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In Conversation with Derek Swalwell

As series Outdistance continues to amaze our friendly visitors, we eagerly took the chance to sit down with prominent photographic artist, Derek Swalwell, to talk about his third solo exhibition following impressive series Wake captured in Tokyo and West in LA. Shot entirely in Italy we ask Derek what drew his practice to this location, and architectural photography in general, whilst learning how his curious eye and processes have developed in the age of growing digital technology.

Thank you so much for joining us to chat, surrounded by your new series Outdistance! I feel the first question necessary to ask, is what brought you to photography? How did this journey start for you?

I guess my passion for photography came about originally from having discovered life through the lens in media studies in high school. Although mostly TV and film focussed, it allowed me to see what the possibilities were for the medium and a fascination grew for the beginning to end process of having an idea and realising… but through the lens. This then evolved into taking photography related positions after graduating, then onto assisting other professional photographers here and overseas.

Your work is an extension of another passion of yours, that being architecture – can you tell us a bit about how this passion or curiosity developed in you?

Architecture has always been a fascination for me, and I think one of the contributing factors was my time traveling. Experiencing important buildings in other countries, and seeing historical architecture in another light.

From this I became interested in how the light worked through buildings. The way that the design of a building contributes to it’ changing throughout the day upon there trajectory of the sun. This process became important to how I thought of architectural photography and how to best approach it.

What kind of things have you uncovered about architecture in the process of making your work? Have you had certain ideas or beliefs confirmed by the experience of your travels or have you uncovered the unexpected?

In regards to making my own work, for my own reasons, and indulging my love of architecture, what I’ve learnt is difficult to measure. It can’t be understated what you learn from continuing to shoot as much architecture as you possibly can. Particularly overseas. You’ll always find hidden gems when you embark on overseas projects, purely by their very nature.

With this series, can you tell us a bit about what first drew you to those locations?

There’s something about international architecture that hooks me in. Italian architecture is obviously a wide gamut of the worlds historical buildings, however Italian Architects of the 20th Century had a huge impact on the Brutalist movement of the 1950s (for example) and gave their work a specific flavour. The idea with this series was to show the building but more so in detail, as the power of brutalist architecture in my world is it’s detail. Scarpas concrete detail for example, and the curves and bold silence of Aldo Rossi’s and Carlo Aymonino’s work.

Can you tell us a bit about the process when you travel?

Do you seek out particular locations or is it something that happens more organically as you travel. I do a lot of research before I leave the country, so as to best position myself so when I hit the ground I’ve got a clear plan, what I’m doing, where I’m going and my approach. Having said that alto of material does come from transiting from one location to another. The process is usually first to find the subject. Be it a place, building or area, once I know where I am going to focus my energy, I can then start to develop what treatment I’ll give the subject. For example Outdistance is a series that was largely researched, however some of the detail was only discovered upon arriving at the site. When you have the freedom of being able to transport yourself from one location to another, then finding other inspiring material along the way is part of that journey and contributes greatly to the end result.

You had some really difficult choices to make in collating the final 10 images. How did you work through that process? What did you look for or hope to achieve with this series?

Unlike my previous two series, and subsequent exhibitions, ‘Outdistance’ is a study more so of the detail, and intimate presence of the architecture. Traditionally my previous series have been much wider, complete building studies, however I wanted these pictures to be vignettes of what it feels like to be in the spaces. Not only this, but to also be graphic interpretations of the architects thought processes.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?

Certainly there’s no shortage of inspiring material around now days, but books still feature largely in my method of gaining inspiration, and researching what my topic might consist of. Books provide the pictorial aspect, the written history, and have a kind of tangible legitimacy to them. Having said this, I do look past a lot of material online, but more so once I know what I’m pursuing from having looked at books. This will provide the finer details I need. Location, etc.


It can’t be understated what you learn from continuing to shoot as much architecture as you possibly can. Particularly overseas. You’ll always find hidden gems when you embark on overseas projects, purely by their very nature.”

Without asking you to reveal too much of your process, can you please tell some aspects of your technical skill and consideration that go into creating such a series?

I learnt my skills on film, and large format. To do an architectural job on anything but large format cameras and lenses, shooting film and Polaroids, would be seen as not quite right in the time I learnt and developed my style. Therefore when I approach how I am going to do a series, shooting it on large format equipment is a given. I use a camera, which is a modern version of a large format principle, but with the digital capture device to replace film. My images must feel ‘large’ and I don’t mean that literally, but they should feel ‘large’ and ‘substantial’ in their nature. The detail should be hyper real, the sharpness should be at a maximum, the image needs to be recorded BIG to present BIG. The light should be timed, and depending on the ultimate effect I am going for, the light will play a major part. Waiting, morning, afternoon, all contributed to the end effect.

Do you think your work is particularly benefited by digital technology?

Yes. Digital has allowed me to explore the subject in more detail. It’s allowed me to  practice my craft on an uninhibited level, and provide the opportunity to harness treatments and styles, without the limitations and cost of film and polaroid.

Can you perhaps talk us through a typical day for you?

Depends if it’s a day I’m shooting a commissioned job here at home, or wether it’s a day I’m traveling and shooting a personal series, or otherwise. Each day is a different experience.

What do you hope is next for you and your practice? 

I’m looking forward to shooting my next series in October. I continue to learn, develop my work, and read and take in as much influence and inspiration that i can. I do want to now do a series for exhibit yearly.

Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work and inspiration!

Derek Swalwell is a photographic artist currently shooting select architectural work, in Australia and in Singapore – appearing in multiple design and architecture books and magazines including, InDesign, Vogue Living, Architectural Digest US, Habitus, and for advertising clients including Qantas, Mazda, Sony, and Airbnb.

To see new works by Derek Swalwell visit our Fitzroy gallery, showing until 7 October!

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