Meet one of Hong Kong’s premiere fashion photographers known for his surreal compositions and success in bridging commercial with fine art photography
Olaf Mueller may be best known in some Saigon circles for his successful catering business, but he just may be fashion photography’s best kept secret. A name frequently associated with top brands including Christian Dior, Lancome, Cartier and Vacheron Constantin, the acclaimed fashion photographer has purposely chose to keep a low profile in his adopted home of Vietnam, preferring to take on photographic projects elsewhere. All that may be about to change come September 1, when Olaf is set to open his own photographic art exhibition and boutique event space.
Born to German and Korean parents in 1980, Olaf spent much of his younger years traveling the world, living in Saudi Arabia and studying in India and Singapore, and eventually earning a degree in real estate from the German European Business School which led him to Hong Kong. However, as it turns out, fashion was to be his calling.
“My first contact with the world of glamour and fashion photography was in Singapore,” Olaf remembers. “I worked as a commercial model during my teen years. That was when my interest in photography was piqued. I’m also half German by blood and full German by my father’s teaching, and you know Germans – we don’t do things by half. Before I knew it, I was fiddling around with my father’s old camera and experimenting with techniques I’d learned from working with professionals on the job.”
Olaf developed his craft during an interesting time in photography – the transition from analog to digital cameras in the early 2000s. To Olaf who had spent years learning the ins and outs of film photography, from the snap of an image to the developing of negatives in a dark room, the change was both frustrating and liberating. “On one hand, suddenly there were a thousand other photographers who had spent maybe a few days learning photography all snapping shots whenever and wherever they pleased. On the other, digital camera brought with it many opportunities and many photo processing tools that the analog camera simply didn’t have.”
In an effort to differentiate himself from the rest, Olaf learned to combine the detailed techniques and fine execution of the analog camera with the powerful photo processing capabilities provided by digital tools. This blending of both worlds would later on become his professional signature, enabling him to become the first Western photographer to really succeed in Hong Kong, previously a market reserved for Asian photographers.
In 2004, he founded Icebreaking Advertising Limited with a friend as partner. In 2009, sponsored by Prestige Hong Kong and AIDS Concern, Olaf held a solo photography exhibition featuring Sharon Stone and 26 premier Asian celebrities to raise money for the charity foundation. His images, with their artistic vision and bold creativity, immediately captured the attention of art lovers and collectors in Hong Kong.
A fan of Salvador Dali and Annie Leibovitz, Olaf similarly blends dreamlike and realistic visual elements, and is known for his elaborate set designs and borderline obsessive attention to details. In one of his early works, he shot American actor, director, and producer Daniel Wu standing in a suit in a forest with twenty umbrellas suspended from a leafy canopy. “I want viewers to be captivated by the vision they see,” he explains. “I want them to not know if what they are seeing is real or the product of Photoshop. I want that uncertainty, that suspension in between.”
Olaf went on to found his own company, OM Studio (later on to become OM Production) specializing in photographic visual production. Through OM Production, he participated in both big name commercial contracts with fashion houses and prestigious magazines as well as photographic art projects such as Dragon Garden Heritage and Cat Street Gallery in 2010.
By the time Olaf arrived in Vietnam for the first time in 2013, he had worked in Hong Kong for over a decade and had shot more than his fair share of Hong Kong urban beauty. “I’ve dried up all the places I can shoot in Hong Kong,” he confesses. “Vietnam is a new place, full with inspiration, and that’s the most important thing to an artist – inspiration.”
“Saigon has a unique energy,” Olaf continues. “It’s young but it’s laidback. It has an open space about it, unlike Hong Kong where everything is built upward. Each district also has its own air, its own aesthetics. District 1 looks and feels different from District 4. District 2, where I live, is a completely different country from District 3, and they are only a short bike ride away.”
Despite having been approached by many big name brands in Vietnam, Olaf has taken on few photographic contracts with local clients. The reason, says Olaf, is that he feels the local industry is not ready for someone like him. “They like to play it safe in Vietnam,” he explains. “The Vietnamese clients have little trust in the photographers they hire. They want the photographers to shoot beautiful pictures… according to their direction. In other words, they want a finger clicker and that’s something I don’t want to be.”
That may soon change as the Vietnamese industry matures and clients and art lovers become more demanding and acquire increasingly bolder tastes. With the opening of his private photographic art exhibition space, Room 37 (37 Ky Con, D1), Olaf hopes for the opportunity to soon put his own spin on fashion photography in Vietnam.