Derek Swalwell - Context, conditions and culture
Derek Swalwell, one of Australia’s most respected and widely published commercial photographers, has delivered visual narratives of some of the world’s most iconic architectural environments. Where other photographers strive to cultivate a recognisable aesthetic, one firmly associated with their own practice, Derek’s work can be described as a response to a situation, one that crystallises the authenticity of his subject matter in a way that expresses the heart of it.
For over 20 years Derek’s constant and creative approach to his craft has evolved in tandem with a growing public appreciation for architecture and design. Led by an intent to document architecture in a way that differs from what he sees in the media, Derek realises photographic outcomes that, rather than prioritising an association with his name, are often unique reflections of context, conditions and culture.
Across a broad portfolio, spanning artistic and commercial sectors, Derek has amassed work that ducks and weaves around aesthetic definition as a whole. Rather, each project is a departure from what has been captured by him before, transposing the sensorial qualities unique to each place onto paper or screen.
A 2018/19 series shot in the Alicante region of Southern Spain (unseen until now due to Covid disrupting its planned exhibition) is a vibrant confetti of colour where fluorescent fragments of clothing adorn British and German tourists to scream “resort town.” Against a magic-eye vista of sun umbrellas and awnings, and a startling azure sky which backdrops a dense mass of 70s and 80s mid-rise buildings, each photographic composition is like a memory seared upon the retina. Images are over exposed, bleached, slightly faded in much the same way as the recollections of the holiday makers upon returning to the doldrums of everyday life.
By contrast, another series — Farnsworth + Miller — also shot in 2018, takes on entirely different expressions. Depicting two of the world’s most iconic mid-century houses, Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe and Miller House by Eero Saarinen, Derek’s photographs transport the viewer into the frame, capturing interior vignettes which are akin to film stills, or panned back exterior shots from circling trees which lend a sense of voyeurism. Farnsworth House is distinguished by the intense greens of its botanical landscape and ambient interior lighting while Miller House is ever so slightly sepia toned, giving the impression of the browns, beiges and burnt ochres that dominated mid-century style trends.
Outdistance, a series shot in Milan, is testimony to Derek’s ability to remain agile in his craft, allowing place and subject to tangle with instinct producing images that, rather than holding the viewer outside the story, draw them in to large format frames which contain scenes that feel similar to stepping off of a bus or train or out of a hotel foyer into the foreign cultural milieu of an unfamiliar environment. Italy’s historical fabric is expressed in patinated blush tones; eras are proclaimed in the brutalist composition of each building’s architecture; time is evident in the march of landscape and mildew. Each photograph sinking into its likeness with reality, controlled by Derek through his choice to shoot in particular conditions (at dusk, in the late morning, at night, during full sun, etc.) to orchestrate a photograph that is palpably present.
For many creatives, dedication to craft is translated as a commitment to a certain look or technique. For Derek, dedication is found in his approach which time and again produces original work, separate from what has preceded it. Each location shaping images that generate their own unique treatments, teasing colours and contrasts from the camera that are in sync with those in the real world.
Derek’s travels and experience have naturally affected the way he views Australian architecture, allowing his work to emphasise those qualities that are unique to our use of materials, colours, orientation and programming. The particular blue of the Australian sky is almost always present, acting as a compass point and rationalising the subject matter in a way that deepens the experience of an image. His work with Kennedy Nolan, particularly some recent images of Always House, perfectly articulate Derek’s capacity to take a built environment and produce a suite of photographs that clarify each and every architectural intent. It is this that sets him apart, leading to images that are photographic documentations of both design and culture.