Behind the Lens | Photographer Derek Swalwell

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    Derek Swalwell might be best known as a photographer of architecture, but between lockdowns, he found a different subject to cast his eye upon; fishermen.

    In his personal ‘Headland’ series, he captures fishing communities along the Bellarine and Otway regions of his childhood, saying he was drawn to their “simple and uncomplicated lifestyle.” “In the portraits, the men stand on the sand or near the rocky shore, peering into the camera lens with a mix of bemusement, curiosity and quiet complacency. “I found that really relaxing,” Derek says.

    Interestingly enough, there are parallels between these shots and his architectural ones. The buildings are mesmerising in a different way, beckoning the viewer to look more closely. While they are often modern, the photos are clean without being stark, bathed in a kind of zen calm. It’s hard to work out how he does it, and he’s no help, either. “It’s impossible to explain what it is that I see that you might not see. It’s about illustrating and interpreting things that one might normally seen as mundane, in an expressive way through your own thought processes. I’m into light and shadow, and I’m more interested in things that are less interesting, to see how I can make them moreso.”

    His commercial influences and personal vision dovetail in his Farnsworth + Miller series. For that project, he travelled from his hometown of Melbourne to Illinois and Indiana in America’s mid-west to photograph two iconic examples of mid-century modernism, the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe and the Miller House by Eero Saarinen.

    Historically, photos of those houses appear as vivid images, the former filled with the furniture of the time, the latter ablaze with colour. But Derek’s portraits are something different, calming the eye with the lush landscape surrounding the Farnsworth House, and honing in on smaller details in the Miller one, such as a lone telephone against a mirror. “It’s about symmetry, balance, light quality,” he says. “I can look at a scene and see the photograph already. I know when it’s going to work and when it’s not.”

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    Photographer Derek Swalwell

    And although his job hasn’t required him to do anything crazy, “I haven’t had to stand on an elephant, for instance,” he remembers shooting on the top of a building in Singapore with nothing stopping him from going over the edge and getting past access restrictions overseas by offering beer and cigarettes to those who could literally open doors.

     “It’s all memorable, really,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m taking pictures for a living, when some people are behind desks all day. That feels pretty special.”

    This piece originally appeared in est Magazine Issue #42.

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