Oliver Schwarzwald is a storyteller, telling tales through his images. These could be inspired by many things – experiences, memories, important and less important observations – and are expressed through a variety of techniques. This month, the Courtauld Institute of Art has selected Oliver’s work Hurdle to appear in their prestigious East Wing Biennial.
SM: There is such immaculate precision in your work. You make chaos a beautifully and paradoxically structured thing. How much chaos is involved in your creative process?
OS: While working on a project, I produce a lot of chaos – I am grateful for my kind assistants that clean up all the mess I produce. Honestly though, I think chaos is huge part of my creative process. It has taken me a long time to accept this as I was always told to be tidy. Nevertheless, ideas and creativity are like good friends, you have to take care of them and be patient if they don’t come straightaway.
SM: When you aren’t photographing, how else do you materialise your creativity?
OS: When you work in still-life, you work on a composition as if it were a sculpture. This can be seen as a first step towards its materialisation. Other forms in which I materialise my creativity are through music and art. When I play the piano, I often improvise. And since 2014, I have started to paint but these works are confidential, I still need a lot of practice.
SM: I am transported to my art history classes in 17th Century Dutch art when I look at the composition of your images of food. I imagine myself walking through the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem and looking at Pieter Claesz, Willem Claesz Heda and Willem Kalf’s immaculate still-lifes. Which leads me to ask, who have been your main artistic inspirations?
OS: There is no particular artist that has inspired me. Rather, it is the whole epoch – the Dutch Golden Age – and the light that these artists created an artform with. When I started in still-life photography, this style was still not very common for the medium.
SM: Traditional still life paintings – much like the nature of your art – concern the representation of vanitas (a symbolic reference to death and human mortality). Does this have any connection to your work?
OS: Of course, vanitas is simply part of life. Nowadays we suppress this. I cannot understand how people are not able to realise that they are mortal.
SM: How are the narratives in your photographs formed? Are they predominantly a reflection of your real life or are they mostly fictional?
OS: Both, sometimes my photographs need to express a feeling and sometimes they are just a fantasy.
SM: If fictional, do you have any recurring characters that take the roles of the protagonists in these narratives?
OS: No 🙂
Hurdle, Oliver Schwarzwald
SM: Your piece, Hurdle leaves an eerie sentiment in me of an abandoned, state-built exercise area. Then is there this juxtaposition of colour, life and playfulness. Can you share the story behind this particular piece?
OS: It is a part of a series that I call ‘Colours’. It started with the photograph Ribbon River. In the photograph, there is this tree near the river. One day, I walked along it and everything looked so sad to me. But on these riverbanks, we had a lot of fun with my children; walking the dog, playing, jogging, laying in the sun. It was because of these experiences that I was inspired to photograph the riverbanks with coloured ribbons. I wanted to decorate the tree, to make it more colourful. The ribbons should be the playful memories. And so, one day, they will fade away.
This was also the inspiration for Hurdle. It’s a camping ground, which is a bit alternative and a very funny place in the summer. I walked around there in the off-season, and again it was this sad situation. You know this feeling when you visit places where you grew up, and had fun, being a child, and now you see that it has changed. Your memories are still colourful, and the place is still the place for you and your mind, but maybe just for you. And this is the colourful hurdle of reality and memory of another time.
SM: You say you are inspired by your daily activities and those rare blessed moments of stillness and contemplation. Do you have any contemporary muses?
OS: Next to stillness, while running or cycling. It’s my wife – who is also my hardest critic.
SM: You are a fine art photographer but often collaborate with organisations for commercial purposes. How do these two different approaches to your photography influence the art that you create?
OS: The commercial projects are not that creative in realising my ideas. They are more about finding creative solutions to feasibly realise the wishes of the clients. To find these solutions, you need the knowledge and experience you gain from your profession to get the best result for the client.
Often the commercial work has nothing in common with my fine art work but I enjoying working with and meeting clients that are appreciative of a creative input.
Shirt Tree, Oliver Schwarzwald
SM: Finally, which book are you reading now or have you last read?
OS: I like crime novels. Last one was Gone Girl. Now Breton Condition, written by a German author who lives in France and is in love with Brittany. Just like me.