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Issue No. 16 - Chaos

Interview with Erwin Olaf

Interview with Erwin Olaf

Image Above, Erwin Olaf, Courtesy of Mirra Studio

Musée’s Editor in Chief, Andrea Blanch, stops in at AIPAD to talk with Erwin Olaf about his recent work with Ruinart: the world’s oldest champagne house.

ANDREA BLANCH: Why did you decide to execute the work for Ruinart the way you did?

ERWIN OLAF: There is a difficulty when you are approached by someone else to create a piece of art as a photographer. Photography is always used in advertising. So this was immediately what came to mind when they said, “You can do whatever you want, as long as you react to our legacy.” I started to photograph the way I usually do: with models, staged—an atmosphere, you know. I tried to translate a legacy into a staged image with clothing, hair and makeup, and inspirational people, you know? I wanted to use the cellars as a backdrop when I first started. But while I was doing that in the crayères—the cellars—it really didn’t look good. It looked like shit.

There were so many people behind the camera. The older and more successful I get the more people are behind the camera. It was like a rucksack full of stones with twenty people. So I went for a walk through the five miles of cellars where all of the champagne is ripening. I was studying the walls, seeing the signatures, drawings, fungus formations, drippings, carvings, graffiti. I decided to go back and ask one of my assistants—I said, “Come. One man, one camera. The two of us.”

We started to photograph the details—there are enough pictures of the whole cellar. I found that when you focus on the details and crop the image, which is unique in photography, you get a different story than if you were to photograph everything. After the walk, my assistant and I went back and the president of the company was there. It was really lucky that he paid a visit that day. He wanted to see what I was doing: shooting and staging the photographs with models. He was saying what Americans always say: “Interesting.”

AB: Oh, I hate that word!

EO: So I said, “It’s not interesting. I want to show you something different.” I showed him the three pictures that my assistant and I had made in half an hour; it was done really quickly. Then he said, “Oh! That is interesting.” And it was so simple. For me, simple is always the most difficult. I always think it has to be complicated before I come back to myself and say no, you can be simple. The president agreed – he was the only person that could say, “Okay, throw away all of the money you’ve spent and start over again.” So I went back to the cellars six times total and discovered something every time, photographing the walls, putting it on the floors, changing order, changing choices. The process took 1 ½ to 2 years.

AB: I can’t believe it took that long. How many photographs did you take?

EO: We weren’t there every day. All together we had 150 different choices. Then I kept about 10 percent, so 26 images. It is overwhelming when you’re in those cellars. I wanted to recreate that feeling. They date back to the 5th or 8th century. You can see the structures done by hand. So it’s mankind leaving a trace on nature. And there’s a combination of mankind and nature: like a drawing in the wall and a dripping, which is from nature.

AB: Why do you think they picked you to begin with?

EO: I don’t know! Because I’m beautiful.

AB: Well of course! But was Ruinart’s intention to have you photograph in the cellars?

EO: It was completely my idea. I could have chosen the grapes and fields. But that immediately feels like advertising to me. That’s what we always see: photographs of sunrays going through the grapes and the wine glass in the vineyards. I photographed and filmed in the vineyards, and it was a no-go. Whatever I did—black and white, upside down—it looked like a commercial.

AB: So there were the grapes and the cellars. Were there other choices?

EO: I could also work in my studio. But I wanted to have a connection with the estate. It’s fairly stupid to say, but I still see it as having to do with journalistic photography. At first, I wanted the reality as the backdrop, but later made it my subject. And this goes back to my roots of 1979 when I first started photographing. I made 35 mm images. Strong black and white printing where I photographed reality. Later on I grew into staging my own fantasies. But the crayères of Ruinart are not a staged fantasy of mine. They are reality, like a still life.

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Image Above, Erwin Olaf, Courtesy of Mirra Studio

AB: It comes across as being almost abstract. Which is what I like about it, and why I was attracted to it. I was very surprised, by the way.

EO: In a positive way I hope?

AB: Very! There’s something primitive about it that I liked a lot.

EO: The primitiveness struck me when I was on my own in the cellar. Not when I was with a group of people and they’re all pointing out, “Oh look there how beautiful! The bottles, blah blah blah.” You have to get rid of that, and you have to get rid of the luxury feel of champagne. That was the biggest hassle for me—the glamour! As soon as I had a model in, it looked glamorous. You could say, “Okay, let’s do an ugly fat man with a glass of champagne.” But that is dishonest. It is of course a question of Ruinart, what they want. But they had approached me as an artist, not as a commercial photographer.

When I do something for myself that comes close to art, when I spend my own money on a project, then I want to be 100% honest. Because otherwise there is no use in making it. Anybody else can make it. I cannot photograph to make money. If it happens with a project, it’s a lucky thing. With the money you make in advertising or with, let’s say portrait photography, you have to make the woman or the man look good or attractive. If I make my own project, I can do something different. So I thought, I have to come as close as possible to my inner feelings. I can’t have that stone in my stomach that I get when I make something that’s not 100% my own work. This is me! This is how I felt.

In the beginning there were some questions, like can it be a little lighter? I thought no, it cannot. It has to be this: strong, black and white, rather gloomy, rather dark. You see a kind of sadness, you know? You ask, why does everybody leave these traces? You realize that nature is not friendly; fungus is growing everywhere, it doesn’t care if it’s hurting you, or if your bottle of champagne is dripping down. So that was an ongoing process.

During that year and a half, I saw, “Oh, if I crop it like this it starts to look like an abstract painting…If I crop these bottles like this, it looks like the Zero movement…If I do only the wood with the holes, it looks like a reference to Damien Hurst’s dots…And there is a cross that reminds me of Rothko.” So there were all kinds of abstract art and historical paintings that I could refer to, otherwise it was too thin. I get a lot of inspiration from the world of painting, not from the world of photography. Although there’s a reference to Brassaï in this work. I thought it was nice to play with that theme: not only the legacy of Ruinart, but playing with the legacy of modern, abstract painting. They inspire me and make me jealous.

AB: From what I read, you were influenced by Mucha?

EO: Ruinart asked me to react to him. But that was a question which came later in this project. I thought his work was a very strong kind of art. But it’s too decorative.

If I cut it all away—all this coloring, all this drama—you get black outlines. The thick black outlines come close to the carvings people made in those cellars. It’s like a comic. You see it a lot in the cellars, people making a comic or a drawing, like a face, you know? And I thought, “I can play with that. I’ll only use the black lines to tell the story.” But to be honest, it was not easy. The inspiration was the cellars. Then you have to translate that to a box. So that was, shall we call it, a challenge? Another very good American word.

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Image Above, Erwin Olaf, Courtesy of Mirra Studio

AB: I think of your work as being very minimal.

EO: Yeah. More and more, I try. You know, I’m now 56, and throughout my whole career it’s gone up, up, up. But since 2002-ish, its going…UP! And it’s fantastic. It’s the best thing that ever happens in a human being’s life. But it requires the involvement of more and more people, and at a certain point you feel like you need to drop out because it’s so much. For me it was just a relief that I could say, supported by the company, “Away. Go back to simplicity, back to your roots.”

What is so attractive to me about photography is the printing, the surface, the cropping. Twenty people with a hundred lamps is glamorous when you watch a program on television about photography. But you have to go to the printers, look at the print—“No, a little bit darker, a little bit lighter….”

I conquered this process when, after Ruinart—or maybe parallel with it—I started to do a series of classical nudes. They are more classical than the very strong, provocative nudes I did when I was starting out—they were in the school of Mapplethorpe, which was a big inspiration for me. The classical nude inspired me more; paintings of the European tradition. And of course, there is a huge tradition in nudity as a subject in photography, painting, sculpture. So I wanted to do something with that: one lamp, one model, one camera, and not all of the people. No styling, no makeup. Just quiet working, watching, clicking. You feel more…

AB: Connected?

EO: Yes, definitely. And I needed that. I could continue endlessly with crying women in ‘60s interiors and become filthy rich. But that would be dishonest.

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Image Above, Erwin Olaf, Courtesy of Mirra Studio
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