Erwin Olaf: Documenting the Ruinart Crayères

Erwin Olaf: Documenting the Ruinart Crayères

Each year, the House of Ruinart highlights the work of one artist and invites them for a collaboration. This year Erwin Olaf was selected. At 57, he is today an internationally recognised photographer and artist. On his first visit to Reims, Erwin was fascinated and impressed by the depth and immensity of the crayères, and decided to concentrate on the details of their prehistoric natural formation and the traces left by man. His works were showcased at the 2016 Frieze Art Fair in London. We catch up with the artist to discuss the partnership and the works on display.

A: Could you discuss the notion of collaboration in terms of your own work and as an artist in general; how does it impact your creative development?
EO: It depends every time on the question and the collaboration, but when it’s going well, when you have a good collaboration it opens new doors in your mind, you get new ideas you look differently at your own work and they push you in a direction in a direction you would never have expected. But on the other side you also have collaborations that are a nightmare!

A: Why did you choose to team up with the House of Ruinart and what were you hoping to achieve together?
EO: Maybe to answer that it’s better to tell a short story; of course I am a photographer of people and situations that human beings are in. This is where we started out, when Ruinart asked me to reflect on their legacy. And half way working on this idea it turned out that I didn’t like it all and I was able to put this in the gutter and start all over again. I ended with abstract photography based on traces of human beings or nature that have been left in the cellars of Ruinart and they allowed me to explore completely new fields for me.

A: As many of your works focus on visual detail and lighting, how did the landscape of the crayères influence your process for the work?
The light in this series is quite dark, because when I discovered the magic in the cellars and all those traces, I thought well I have to find a technique that is doing justice to the atmosphere in those cellars so I wanted to have the idea of a searchlight. So, just only one lamp that acts as a torch, this for me was rather new, just to have one lamp, as most of the time I have a lot of lamps behind the camera. This time it was just one lamp, one camera, and one assistant. So this light for me was rather a referential.

A: With 26 photographs, how did you approach the style for the work in terms of composition and subtext?
Well I wanted to do this, it’s quite a large amount of photographs, 26, but I chose to do this because I wanted visitors to feel the atmosphere of the cellars you know, there are incredible strains at every corner that you look, every time you turn your head. There is so much to discover, sometimes it’s really small, sometimes it’s really big and sometimes you nearly miss the magic of the cellars. So I wanted to compose something that when you see it all together that you feel as though you are walking in those cellars. Of course time has to decide if all 26 are masterpieces. But it is one work of art that you have to look at, it is one thing, are looking at; it is one atmosphere that you’re looking at.

A: What is it about the history of the place that invited you in as an artist that captures and documents moments through cinematography?
: That’s a very good question. I tried to, and I think, for me it looks rather easy when you’re working with people, but the set is always complicated and you need a lot of technique. In the beginning I felt as though I didn’t have it. Because I’d take a photo of a wall and think “I have it” and then I’d go home and think “hmm.” All in all it was six visits we paid, and every time it was more than one day photographing. Then really composing at putting everything together, and then “no, I’d have to go back.” So it’s quite complicated to achieve, but in the end I think I achieved to create something that represents the atmosphere in the cellars and the history of those cellars.

A: Could you discuss the image that pays tribute to Alphonse Mucha; how did the artist influence your work?
Well it is a short film that accompanies this series of photographs. Mucha works a lot with strong black lines from the Art Nouveau period, which worked a lot with black lines and comic-esque drawing and that’s what I was trying to imitate in some of the photographs. It was only a starting point and I left the starting point very quickly.

A: Your work was displayed at Frieze Art Fair; how do you think showcasing the work at such a prestigious art fair was received?
EO: It was a compliment to be there and to compare it to art that has been here for ten’s of years and have been seen as masterpieces. I don’t dare guess I don’t want to be my own judge of my work! I’ll leave that to the visitors.

Find out more about the collaboration:

1. Courtesy of Erwin Olaf and the House of Ruinart.