In portrait photography, you can get a lot of information about the sitter by looking in her eyes. More than her clothes, more than the environment, the mood comes from some inexplicable quality the shooter captures in the eyes. A similar thing goes on in an Olaf Veltman landscape: Everything you need to know happens in the sky.
His compositions—low horizon lines that shoulder massive skies, within which the clouds act out dramas—spring from the same vein as Dutch landscape painting of the Golden Age. Unlike Church-commissioned Renaissance painters, Dutch artists in a seventeenth-century Calvinist society painted secular subjects. But a sense of intensity—and maybe it’s sublimated spirituality—emerges in the skies.
By the time Veltman was a teenager, he’d been a student of the Dutch masters for years. Veltman’s grandfather, a sailor and painter, frequently took his protégé to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. They discussed composition and light. Eight-year-old Veltman liked Rembrandt’s impasto technique. And he fell for Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscapes in particular.
“They were pretty serious subjects for a child, but I think my grandfather thought I could handle it,” says Veltman.
If van Ruisdael was a skypainter, as he is called, then Veltman is a cloudpainter. You can see it in his landscapes for a 2002 Union Pacific campaign. With Nebraska agency Bailey Lauerman, Veltman shot the trains in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, where the colossal domes of sky mirror the brand’s epic place in American history.
Sometimes, the clouds in these landscapes roil, reserving the right to explode into storms whenever they so choose. Sometimes, they catch shifting, orange shapes of light. Or they pock the sky with white stipple. Or they streak it with gray ribbons. Occasionally, they deign to open up, making room for crackles of direct light.
“You hear about portrait photographers who can coax the personalities out of their subjects,” says David Steinke, art director on the Union Pacific campaign at the time and now VP/creative director, Crispin Porter + Bogusky. “The thing about Olaf is that he does that with landscapes. He can draw out the personality of a landscape, which is something very few photographers in the world can do.”
Veltman is known for waiting patiently for the perfect light. But that’s probably not quite right. He isn’t patient so much as expectant, certain beyond a doubt that the right dusky glow will arrive, even when ants make their way into clients’ pants.
In his youth, Veltman was just as certain his future would center on art. Initially, he was bent on becoming a painter, working in his grandfather’s Bergen art studio. “I loved the smell of the oil paint, and I would work in the studio on these very realistic paintings. I really wanted to paint. And I was in a hurry.”
But when Veltman’s father gave him a Pentax at age sixteen, the Pentax won. For a kid in a hurry, photography was way sexier than slow-drying oil on canvas. “Mainly, I tried to shoot as many girls as I could,” says Veltman. “I would say, ‘Can I take your portrait?’” Once he built his own darkroom, the die was cast.
He gave art school a shot, then technical school, where self-expression was decisively not the point. When a teacher assigned a self-portrait series, Veltman went to an instant photo booth and posed. The machine spit out four pictures whose badly processed quality he liked. Pairing these with several experimental photographs—for which he spelled out the letters of his name with a torch light in an open field—he went to class with his series.
Well received it was not. His teacher opined that it wasn’t photography at all. And when Veltman argued, the instructor did him the favor of a lifetime: He kicked him out. So in the 1980s, Veltman left school altogether and launched his career in earnest, assisting in the Netherlands first, then London, where advertising photographers like John Claridge and Duncan Sim were working in the midst of their own golden age.
During these years, Veltman uncovered his inclinations as a photographer. He liked classically composed images—fully captured in camera—with a measure of melancholy and no little drama. “I realized I like weather. I like earth. I’m attracted to the light in places like Ireland.”
In 1990, by which time Veltman had struck out on his own in Amsterdam, the Association of Photographers (AOP, then the AFEAP) honored him for a BMW ad via PPGH/JWT, Amsterdam. That led to work across Germany, including for Mercedes and the German railroad Deutsche Bahn. By the mid-1990s, he’d attracted attention in America, signing on with representative Michael Ash. Veltman’s roster now includes Land Rover, Ford, Harley-Davidson, Volvo, Chivas Regal and Toyota, to name a few, while awards have come from Cannes, the AOP, Communication Arts and PDN.
Most often, Veltman captures nature of the purest sort—scenes untainted by human evidence. What could be purer, for instance, than the archetypal rock? The rock against which all other rocks would compare themselves, if they could. Mullen, Boston, commissioned Veltman to scout and photograph just such a geological formation—plus the archetypal tree, lawn and trail—for a 2000 L.L.Bean campaign. The images, more than a decade old by now, are as timeless as you’d expect from a representation of nature’s quintessence.
In other cases, Veltman’s landscapes are mottled with human detritus. A 2005 Nikon campaign, produced via ADK, Amsterdam, touts the product’s wireless capacity even on the fringes of civilization. The abandoned scenes are filled with white-hot light and corrosion: rusty cars, crumbling wood and flaked, sun-bleached paint. In one execution, a row of birds appears to be perched on telephone wires. But look closely: The wires don’t actually exist. In another, clothes hang from an invisible clothesline. “Welcome to the wireless world,” reads the tag.
So Veltman’s work aligns as much with the Dutch master painters as with the ideal of nature in eighteenth-century Romanticism: Nature is magnificent, to be sure, but also so mighty it will eventually swallow us whole—along with the buildings and cars we coat, ineffectually, with our rust-proof paint. The mere scale of a Veltman sky disabuses us of our egoism, reminding us that, really, we're just specs, renting temporary spots under an awesome ceiling.
The Nikon campaign, with its hidden payoff, isn’t the only work in Veltman's book that requires viewers to look twice. For a 2004 campaign for Interbrew UK, maker of Stella Artois, Lowe London used blues musician Robert Johnson as a point of departure. According to legend, Johnson promised his soul to the devil in exchange for musical genius. In the campaign's three scenarios, an off-camera protagonist sells his soul—the ultimate in “Reassuringly Expensive” transactions—for a stockpile of Stella.
In one execution, the devil—depicted as an unctuous businessman, convincingly human but for his beautifully manicured black talons—sits in an office full of hidden symbols. The image, as with the other executions, becomes a kind of anti-Easter egg hunt for grownups with high cultural IQs. A print of Eugène Delacroix’s Faust and Mephistopheles hangs on the wall, for instance. And a door plaque reveals the fallen angel’s professional title: “Director of Acquisitions.”
The view from the office is a modern-day circle of hell: An oil refinery on fire. Shooting from the balcony of a defunct oil plant, Veltman had pyrotechnicians set off explosions, each of which blew over his camera. “It was very exciting,” says Veltman, who’s never turned down a good, clean hit of photographic adrenaline. (He once declined to be in a cage while shooting sharks for a 2004 Evinrude campaign with Cramer-Krasselt, Milwaukee. “Sharks are my favorite subjects,” he says. “They teach you how to move.”)
Online conspiracy theorists couldn’t get enough of the Stella work, reporting on symbols that existed only in their minds. And in advertising, a conspiracy theory is something like the night a politician gets spoofed on Saturday Night Live, securing a fat and permanent slice of pop cultural significance.
The campaign produced a din of positive buzz and industry recognition, like from Cannes and the AOP. Moreover, it gave Veltman the chance to exercise his proclivity for storytelling in a commercial context. In fact, it already finds full expression in his personal work—intimate, quickly captured moments that contrast the infinite distances he creates in landscapes.
During a trip in Jaipur, India, Veltman encountered a cross-legged man covered in the powdered pigment that revelers throw at each other, confetti-like, during the Hindu festival of Holi. In the portrait, the subject’s alpha-male expression contradicts the otherwise girlish details: With one hand on his hip, he’s holding a dainty British teacup in the other. And the powder itself is ostentatiously, flirtatiously pink.
It’s humor à la Veltman: Subtle and weird, beautiful and incidental. You have to look for it.
In 2007, another portrait of a small girl in Madagascar narrates the opposing forces—poverty and play, experience and innocence—of this child's life. Dressed in a ragged shirt, she holds an expression beyond her years. At the same time, her face betrays a recent episode of mischief: Her lips are coated with an inexpert application of red lipstick (Was it her older sister’s? Her mother’s?), which also smudges her kewpie-doll cheeks.
“I like the work to be difficult,” he says. “I like projects I can sink my teeth into—but sometimes, it’s just there for you. So I also like the pictures you don’t know you’re going to take when you wake up in the morning—the ones that depend on your first impulse. And most often, your first impulse is right.” ca