It is one of the iconic queer images of our time. A naked, muscular young man, his face an expression of euphoria as a champagne bottle erupts between his legs, the bubbly alcohol ejaculating over his finely toned stomach.
That picture, Joy, is now 20 years old. For Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf, it was the picture that launched him on the world’s photographic stage.
But Olaf, in town for the premiere of his exhibition Elegance And Perversity at the Australian Centre for Photography, says he never thought the picture had the makings of greatness when he shot it in his Amsterdam studio in 1985.
You can never make something, thinking it is going to become iconic, the 46-year-old artist says.
This boy was telling me a story and in this story he pulled a face about being horny. I then said to him, -˜As some people can smile at a camera, you look horny in front of it as easily.’
Later, there was this party and there were 20 bottles of champagne in the fridge. As the party went on, the champagne corks kept popping. At that moment, I thought I would make a picture of a boy cumming.
It was really a case of the two components just coming together, and you shoot it. Half a year later, someone noticed it and offered to run it as a postcard, which sold half a million copies. It was the first time I felt I had made it.
As for whatever happened to the Dutch boy with the exploding bottle, Olaf isn’t sure. I think he has a wife and children, but he was very gay-friendly. In the 1980s in Holland, no one was busy with being gay or not gay.
While Elegance And Perversity does not include Joy, it does feature some of Olaf’s best works from 1995 to 2005, including the spectacularly macabre Royal Blood.
Royal Blood gained most attention when it debuted five years ago, featuring a line-up of tragic royal characters, including a blood-splattered Princess Diana, with a Mercedes badge tearing up one arm, and another of Jackie Kennedy, her pillbox hat drenched in blood and brains.
I hope people will see through the first layers, Olaf says. I hope they don’t just see a shocking Lady Di, but instead see the depth of the picture and what it really means. You start a dialogue with me, without me even being around to talk to.
Surprisingly, Olaf says he’s conflicted when it comes to shooting the male body. Elegance And Perversity features very few male images.
This exhibit will disappoint those hoping to see beefy men, as I am not so into beefy men. They will have to buy porn instead, he says.
I think the theme of the beautiful male model is a little thin, a little boring. I want to go to bed with him, but to photograph him?
In the 1980s, I did the boy with the champagne bottle and, after that, I made a maximum of 10 pictures with men, but never achieved anywhere near the quality, in my opinion, of that champagne picture. It has to do with the personal and sexual involvement between me and the model, because I would want to go to bed with him. It is difficult to have an objective view.
Olaf believes freedom of speech and expression needs to be defended more than ever with the current conservative policies around the world, even within gay culture. The man who famously photographed himself with fresh cum trickling down his face, as well as dressed in drag with an erection, believes his art reflects his free way of thinking.
Every series I make, and even my work in advertising, I want to celebrate freedom of speech, democracy and expression. Photography is a very strong medium to do this. If I paint, no one will talk about it. But as soon as you use the camera, people think it is the truth. So, I use the camera as a paintbrush.
There are big changes in our times -“ for gay life, for art and for everything. I think I am getting older and there is a maturity in my work. Mature is the series I made when I turned 40, and it was a breakthrough in my thinking. It was the first time I thought, -˜I don’t have to entertain any more -“ take me or leave me.’ I just don’t want to shout so much any more.
Erwin Olaf: Elegance And Perversity runs until 28 August 2005 at the Australian Centre for Photography, 257 Oxford Street, Paddington. Phone: 9332 1455.