Born in 1959 in Hilversum (the Netherlands), lives in Amsterdam (the Netherlands).
With the aid of his razor-sharp aesthetic intuition, Olaf purposely conceals his themes so that the viewer unconsciously and initially accepts the concealment found in his photo series. Yet in the end, his unconventional style never fails to deliver dramatic visual and emotional impact. By providing scenic and striking design, along with the utmost perfect composition in his typical, immaculate 'Olaf' style, combined with his passion for conceiving flawless scenarios, he vividly captures the essence of contemporary life.
Mixing photo journalism with studio photography, Olaf emerged on the international art scene in 1988, when his series Chessmen was awarded the first prize in the Young European Photographer competition. This award was followed by an exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany in the same year. In his earlier work on the subject of social exclusion Olaf was deliberately disturbing with the intention of raising awareness and he was dedicated towards exploring issues of class, race, sexual taste, beliefs, habits and grace. In the series Rain (2004), Hope (2005), Grief (2007) and Fall (2008) Olaf challenges the notion of domestic bliss. Dusk (2009) and Dawn (2010) show how culture can become repression, despite a beautiful appearance. A similar disengagement takes place in Olaf's Hotel (2010) series in which he explores the subtle range of detached melancholic emotions in dimly-lit exquisitely furnished 1950s hotel rooms. In the new series The Siege and Relief of Leiden (2011) Olaf depicts a number of now iconic scenes from the relief and brings the leading figures together in a dramatic setting. Olaf took his inspiration from existing paintings and new research into the experience of the 3rd of October.
In 1987 he began working with film which has since then continued to be an important medium for his art. Often these movies provide a parallel history to his colour photography. In the past years Olaf's films have been screened at several leading museums and film festivals all around the world. A selection of screenings at museums at Centre Pompidou – Paris, Reina Sofia National Museum – Madrid, SCCA, Centre for Contemporary Art – Ljubljana, and the Museum at FIT – New York. A selection of screenings at film festivals: Fashion Film Festival – Melbourne, Rencontres International Film festival – Paris, International Film Festival Turkey – Ankara, EMAF Festival – Osnabrück, Dutch International Film Festival – Rotterdam.
Olaf's visually sophisticated and conceptually provocative style has been embraced by the advertising world. His worldwide campaigns for Diesel Jeans and Heineken won him the coveted Silver Lion at the Cannes Lions Festival for Advertising. In 2010 Louis Vuitton commissioned Olaf for a portrait series in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. He also won numerous other international art and media prizes, such as Photographer of the Year in the International Colour Awards in 2006, and “Kunstbeeld” magazine's Artist of the Year of the Netherlands in 2007. In 2008 he received a Lucie Award from the United States of America for his achievements in photography. Recently he won the prestigious Dutch State price of the Arts, Johannes Vermeer Award 2011. The jury selected him because of the high quality of his entire body of work.
Recent monographs are 'Erwin Olaf', Aperture Foundation, New York, (2008). This autumn his new book named 'Own', from Lido Books, Amsterdam, (2011) will be published, providing a retrospective of his work.
Erwin Olaf has had numerous important group and solo exhibitions both nationally and internationally, including George Eastman House, Rochester, USA; Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; Chelsea Art Museum, New York; Kunsthalle, Winterthur, Switzerland and the Museum of the City of New York, New York. Solo exhibitions include the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Bilbao Art Centre, Bilbao, Spain; Groninger Museum, Groningen; MonteVideo, Amsterdam; Modern Art Gallery of Bologna, Bologna, Italy; Museum of Modern Art, Moscow, Russia; The Hague Museum of Photography, The Hague; Photo Museum Antwerp, Antwerp; Institut Néerlandais, Paris; Domus Artium, Salamanca; Hermitage, Amsterdam; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. His work is part of the collections of Municipal Museum, The Hague; Central Museum, Utrecht; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Groninger Museum, Groningen; Ludwig Museum, Cologne, Germany; FNAC Collection, Paris; Caldic Collection, Rotterdam; Rosenblum Collection, Paris; Orefa Collection, Paris.