‘I stood there panting like an old dog; couldn’t take a step forwards or backwards. My heart wasn’t up to the strain, it wasn’t getting enough oxygen.’ During one of his last photo shoots, on a mountain in Los Angeles, Erwin Olaf thought things were coming to a premature end.

‘When I get higher than fifteen hundred metres, things quickly become critical, because of my emphysema. I felt ill and suspected the onset of a heart attack.’ The combination of heat, rarefied air and the ash of burnt Californian trees might, it seemed, prove fatal. Perhaps emotions about the decease of his mother, a few days earlier, may also have played a role.

Read moreClick here to see more of Erwin Olaf's work shot in Palm Springs24 januari 2019

A month later, the photographer is sitting cheerfully in his studio and can give a detailed account of the adventure. He is shocked by his body; death there in California would have come much too soon. ‘This is my jubilee year; I wouldn’t want to miss it.’

It is not only a jubilee year for himself – emphysema or not, he will be celebrating his sixtieth birthday on 2 July – but also for the fans of his photos. First, there is the major retrospective exhibition, which will be held from mid-February in the Gemeentemuseum and in the Fotomuseum in The Hague. He has just been to the printing press in Bruges, to monitor the quality of the catalogue being prepared in four languages, with four different covers, to accompany the exhibition. ‘Four hundred pages! You could knock someone out with it.’ He is not completely satisfied with what has rolled off the presses until now. ‘The colours are already very beautiful, but the black and white isn’t quite there yet; there’s still some work to be done on it.’

Erwin Olaf
The photos in this article are all from the Palm Springs series.

Later this year, his work will be on display in the Rijksmuseum. ‘Taco Dibbits and I are looking for thematic combinations of my photographs, which the Dutch government purchased last year, with paintings from the museum’s collection.’

It is busy as usual in Fotostudio Erwin Olaf, where the last prints are being prepared for the exhibition in The Hague. ‘The company runs smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. The red-haired monster here makes sure of that.’ He is talking lovingly about Shirley den Hartog, the woman who runs his working life and with whom he forms a business duality. She has just slipped out for a while, but has, as always, left the studio in perfect condition. Erwin Olaf will himself be leaving soon for a month in Vietnam – he wants to spend some time there before his jubilee year getting some colour on his cheeks and literally catching his breath. ‘My lung specialist says that Dutch winters are something I should avoid in future.’

In time for the funeral

Looking back on his breathlessness on top of that Californian mountain devastated by forest fires, he is again short of breath. ‘We were out with a large team – assistants, lighting specialists, stylists, models – and they kept firing questions at me: “What is going to be your point of view? How do you want to have that burnt-out car in the picture? And what about the charred pine trees?” I had no idea what they were talking about; all I could think about was survival.’ He gasps for breath at the memory. ‘Your body is demanding oxygen and your heart wants to supply it, but you don’t get enough from your lungs and everything is suddenly on tilt.’

‘I wanted to show that there are so many beautiful skin colours these days. But once you start photographing, you notice that you irrevocably end up in a racial discussion.’

The acute breathlessness was just one of the obstacles that threatened to turn the American sessions into a disastrous undertaking. The team of about fifty men and women – ‘a small film production’ – were collectively upset when, just a few days before the shoot, they heard that the mother and biggest fan of the photographer, Lida Springveld, had passed away after a long illness at the age of 85. ‘She was constantly in my mind when I wasn’t working – when I’m photographing, I forget everything and everyone.’ In order to be back in time for the funeral, the team had to give up some work days. Then it turned out that one of the locations, a villa from the fifties in a gated community, was no longer available because of an argument between the neighbours.

Despite these setbacks, the Palm Spring expedition produced a wealth of new material, says Erwin Olaf as we sit at the long dining table in the studio kitchen looking at the American photos. ‘We had a guardian angel looking over us; perhaps it was my mother. I even got the slightly cloudy day I had wanted, which gave the light something mystical.’

The locations had been scouted and the models chosen from the Netherlands. As always, he had made sketches of the scenes ‘You’re casting, you look at hundreds of photos, you think up situations. For a long time, it is a purely aesthetic exercise – after all, in the beginning is always the image. The content will creep into the photos later, all by itself.’ The real work is kneading and polishing things during the shoot itself, he says. ‘Then you come under considerable pressure. It is hectic. Time is money – in this case, a lot of money. Your fantasy collides with reality. No matter how well prepared you are, it ultimately all comes down to coincidence. When I photograph on location, I take impulsive decisions and work on intuition.’

Erwin Olaf

Fictional gossip

Despite the extreme fatigue, Palm Springs was a kick. ‘A new direction appeared in my work, thanks to the different technique you need outside the studio. We had made an extensive study of old examples of light from the fifties and sixties, when much use was made on location of camera-mounted flash.’ Where previously he had sought the limitations of the studio, the combination of the interior and exterior world added something extra. ‘We occasionally were given a piece of the story as a gift.’

One of the starting points was an ‘interracial’ casting, according to his maxim that we automatically get all the colours of the rainbow if we all continue to make love to each other. ‘I wanted to show that there are so many beautiful skin colours these days. But once you start photographing, you notice that you irrevocably end up in a racial discussion.’

Once the cast meets each other on location, such a project begins to live a life of its own, says Erwin Olaf. ‘For example, the pose this boy takes. It refers to classical sculpture, but also to Colin Kaepernick’s protest pose during the playing of the American national anthem.’ And those two boys in that villa from the fifties, one in swimming trunks and the other in army clothing from the time of the Korean war, could never have changed places, he noticed while photographing. ‘When I made the sketches, I thought: I’ll see who wears what later. But at the time a coloured boy would probably not be credible as a resident of that spacious villa complex. The son living in the house was undoubtedly white and the dark boy was about to die in Korea in the fight against the communist threat. Fictional gossip; everyone has to have an opinion.’

On closer inspection, that paradise is disappointing. Where the background of David Hockney is lush green, with Erwin Olaf you see yellowed grass and a bare mountain.

It was the first time in years that he had made such a typical male picture after he had been working for many years with female models. He let the boys stand with their foreheads lovingly against each other as ‘a sign of love, but typically masculine, not something between man and woman.’

He himself came from behind the camera for a variant of David Hockney’s 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) – coincidentally auctioned shortly after the Palm Springs session for the record amount of $90 million. ‘In that self-portrait of the photographer, I want to show the unattainability of beauty, the longing for what you no longer are. You can put on your party clothes, but you are still an old man of sixty with your walled garden of paradise.’

On closer inspection, however, that paradise is also disappointing; where the background of David Hockney is lush green, with Erwin Olaf you see yellowed grass and a bare mountain. ‘The production team suggested spraying that grass green. It’s nice that people want to do something like that for you, but that wasn’t at all what I wanted. The withered grass gives this fabricated, artificial world of Palm Springs something beautifully poignant.’

That body will suffer more

Before they set to work in Palm Springs, Shirley and Erwin had been in Los Angeles to talk about Erwin’s first feature film, Een schitterend gebrek, based on the book by Arthur Japin. They had dinner with film producer Reinout and Danielle Oerlemans, with whom he had first started the project, with theatrical producer and founder of Stage Entertainment Joop and Janine van den Ende, admirers of his work, and with a casting director from Hollywood. It was a positive evening; the film project was discussed, the guests at the table were all willing to pitch in with ideas and help. The access to major stars was open, there was the possibility of financing. ‘That film occupied my thoughts during the Palm Springs project,’ says Erwin Olaf. ‘I became increasingly uneasy about it, because it was difficult enough to work on a photographic shoot for a week with such a large team. What would it be like for a film production lasting three months?’

After the last shoot they drove straight to the airport to be home in time for the funeral of Erwin’s mother. ‘I got in and closed the sliding door of the production bus. Then I looked at Shirley and she looked at me. I said: I am not going to make that film. And Shirley replied: I was just about to tell you not to do that film. And that was the end of it.’

Back in the Netherlands, they first had the funeral, but shortly after he phoned all those involved in the film, starting with Arthur Japin. ‘Arthur reacted very emotionally.’

It was the reaction of Japin that finally made him realise that those six years of preparation had been for nothing. ‘And I realised how much I had deteriorated physically in that period; I’ve now become a sick man. I’m not going to stop working, but on the other hand: I ain’t seen nothing yet, that body of mine is facing more suffering. You can want to do so much, but the illusion that you will live forever is over. I now know I have to prepare myself.’

Old German acrobat

He will shortly be gathering his staff together to tell them that he is taking a new direction. No, he and Shirley are not closing the Studio. For the worse things get with his body, the better things get with his art. ‘There is that series of exhibitions, but my photographs are now also being sold everywhere, from Seoul to Paris and from Amsterdam to Shanghai – and in my new New York gallery, Edwynn Houk Gallery.’

He is not, for the time being, going to ‘shuffle around in a studio on the Mediterranean, shooting magnificent still lifes with dead twigs’. He does want to give more space in the Studio to young photographers. ‘There are so many talented boys and girls around, I am going to play the role of mentor. With verve.’ He is also bursting with plans again. He wants to continue with the moving photos, the moving billboards, which will be on display in The Hague. ‘And I want to explore disappearing identities: nobility, religion, circus. Recently I photographed a former sex contact, an older acrobat from the former East Germany. He was full of compelling stories about the circus life which is now dying.’

Is the photographer, who had once trained as a journalist, actually going to move in a more documentary-like direction – the form of photography he has rebelled against for so long. ‘With the technical and substantive knowledge that I have acquired, I can now return to a form of reporting. Yes, right now, when museums are finally opening their doors to my staged photography.’

Translation/vertaling: Jonathan Ellis

Erwin Olaf, Gemeentemuseum The Hague and Fotomuseum The Hague, 16 February to 12 May.

This is a translation of an article that appeared in Vrij Nederland. Click here for the original article, and here for a selection of new works by Erwin Olaf.