erwin olaf palm springs

The Problem With Paradise

The grass isn’t greener in Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf’s Palm Springs.

Steven Biller Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

erwin olaf palm springs
American Dream–Self-Portrait With Alex.

Editor’s Note: Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf was originally scheduled to speak May 4 at the Palm Springs Photo Festival. The event has been rescheduled for Sept. 20-25 after being postponed due the COVID-19 virus. The story was written before the virus outbreak.

Wearing tuxedo pants and a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up and bowtie hanging from the open collar, Erwin Olaf stands barefoot at the edge of the pool at a midcentury modern house in Palm Springs. The 60-year-old Dutch photographer holds a dirty martini in his left hand and locks eyes with Alex, the young man standing thigh deep in the water. Like many of Olaf’s highly styled photographs embodying a narrative suited for cinema, this Hockney-esque image draws you in, slows you down, and makes you question what’s happening.

American Dream–Self Portrait With Alex, with the San Jacinto Mountains in the background, is part of “Palm Springs,” Olaf’s third series in a photographic trilogy where his imagined realities come to life on location. (The first two were “Berlin” and “Shanghai.”) The common thread between these series and his better-known studio work is the tension he captures in the split second between action and reaction that makes you long for the rest of the story.

The Amsterdam-based artist, a voracious consumer of news and politics, left the controlled environment of the studio in 2012 to explore life where it happens. He came to the desert in 2018 to teach a master class at the Palm Springs Photo Festival and — inspired by the architecture, history, and positive energy — returned four months later with a crew of about 50 people to create “Palm Springs,” a series of photographs he says reveals the “cracks in the perfect world.”

His view of the resort town differs dramatically from that of, say, Slim Aarons, whose Poolside Gossip photograph, featuring elegant women luxuriating at the pool of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House, has become emblematic of Palm Springs modernism. Aarons famously described his photographs as featuring “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” They’re happy, exuberant, and impossibly optimistic.


The Bank, The Secretary.

For Olaf, who started his career as a photojournalist until the work of Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe turned his interest to image-making in the studio, the trilogy marks his return to the landscape, and he hides no blemishes. “I wanted to introduce the real world a little more,” he explains in a brief video about the series he photographed in Palm Springs. “Reality is creeping into the paradise we’re desperately trying to maintain.”

“Palm Springs” contains all the modernist staples of the 1960s — architecture, furnishings, fashions, and hairstyles — but Olaf casts his narratives and diverse characters squarely in the present. “I made a decision to show a wide variety of beauty,” he says. “I wanted to show the new world. As you can see nowadays in the streets, because of love and sexuality, we see this beautiful mixture of skin tones. So, I selected on character, body form, but mostly on gradation of skin tone, to show the beauty of it.”


The Family Visit (2018).

If one image in the series encapsulates the sum of Olaf’s artistry, it might be The Bank, The Secretary, a portrait of a light-skin African-American woman in a cream-colored dress with her blonde hair pulled back. She appears stopped, or hesitating, at a door. Does she see something troubling? Is she about to give or receive news?

Whatever’s happening, at least this much is certain: The lighting is painterly, the composition formalist, and wardrobe, hair, and make-up styling meticulous

“[Olaf] works in a photorealist tradition that pushes the dramatic effect to the point of surrealism,” says Daniell Cornell, curator emeritus of Palm Springs Art Museum. “Everything about the image is artificial to heighten the dramatic effect. It’s hyperrealism, and it comes from tradition that’s all around him.


The Family Visit, The Niece (2018).


The Kite (2018).

“The Dutch landscape tradition has low horizons and expansive skies where all the drama is happening; the suspense is in the landscape. [Olaf’s] notion of suspense is much more interior in terms of people and space.”

The Bank, The Secretary, Cornell adds, “has that Dutch portrait sensibility, where the person is sort of suspended both in the interior space and psychologically.”

Olaf’s rigorous production values trace to the fashion photography he has shot for Vogue, The New York Times, and others, and the finished quality bespeaks his recent run of exhibitions in the Netherlands and Shanghai, including a show of his photographs in dialog with Dutch Golden Age paintings at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which has acquired 500 Olaf prints for its permanent collection.

His “Palm Springs” installations include video portraits in which the characters each turn to the camera and command, “Touch me,” “Teach me,” “Feel me,” “Love me,” or “Hear me.” “Because of the changing world, you see the enormous growth of capitalism but also dictatorships,” he explains. “You see that the individual is getting crushed, and I want to focus on the individual and the individual needs. Look at me. See me. I am here. See me as an individual.”


The Farewell (2018).

Olaf describes a feeling of “always looking for home, even when you’re at home. ... That is, let’s say, the emptiness that I feel myself sometimes. So, what I try to photograph is this non-emotion, not unhappiness, but the edge of every emotion. You can cry or laugh at any second.”

The Farewell presents a good example. The photograph shows a dripping-wet young white man in a bathing suit standing toe to toe, hand in hand with a young African-American man who’s wearing a military uniform, either going to or coming home from war. They lean into each other, gently touch their foreheads, and leave the viewer to fill in the story.

Olaf concedes, “I always had a problem telling my stories with talent that interests me sexually — beautiful boys can throw stardust in my eyes. It’s very inspiring to work with the sensitivity of women. I love that emotion that is layered under the skin and in the eyes, and it’s one of my joys to work with.”


The Pregnancy (2018).

In At the Pool, a full-figured woman sitting on a lawn chair leers across the swimming pool toward her petite friend. Each has a badminton racquet at her side.

In a video showing footage of Olaf directing the scene, the photographer says, “You lost the game, or you won but she thinks she won. Meanwhile — but you don’t want to think too much about it — you’re worried there’s no water anymore in Palm Springs. So we leave the grass yellow.” (A production assistant had wanted to spray paint the lawn emerald green.)

The photograph is a commentary on climate change and diminishing resources juxtaposed with the First World treachery of a leisurely game. And, again, we’re left wondering about the woman’s stare: Are we seeing jealousy, loathing, envy, love, or something else?

“Palm Springs” also addresses teenage pregnancy, discrimination, and polarization — all as invasive of paradise as the wear and tear of time. In American Dream–Self Portrait With Alex, the graying photographer, slowed by emphysema, faces his own midlife crisis and mortality. Is he staring at a younger version of himself or pursuing another taboo?


At the Pool (2018).

The Bank, Successor (2018).