“Current events have really put me through the ringer. It’s a very special time we live in. I have never experienced a global pandemic before. I’ve also never experienced the effects of climate change so visibly. […] I very much felt the urge to address these issues in my work.”— Erwin Olaf
Surrounded by the overwhelming beauty of the Alpine forest, Olaf created Im Wald, his first-ever series of photographs in which nature is placed center stage. Yet, Olaf did not exclusively photograph natural landscapes. He forefronts the role of people, staging them in visually astounding settings and examining their relationship to nature. Olaf questions who we are and why we believe everything to be within our reach. He worries that we have become too hubristic, taking for granted what we think we’re owed. Im Wald is an outspoken commentary on travelling and explores the impact of mass tourism on nature. Olaf makes an appeal to his audience to cherish and admire nature.
About the artist
Erwin Olaf is an internationally exhibiting artist whose diverse practice centers around society’s marginalized individuals, including women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. In 2019 Olaf became a Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands after 500 works from his oeuvre were added to the collection of the Rijksmuseum. Taco Dibbits, Rijksmuseum director, called Olaf “one of the most important photographers of the final quarter of the 20th century”.
Im Wald - Unter dem Baum, 2020
Im Wald - In der Abenddämmerung, 2020
“We have passed through sorrow and joy,
walking hand in hand.
Now we need not seek the way:
we have settled in a peaceful land.”
– Joseph von Eichendorff
This first verse of the poem Im Abendrot (At Sunset), published by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841, tells about an old couple that is going to face death together. The poet drafts a picture of life as a journey into the unknown and nature as a symbol for life’s transience. These peaceful, harmonious verses can also be applied to Im Wald.
In der Abenddämmerung (At Dusk) shows two men in a forest. While the younger man carrying a backpack strides toward a clearing, the older man holding his luggage remains behind in the dark. This image is an insight into the private life of the artist, as it depicts him on the right and his longtime partner, Kevin Edwards, on the left. Due to their difference in age, Olaf is aware that he and his husband, unlike the couple in the poem, will probably not remain together but be parted by death.
In art history, the late nineteenth century of Ludwig II is characterized by symbolism. This art movement has been a source of inspiration for Olaf. The Toteninsel by Böcklin (second image above) is one of the works that greatly appealed to Olaf and had clear influence on the works Der Schwan and Auf dem See. Influenced by Symbolism, Erwin Olaf depicts life as a walk towards the unknown and nature as a symbol of our transcience.
As always in his work, Olaf explores themes of current urgency. Climate change and the need for environmental protection have dominated public debate in the past two years. The young woman in the photograph Im Blättermeer (Sea of Leaves) hardly notices her environment. Poised and without expression, she wears headphones and holds her mobile phone while standing in the middle of a field of waist high butterbur staring into the distance. For Olaf, human ignorance toward nature has a lot to do with arrogance, with the fatal illusion of being able to shape the world according to one’s will.
Im Wald - Im Blättermeer, 2020
” The population explosion to 7 billion and the global movement of people, mass tourism and migration. These are all topics that concern me immensely. Tourists, expats, and refugees seeking a better world; the blending of cultures and the tension as well as beauty this brings. I very much felt the urge to address these issues and to portray these different people in my work.”— Erwin Olaf
Im Wald - Vor der Felswand, Selbstporträt, 2020
In Vor der Felswand, Selbstporträt (In Front of the Mountain Wall, Self-Portrait), one sees a man from behind carrying a backpack and holding a hiking stick. Only the title reveals that the lonesome rambler pausing here is the artist himself. The similarity to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (second image left) cannot be overlooked — just like the grave differences that become apparent when comparing them. In the photograph it is not the confrontation with the unforeseen that awaits man, who appears sublime and yet awestruck. Rather, nature sets an insurmountable boundary for the wanderer. He does not stand at the summit of his path, but seems to have reached his end point.
The photograph Im Nebel could be seen as a counterpart to his self-portrait (Vor der Felswand, Selbstporträt). Once again, a small human figure is standing on a rock in inhospitable terrain, yet this time it is a boy. What initially appears like the clasps of the lederhosen he is wearing, turn out to be the fastening straps of a backpack. The boy holds a translucent plastic bag in his hand, containing a rag and a plastic bottle. His surroundings, by contrast, are little recognizable — the eponymous wall of fog, in which the shapes of large trees are indistinctly outlined, fills the background. The boy seems lost, alone in his expectation of a still unwritten future. Here a reference can be found to Franz von Lenbach’s Hüterbub auf einem Grashügel (second image right).
Im Wald - Im Nebel, 2020
Im Wald - Am Wasserfall, 2020
Am Wasserfall shows a group of people of color at a rock formation, in front of a foaming waterfall which provides an impressive natural spectacle. With a momentous gesture, the only woman in the scene points to the place at which the water forges ahead. Olaf plays with the cliché of an exotic paradise by showing the protagonists naked and in seeming harmony with nature. But in this image too, he deliberately creates breaches. Packed luggage can be seen standing next to the people, but no discarded clothes. Then there is the small figure of a man standing in the background on a rock, taking a photo with a mobile phone. Olaf drew inspiration from Thomas Eakins’ The Swimming Hole for the composition of the five nude models (second image above).
Silver Gelatin Print editions
Since a couple of years silver gelatin prints have re-emerged in Erwin Olaf’s work. Developed in 1871, silver gelatin printing is a process that’s associated with the black-and-white work of early-20th century photographers. Due to its beauty and archival quality, it is considered to be the gold standart in analogue black and white photography printing. With this process Olaf goes back to his photographic roots. Subsequently, for each work in the Im Wald series he created an exclusive edition, using his craft in the darkroom to develop these artisanal prints.
For his photographs and films, the Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf creates a world that has been staged down to its smallest detail. It seems very similar to ours, but its artificiality gives it an enigmatic sense. Still, with their visuals borrowed from the film and advertising industries, the works are only flawlessly striking on the surface; in fact, they deal with questions of democracy, equality, or self-determination. This book contains images of Erwin Olaf’s most important photographs, videos, and sculptures, and accompanies the eponymous exhibition at the Kunsthalle Munich. The volume features the artist’s latest works as well as an interview and insightful essays, providing the most comprehensive look at Erwin Olaf’s work to date.