is not always so different.
Artists, writers, musicians are often assumed to be using themselves as inspiration in their art – to be representing themselves even in fiction. Is this true of you? Do your photographs and film reflect on you personally and your experiences?
Yes, this is also true for me. The best and only source of direct inspiration is your own life. By that I also mean the things that touch me, whether they are relationships that I have, books that I read, or developments in the world that worry me. My work is usually about my own emotions.
You are renowned for working with social taboos. Are there any taboos that you have not yet explored but wish to? And are you interested in the breaking of a taboo, or the exposure of taboos?
What intrigues me is that ‘the laugh’ or laughter has been hijacked by commercial photography (advertising), and that genitalia has been hijacked by porn. In the past these subjects were never an issue in art, whether it was in paintings or in sculptures. I hope that these two subjects will come together in my new personal work.
There is often a mystery around photographers, as from behind the lens they can create an enigmatic persona. You seem to be much more open, even photographing yourself. Was this something that you sought out, the fact of being more approachable, or something that developed with your work?
It is something that has developed with my work, I am an open book, much like my Mom!
Having exhibited around the world, collected numerous awards and now with a second book in your repertoire, what do you have planned next?
There are new exhibitions coming up, with museums, but also with my galleries.
I am working on new personal work, and something that I am very excited about is going back into the dark room and doing my own silver prints.
Words / Rachel McCulloch