The Johannes Vermeer Award is the Dutch state prize for the arts, awarded annually by the Minister of Education, Culture and Science. The prize covers the broad spectrum of artistic disciplines and in principle any artist living or working in the Netherlands is eligible for consideration.

In selecting candidates, the jury embarks on a yearly search for a creative talent who stands out on account of his or her vision, story, imagination, and particular means of artistic expression. The jury considers it no less essential for a potential winner to have the ability to challenge, move and appeal to experts, enthusiasts and the general public with their work. On both these grounds, Pierre Audi and Alex van Warmerdam were previously nominated as winners. Audi won the prize in 2009 for his inimitable ability to transform musical drama into musical theatre on stage. And Alex van Warmerdam received the award in 2010 for his exemplary work in giving visual form to unusual narratives in film, theatre, art and literature.

In 2011, on the basis of similar considerations, the jury has selected photographer Erwin Olaf Springveld (Hilversum, 1959). He too is a true master of his artistic medium. But above all, he uses this medium to communicate a message that has real significance both for his fellow photographers and for the wider public: no one can view his pictures and remain untouched or indifferent. To illustrate the jury’s opinion, here are three observations that eventually led to a unanimous recommendation.

Images that work dramatically

In Olaf’s work, a leading idea, theme or thought comes before the image. And behind his themes there are powerful ideas. He focuses on the social impact of religion, violence, eroticism, age, different body shapes and social exclusion - and that’s a far from exhaustive list. His characters exhibit a colourful diversity: bodybuilders, elderly women, children, dwarves, transvestites, the mentally handicapped, clowns, satyrs and crowned heads. Olaf shows his characters playing their different roles, and as a director he assembles those parts into a dramatic visual narrative.

Olaf's characters are placed in situations that feature exceptional background scenery and lighting that often seems bizarre. Sometimes, these are heavy with black humour; other times, they are muted or hyper-aesthetic. His work incorporates the tradition of the ‘tableau vivant’ in a new form, perfectly realised in every detail. A single image contains a substantial narrative. Sometimes, it’s a tale we already know from a play or a movie, sometimes it’s a story we can put together ourselves, guided by the mise-en-scène of the picture. So the ‘American dream’ of the 1950s is displayed in the light of a nightmare. Similarly, fate lies hiding in utopia, and inescapable depression is concealed beneath the orderliness of bourgeois society.

In every case, the situation is constructed. In the interest of affecting drama, elements in the show are regulated, accentuated or tempered, from the lighting down to the smallest details in costume, such as the fall of the folds in a skirt. In this way, Olaf consistently builds up his works of dramatic realism, in which snapshot elements refer to what may have just happened preceding the scene, as well as to what might possibly follow afterwards. Bright red blood splashes on gleaming white damask conjure the effect of passing time and turn a fixed image into a developing narrative. And in Olaf's oeuvre as a whole there is also a development, a progress. The exuberant imagination of carnival and theatre gradually gives way to greater intimacy and restraint, characterised by the atmosphere of hotels and bedrooms. In the later works, the atmosphere is even more important, at least as important as the literal image.

Tradition and innovation

Olaf is a cosmopolitan artist with a special interest in visual compositions and qualities previously employed by artists in other disciplines. He has absorbed the influence of 20th-century American artists such as David Lynch, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Nan Golding, Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe. But European filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock, Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini, have also inspired him. The influence of these names is clearly recognisable in the image composition and the special quality of light that informs Olaf’s photos. This is associated in turn with the Californian light that features in Hollywood classics. The expressive power (and the sometimes sinister atmosphere) of his pictures is thereby largely explained.

Olaf impresses too with the innovative way in which he uses and exploits the unlimited possibilities of digital photography. He has appropriated the potential of image manipulation (still regarded as a dubious practice in some circles) as no other to increase the artistic value of his photos and place his characters in contexts impossible in the non-digital world.

A multi-faceted career

Olaf has constructed his photographic oeuvre within a very mixed professional practice that combines commissions, personal work, fashion photography, advertising and museum projects. Following the success of the series Chessmen (1988), he made his breakthrough in international markets. In the Netherlands and abroad, he worked on ads for Camel, Heineken, Centraal Beheer, Diesel Jeans, Lavazza - and for RoB Amsterdam, embodying the fantasy of gay man as macho. He produced album covers for the record industry and posters for theatres. For the weekly Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland he made a series of photo reportages. He has also made a photo series about (the design of) furniture. Olaf has never had a problem with mixing commercial and art photography. He takes it for granted that you have to create space for art using the proceeds from commissions.

With his photographs, Olaf wants to create a world in which his imagination takes the lead. He can provoke, shock, move, radiate comfort or resignation, but this is always in the context of an optimal aesthetic quality. His work provokes very different reactions: Olaf repeatedly shows that he knows how to mobilise opinion. For over a quarter of a century, he has seized the chance to provoke a steady stream of comment, discussion and criticism, but he has also enjoyed great acclaim, especially in recent years. The jury believes that throughout this time he has continuously created new images, always with his inexhaustible imagination as guide. This carries Olaf onwards in the conviction that he will continue to surprise his audience with new images, both dynamic and static, disarming and touching, and no doubt from time to time absolutely astounding.

The prize jury consisted of Victor Halberstadt (Chair), Judith Belinfante, Janine van den Ende, Hans Goedkoop and Paul Schnabel.