Olaf Martens’ photographs appear to come from another time, and yet, they are quite modern. They are authentic and in no way artificial. His depictions of women are far from stereotypical; although they are often naked and always theatrical, they are never objectified. Rather than being smooth, perfect, and one-dimensional, Martens’ models are always the key to his contrast-laden, opulent aesthetic.
Characterized by the era of unrest in the 1990s, Martens’ work continues to offer social criticism today. His unconventional approach to these themes can already be seen in his early works. Humour, imagination, and the courage to stage extreme shoots are what sets his work apart. The pictures seem like candid shots while also having very little in common with reality. The artist leads us to the boundaries between reality and illusion.
Born in Halle, East Germany, in 1963, Olaf Martens first started taking photographs when the Berlin Wall was still standing. This was both a curse and a blessing. Martens describes the upside: “We were simply oblivious to many trends, so we didn’t have to follow them.” This gave him unimaginable freedom in his artistic development. By the time Martens finished his photography studies at the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts in 1990 and became a freelance photographer, East Germany, formally known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) no longer existed.
Martens’ international career kicked off immediately after his graduation, beginning with the publication of his erotic photographs in Stern magazine in 1990. His work has appeared in countless exhibitions throughout all of Europe. Martens still resides in Leipzig.
Although they are extravagantly staged, Martens’ photographs feel overwhelmingly real. He finds settings that have their own aura, putting the beautiful models in locations of decay and otherness: a discarded submarine, a classical revue theater, or a palace. All of these locations come with a patina, a layer that makes the past and passage of time visible. Although they are often naked, the models in Martens’ photos are never soulless objects.
The women’s beauty is never merely decorative; they present themselves ironically in order to be provocative. Martens takes analog photographs, using digital image editing only for minor corrections, if at all. Martens loves mistakes and coarseness, finding sheer perfection rather boring.
“I like things that last. These days, everything is fast-paced, usually with no rhyme nor reason. But solid footholds and roots are important.” ~ Olaf Martens
Olaf Martens has been titled “Helmut Newton of East Germany” by “Der Spiegel”.