“When I looked again at the old photos in 2018, I saw that they are very uniform and white. The world has changed tremendously in the meantime. Moreover, social debate about gender has increased and the public is a bit more receptive to it. Now is the time to shatter the excessive forms of machismo in our society, this time around, with the beauty and the boys of today.”
For his series Ladies Hats, the Dutch photographer was spurred on by the fact that men stopped wearing hats, while headdresses were fashionable throughout Western art history till the late nineteenth century. Inspired by Rembrandt, Olaf adopted the technique of chiaroscuro to create a series of portraits of men wearing ladies’ hats. The models look at us with piercing and sometimes flirtatious glances, seducing the viewer with their extravagant hats and expressive poses. Yet, beneath the elegant façade of the image lies hidden a more serious story. By playing with the androgyny of his models, Olaf opposes the heteronormativity of the predominant macho culture. Above all, this series which Olaf started in 1985 and resumed working on in 2018, is a celebration of being different.
Ladies Hats - Jeremiah II-FC, 2020
Since the beginning of his artistic career, Erwin Olaf has been working on the Ladies Hats series, which initially only consisted of black and white photographs. It was not until his latest photographs from 2020 that he decided to also create new compositions in color. Olaf’s fascination with seventeenth century painters like Rembrandt van Rijn and Frans Hals, as well as the fact that men would wear headdresses in portraits throughout the nineteenth century — whereas this accessory has now largely disappeared from fashion — inspired him to create the series. Olaf took sometimes extravagant women’s hats from different eras and asked his models, initially acquaintances from the Amsterdam nightlife, to pose with them. He photographed the young men, only wearing a hat, in the style of a typical portrait painting, either frontally, in profile, or in three quarter profile. Never does one see the whole person; the compositions range from the bust to the half length figure.
The intense light dark contrasts created by the selective illumination of the sitter against a dark background are reminiscent of the Baroque design principle of chiaroscuro. Light and shadow swirl around the naked upper body, emphasizing muscles, tendons, and bone structures and lend the nudes a sense of pronounced plasticity. In the process, Olaf attached a great deal of artistic attention to ensuring that the immaculate skin of his models appears like a smooth marble surface. In works such as Hennie (1985), which can formally be linked to Rembrandt’s early self-portrait from around 1628.
Ladies Hats - Hennie, 1985
The tension manifested in the angle formed by the shoulder and neck is further increased by the ratio of the arms stretched straight forward and the coquettishly curved posture. In addition to the expressive poses of the protagonists, which emphasize the delicacy and sensuality of their appearance, and their sometimes-lascivious looks, the selected headgear underlines the femininity of the men.
Like Olaf’s early work, this series also shows the influence of Robert Mapplethorpe. The square format of the images is characteristic of the Hasselblad camera of the iconic V Series, which not only the American photographer preferred, but which Olaf still works with to this day. In addition to formal parallels, there are also major stylistic similarities. Especially Mapplethorpe’s photo Smutty from 1980, for which he photographed the shirtless Stephen Dennis Smith (nicknamed “Smutty”), bassist of the rockabilly band Levi and the Rockats, can be seen as a reference. The attitude, playing with androgyny, and the vulnerability of the young musician expressed in his gaze are reflected in Ladies Hats.
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”.
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 Ladies Hats series he created an exclusive edition, using his craft in the darkroom to develop these artisanal prints.
Each work in the Ladies Hats series is available in three prints and two sizes. A color chromogenic print on Fuji Chrystal Archive Paper of 110 x 110 cm, and a silver gelatin print on baryta paper of 37,5 x 37,5 cm, or a color chromogenic print on Fuji Chrystal Archive Paper of 37,5 x 37,5 cm. See the index above for all available works in the series. See below images of the frames that belong to the different prints.
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