“Judy Olausen’s acute sense of moment, combined with her engaging, disarming relationships with her subjects, has sustained a career with international scope. Her portraits have a polished, sure-handed look to them… Pensive, ebullient, serious, insightful-these qualities seem as clearly recorded in Olausen’s emulsions as texture and shades of grey.”
–George Slade, pARTs Journal, 1997
Early Influences and Training
Born in Wayzata, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Judy Olausen spent her childhood in an environment that would provide inspiration for her later work. She entered the University of Minnesota planning to study architecture. When a class she planned to take was full, she substituted a course in photojournalism taught by Dr. R. Smith Schuneman. He became an important mentor for her and the class changed the course of her career. Olausen graduated with a B.A. in Photojournalism in 1967. This training prepared her well for the medium that would establish her reputation for portrait photography.
The American Art World: A Portfolio of Iconic Portraits
In 1978, Olausen received a Cowles Foundation Arts Fellowship to produce a portfolio of portraits of leading figures in the American art world. Martin Friedman, Director of the Walker Art Center, and Richard Oldenburg, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, provided her with lists of the most significant artists, critics, collectors and museum professionals. Using Manhattan as her base of operations, Olausen traveled around the country, documenting her subjects where they lived and worked. The approach she developed while creating this work continues to mark her style as a photographer.
For this major project, Olausen worked with a Hasselblad camera with a 55 mm lens. She did all composition and cropping “in-camera.” Using available light, she avoided any manipulation of the setting, giving her subjects complete control over how they were presented. Her knowledge of their art guided her spontaneous compositional decisions. Through close attention to facial expressions and body language, she revealed subtle personality traits. Her goal was to convey each artist’s particular vision without showing their artwork. The portraits reveal a powerful design sense in the interpretation of texture, pattern, structure and light. Olausen produced over 200 photographs of the country’s leading art luminaries.
The Mother Book Captures an Era
A personal project developed into a best-selling and influential book, Mother, published in 1996, which broke a sales record at The New York Times. Olausen described her book as “…a vision of the Eisenhower era mother, eager to please, ready to serve and blissfully sweeping the unmentionable under the rug.” It is also a loving tribute to her mother, Vivian, who modeled for the images. The project took four years to complete and was set in the time before birth control. Quoted in Harper’s, Olausen described her mother as part of “…a forgotten generation of women who put their kids and husbands before their own needs and hovered in the background, like furniture.” The iconic image “Mother as Coffee Table” conveys this perfectly.
Beyond the satirical edge, the exaggerated theatricality of Vivian’s expressions and poses and the brightly colored, cartoon-like settings, these are powerful visual metaphors in which she gives tribute to her lifelong inspiration, Marcel Duchamp. Each element in these carefully rendered compositions provides both overt and subliminal messages about the complex and often contradictory roles of the American housewife during this period. The public response to Mother was overwhelming. Mother appeared on The New York Times Best Sellers List in 1996, breaking a sales record. Olausen and her mother made a number of national TV appearances, including the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show with Connie Chung, and they were interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Ms, LIFE, People, Harper’s and the Chicago Tribune did features on the book.
Rescue and Transformation: A Different Lens
The images in Olausen’s second book, Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform, represent a dramatic departure from the images in Mother. Saved portrays individuals, who in rescuing animals, find their lives transformed by the creatures they have rescued. The book features a forward by Jane Goodall and a preface by Temple Grandin. Olausen’s poignant images reflect her empathy for the subjects. The photographs are deeply revealing about the way in which humans and animals communicate. Olausen brings a social consciousness to her subject, using the camera to engage the viewer in an interaction that is both emotional and intellectual.
An International Reputation for Portraiture
Olausen has become known worldwide for her unique approach to portraiture. Describing her work, National Geographic Director of Photography Kent Kobersteen wrote, “Being photographed is an unnatural act, and the best photographers develop a way to get people to forget they are being photographed. She has made an art out of that, and it shows in her work.” Olausen’s wide range of subjects include celebrities such as Laurie Anderson, Barbara Cartland and Prince Charles and Princess Diana; corporate leaders, and average people from farmers to factory workers. Olausen approaches every subject with imagination and wit. Her work shares the sense for the absurd and the psychologically provocative with artists such as Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman. She’s a keen observer who is able to communicate the subtleties of a sitter’s personality through the abstract elements of structure and light.
Awards, Exhibitions and Publications
Hasselblad FORUM named Olausen one of the ten best photographers in the world, and her photographs were included in a touring exhibition curated by Hasselblad. Her work has been profiled in Adweek and honored by the New York Art Directors Club and Communication Arts. In 1995, PBS aired a national broadcast of a half-hour feature for Tape’s Rolling, produced by Deborah Hardt, entitled “Mother as Coffee Table.” In 2005, the University of Minnesota honored Olausen’s accomplishments by adding her name to The Wall of Discovery, a monument recognizing distinguished alumni.
Olausen’s work has been shown in exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, the Imagine Gallery, Imprimatur Gallery and the University of St. Thomas. It has been featured in numerous magazines including Ms, People, HOW, Minnesota Monthly, Minnesota Alumni Magazine, Harper’s, Advertising Age, U.S. News and World Report and Adweek.
Her publications include Mother, published in 1996 by Penguin Press and Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform, published in 2008 by Perseus Books Group.