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Remembering Erwin Olaf Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

23 September 2023

Erwin Olaf Springvel, the Dutch photographer known simply as Erwin Olaf, died on Wednesday in Groningen, the Netherlands, from complications after a lung transplant to treat hereditary emphysema. He was 64.

He had hoped the operation would add years to his life and had spoken enthusiastically about his plans.

The son of Simon Jacobus Springveld, a sales manager, and Lydia van ’t Hoff, a homemaker, in Hilversum near Amsterdam, he graduated from the School for Journalism in Utrecht planning to become a documentary photographer.

He moved to Amsterdam at 19, living in a building full of artists and volunteering for the Dutch magazine Sek, the official publication of the gay and lesbian activist organization COC Nederland.

'When you were with him you were aware that he saw absolutely everything about you, but that he did not judge.'

His first paid job as a photographer was to chronicle Amsterdam nightlife and the gay community with his Nikon 35mm camera for Vinyl, a new wave music magazine. That's when he decided to shorten his name to Erwin Olaf.

After shooting portraits of Hans van Manen, a leading Dutch choreographer who was also a photographer, he developed a close friendship with him that would last for decades.

But in 1983, "our relationship was like a master and a pupil," Olaf recalled in a 2021 interview for a book of dance photographs they produced, Dance in Close-Up.

Among other influences, including Weegee and Joel-Peter Witkin, Robert Mapplethorpe was the most important. They met when Mapplethorpe was visiting Amsterdam. Olaf so admired Mapplethorpe's square format images, he bought a secondhand Hasselblad to make "nice 6-by-6 neat format images, with no grittiness, very clear and very informative."

The Hasselblad lent a formal look to the staged images he started composing in a small studio in another artists building, relying on the local disco queens and punks for models. Staging photographs was unusual in an era of Dutch documentary photography.

In 1988, he won the Young European Photographer of the Year award for Chessmen, a series of black-and-white images of baroque but human chess pieces. Chessmen was exhibited at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. It was Olaf's first major solo exhibition.

In the mid-1990s, he switched to digital photography and worked as a commercial photographer for fashion brands like Diesel and Bottega Veneta and companies like Heineken and Nokia.

All the while, Olaf continued to make portraits. Dutch author Arthur Japin described sitting for him, "When you were with him you were aware that he saw absolutely everything about you, but that he did not judge," Japin said. "That's why people opened up to him. Some people would really go far when they were photographed by him."

In the early 2000s, he began to explore the paintings of Norman Rockwell and Lucien Freud, as well as the cinematic realism of the Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti.

On his 60th birthday in 2019 his work was exhibited at The Hague. That same year the Rijksmuseum, which had acquired 500 of his prints, exhibited a dozen of then with an equal number of Golden Age master paintings by Rembrandt, Gerard ter Borch and others.

Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, released a statement on the museum's Web site:

Erwin Olaf saw beauty in every person. He was a key figure in history for his activism and role in the LGBTQIA+ community, and a photographer who defined his medium in the Netherlands. An artist of tremendous drive, his attention to detail was unparalleled. The Rijksmuseum received Erwin Olaf's core collection in 2018. We regarded him as a true friend, and we shall miss him.

Mr. Olaf is survived by his husband, Kevin Edwards, and his two brothers, Jos and Ron Springveld.

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