Olya Oleinic - Profiles

Raven, Thomas, Alida, Saif, Carmen, Sade, Johnathan. Seven first names out of nineteen (so far) that accompany Profiles, a series of portraits made by Olya Oleinic and styled by Ferdi Sibbel. Imbued with the serial traits of passport photographs – even lighting, rigorous clarity and blank expressions – they are images that appear to declare all there is to know about a face.

In the portrait we are told is of Rogier, his head is slightly turned, looking at something off-camera with a face void of emotion. His hair is neatly parted, his shoulders fall steeply away from the centre of the frame and his taut skin shows only an inkling of age. His features are straight and slender almost to the point of peculiarity. There is a nakedness and a serenity to the photograph, ones that stem from the poise of the sitter and the levelling formalities of a photograph that leans on the archetype of identification.  

Yet – as we know through the similar efforts of Thomas Ruff – Oleinic’s photographs are incapable of fulfilling their promise to tell us anything of certainty about the people in front of the camera. Their frankness tempts us to forage for meaning concealed in the smallest of details – the slight bend of a nose or the tilt of a head – but it is only at this point of absolute openness that we are made deftly aware they are photographs. It is the realism and sobriety exuded in Profiles that encourage us to see the surface of the images, to stop and turn back – to ask just as many questions of ourselves and the apparatus as of the people sitting in front of the camera. And in their ostensible intention to disclose everything, the images collapse on themselves, and we realise that in giving so much, they hold back even more. Can we really say anything about Rogier beyond a meagre description? A description that allows us only to project our experiences onto him. What is his last name? Does he even like that shirt?

It would be easy to see these photographs simply as a formal probing of the image’s inadequacies and conventions. Like Ruff’s, they are pictures about faces and pictures about pictures. Unlike Ruff, however, Oleinic has made these photographs in a time when photographs struggle to define identity anymore. Whereas Ruff started making his Portraits in 1981, when surveillance in near-Orwellian Germany was becoming omnipresent, passport photographs today don’t hold the same weight. Now our identities increasingly reside in immaterial spaces, fluctuating as they are collected and commodified. Because of this, Profiles holds a palpable sense of both past and present and from that dichotomy, underlines questions about how we perceive, judge and construct identity today as well as how we did in the past. So, whilst Ruff and Oleinic employ a similar, systematic approach, reenacting the same technologies to accentuate the experience of seeing, the forty years between them induce radically different experiences.

This disparate experience, however, also arises from the subtle variations in how each artist uses the visual codes of passport photographs. Whilst Ruff seems committed to mimicking the homogeneity of such images by meticulously positioning his subjects and choosing faces that reiterate sameness and symmetry, Oleinic isn’t. There is, undeniably, a preciseness akin to Ruff’s images, but the gazes that peer out aren’t as potent. Thomas looks inquisitive, Annie indifferent. Sade is not looking at us at all. Emotions linger and waver, swelling beneath the image with nowhere to go, and from this, the photographs carry a charge that Ruff’s do not. In his, sameness leads. In hers it is difference. 

And for all the coolness of Oleinic’s photographs, they are tinged with traces of her own intrigue. The assortment of faces, hair, clothes and skin colour as well as the use of first names – but not last names – hint at a fascination with the individual whilst her approach acknowledges the limitations of pursuing that fascination through images. And, unless we have been led completely astray, the directness of the images leads us to envision Oleinic behind the camera and the person in front – an inextricable feeling of human experience. For Oleinic, these photographs are the residue of her experiences whilst for us, she knows that all we can do is wrestle with the images and wonder what these people are really like.

Writing this as someone who knows Oleinic well, it’s impossible to divorce my own biases. For those who don’t know her, these photographs may read as an impassive enquiry that invites us to compare the similarities and differences between people. I know, however, that Olya’s interest in people is much more.