Studio Visit

Derek Swalwell

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
14th of January 2011
Astrid House Singapore for Habitus Magazine.  All photos by Derek Swalwell.
Habitus cover - the home of Piero Gesualdi.  All photos by Derek Swalwell.
The home of Piero Gesualdi for Habitus Magazine - all photos by Derek Swalwell.
All photos by Derek Swalwell.
Personal photo project, 2010 by Derek Swalwell. Styling by Rachel Vigor.
Super slick vs. super rustic.  All photos by Derek Swalwell.
All photos by Derek Swalwell.

It is a sad truth that all the photos on TDF need to be 520 pixels wide in order to fit the layout of the page.  It looks nice and uniform, of course, but can also be quite heartbreaking where there are beautiful pics to share, with delicate details that just get lost when the image is shrunken.  This happens often but I think perhaps I have never been QUITE so devo (yes, 'devo') as I was last night when reducing all Derek Swalwell's images to this measly size ;(  Whilst of course they still make beautiful viewing, I IMPLORE you to go and see the work on his own website - the grand scale of his stunning architecture shots and urban city skylines just needs to be viewed at FULL SCREEN resolution!

Derek Swalwell is a Melbourne-based photographer very well respected both here and overseas for his incredible architectural photography.  If you love to flip through the pages of Vogue Living, Belle, Habitus or international design and architecture mags, chances are you will have admired Derek's beautiful work at least once or twice before!  Of course he's not averse to mixing things up a bit - his varied portfolio also includes stunning (and at times quite kooky) portraits, travel shots and food, often styled by his very clever partner, food stylist Georgia Young.

Derek is one of those amazing people who seem to divide his work effortlessly between continents, as if it really is no different than just going in to the office everyday.   He regularly works in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Dubai... now that just seems super grown-up and impressive, doesn't it?

Derek has worked for all the bestest magazines in the land - of course the local favourites  mentioned above, as well as niche Architecture titles and big name international mags like Wallpaper and Dwell.  I must admit I rarely look at the credits in international mags, never expecting to see an Aussie name... I must keep an eye out from now on!

Huge thanks to Derek for sharing his beautiful work and generous answers with us today.  (I now have Georgia Young in my sights...!)

Tell us a little about your background – did you always want to be a photographer? What path led you to what you’re doing now?

I had wanted to work in the visual arts since early high school.  I guess I’ve been shooting commercially for around ten years now.  Prior to going out on my own I assisted for nearly six years, mostly to advertising photographers here and a bit in the UK.

When I started out on my own I was shooting primarily architecture, as I’d always been hooked on interior design and buildings generally. Be it houses or commercial design, I wanted to see as much of it as I could, the materials, the way the light would pass through a building, it’s imprint on the surrounding landscape… although strangely enough the idea of being an architect didn’t really appeal to me, I was more interested in how I could illustrate it.

At that early stage I was shooting predominantly for architects, designers and editors.  I still love shooting design, and have since moved into advertising and editorial as well.

Where might we have seen your work? What have been some favourite shoots / clients in recent years?

My work has been across a number of mediums in recent years, magazines, books, billboard, press… online.

The most likely place I guess is magazines, architectural & design titles... Architecture Review, Habitus, Belle, Inside Out, Wallpaper, Vogue Living, Singapore Architect, Dwell, Monument and Blueprint Asia and others.

In terms of favourite shoots, a tricky one to pin down, also depends a lot on what I’ve been up to, although if we were talking about architectural work: I recently had a commission in Singapore to shoot 14 houses for a book! We did it in 2 weeks. Although it sounds grueling, it was actually really inspiring and calm, and I found myself relishing in my surroundings everyday… beautiful homes, surrounded by tropical gardens, inspired design and great people.

I work in Asia regularly now, and just love the climate there, my clients always lay it on too… gotta love that.

Editorial work has rewarded me many times over, working for great titles like Habitus, Belle, Inside Out, Vogue Living, Home Beautiful etc... All these magazines have great people behind them and I feel privileged to have a relationship with them.

Advertising work has also yielded some great relationships, that I’ve had for some years. It’s always interesting work and I love the challenge, and believe it or not the pressure is strangely enjoyable. I’ve made some great friends from advertising jobs.

Blair road House for Ong & Ong Sinapore - all photos by Derek Swalwell.
Blair road House for Ong & Ong Sinapore - all photos by Derek Swalwell.

Was there a ‘big break’ early on which kick-started your career? Would you have any advice for young Australian photographers starting out?

There wasn’t necessarily one big break that set my career on a trajectory… I guess I made the connections early in terms of meeting editors and seeking out the people who were doing work that I admired and respected, and it was thanks to those editors, designers, architects and art directors who gave me an opportunity to shoot for them, and the rest is down to relentless hard work and determination, and a belief in what you’re doing.

Succeeding as a photographer is about believing in your work firstly, being honest with yourself, then knowing what it is you want to achieve, what work you want to do…

I spent a lot of time harnessing my style and approach in the early days, and striving for that ‘finish’ to my shots that I hoped would set me apart from others.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Well that really kind of depends on what’s happening at the time ..

A typical shoot day would start with an obscenely enormous coffee (gotta make 'em smaller) breakfast, meet my assistant Vinnie at the studio, meet clients/stylists and get into the job at hand, then editing back at the studio, for the retoucher to complete the following day.

If I happen to have a day in the office then I do tend to be doing a lot of things from production, quoting and paperwork, to making calls and scheduling, although I’m one of those people that can start something, do it for 10 minutes, then hold it, start something else, then hold that and start something else, etc etc .. until I’ve got 9 different tasks all going at once. I am on medication for that though.

How is your business structured..? Do you employ an assistant or other collaborators? Who takes care of the ‘business side’ of things?

I work with an assistant on virtually all jobs, although I do have a regular in Vinnie, I do also use other people from time to time.

Over the years I’ve learnt the value of a good assistant, and when you find one you gotta keep em.

Shoots are processed, with the files either going to retouchers like tobyandpete for advertising jobs, and editorial or architectural work handled by another guy here in my office.

I generally handle my invoicing and quoting, but all my figures and bookeeping I outsource, I’d never go there.

Where do you turn for creative inspiration – travel, local and international design trends, magazines, books or the web etc?

The web is probably my first port of call, there’s so much material you can spend days overdosing on inspiration… otherwise overseas magazines on design, interiors and art. Books by Steidl, Scalo and Rizzoli.

Apartamento magazine from Spain... golden, and films especially, films can conjure up great ideas, you just have to then do them….

Bottom two shots - Designer Adelaide Bragg at home for House & Garden.  All photos by Derek Swalwell.

Which other photographers, designers or creative people do you admire?

The list is endless, but I love the work of artists like Darren Wardle and Louise Hearman.

Photographers Larry Sultan, Julius Shulman, the brilliant Kiran Master, Derek Henderson, Sze Tsung Leong and the dreamlike quality of Massimo Vitale’s work.

Architects Richard Neutra, Tadao Ando and Oscar Niemeyer are some of my faves.

What would be your dream creative project?

I’ve got a few idealic scanarios, but a commission to shoot a book on the worlds coolest houses, one whole year and a massive budget would be nice.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m shooting a book on emerging architectural practices in Asia, taking in Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, later this year with a much respected architectural writer.

I’ve also just taken on a new studio premises in Prahran, after sharing space for the past 7 years with others. I am setting it up over January & February, I am really excited about it and can’t wait to launch it.

Melbourne Questions –

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I live in North Caulfield, near my favourite part of the inner Melbourne around East St Kilda, at the end of Carlisle St. I just love the creative buzz around Balaclava, Carlisle St and Windsor. The coffee… there’s plenty for my daughter to do, the beach etc… I’ve just always had my friends and based myself over this way.

Your favourite bookshop in Melbourne for design / photography / reference books?

Architext in the city... brilliant books on design.

NGV shop, Greville St Bookstore had some gems too (sadly now closed), as well as Avenue Bookstore in Albert Park… and I always seem to walk out of Magnation having dropped a bundle on magazines.

What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

To be honest probably Penang Coffee House in Hawthorn... I absolutely love Malaysian food, Nasi Lemak, Roti Channai.. it’s a modest place, I often go there Sundays with my partner Georgia Young and our daughter Mia.

But I do love Movida, Caffé e Cucina and always content after leaving Lau's Family Kitchen.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Probably either down the park with my daughter Mia, or dragging her through JB hifi, before getting her to help me wash my car. She’s 3.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Secrets ? Melbourne ? Melbourne doesn’t have secrets, everyone’s done everything, numerous times, then told everyone.. but if I was pressed for something, then I’d say a few beers on a balmy evening after work at the Windsor Castle... magic, although potentially dangerous.

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