Books

The Elegant Minimalism of Soviet-Era Swimming Pools

Photographer Maria Svarbova focuses on the Communist-era swimming pools of her native Slovakia.

From Maria Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)

In her new photobook, Swimming Pool, Slovak photographer Maria Svarbova introduces herself in the first few lines: “I was born in 1988, only one year before the Velvet Revolution ended communism in Czechoslovakia. I didn’t experience the regime firsthand, but its visual remnants have always surrounded me.” She goes on to say that she often equates the communist era with fond childhood memories and a general nostalgia, both of which come through in her striking photographs of Slovak swimming pools.

Cover of Swimming Pool (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)

Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series began in 2014, when she came across an abandoned pool in her hometown of Zlaté Moravce — one oddly filled with water — and decided to shoot a series of portraits there. But she found that the architecture of the space was much too interesting to serve as a mere backdrop. From there, she trekked across the country, renting out swimming pools and doing carefully choreographed morning photo-shoots of models complementing the architecture of each space.

Swimming Pool comprises photographs from 10 of these pools, starting with Zlaté Moravce, and including one — in the town of Malacky — twice, both with and without water. The book is organized by pool, with latitude and longitude coordinates for each one.

Svarbova’s photographs are described as creating “staged, dreamlike worlds” in her book, but I see them more as static still-lifes than dreams. The photographs all have a very formal painterly quality to them. They’re reminiscent of something painter Edward Hopper might have created, but with a classic Wes Anderson palette, exclusively made up of pastels and primary colors. Many of Svarbova’s shots feature bright white tiles with “no diving” signs painted in red. The models are dressed in solid colors and almost all wear swim caps, adding to their somewhat androgynous calm. Here and there, you’ll spot a fern taking advantage of the atmospheric humidity — apparently a common occurence in these pool environments.

For someone who only started as a photographer in 2010, Svarbova shows a rare talent. She was voted one of Forbes Slovakia’s “30 under 30” earlier this year, and the Swimming Pool series has been making the rounds in Leica store galleries around the world.

Svarbova’s cool photographs of highly styled models in swimming pools may be somewhat nostalgic for the communist era in which many of the pool buildings were constructed, but in a very guarded way. After all, Svarbova herself doesn’t really know what it was like. Her whole series serves as a metaphor for the communism she has only heard about in stories.

From Maria Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)
From Maria Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)
From Maria Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)
From Maria Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)
From Maria Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)
From Maria Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)
Pages from Swimming Pool (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)
Pages from Swimming Pool (courtesy @mariasvarbova for NHP Publishing)

Swimming Pool by Maria Svarbova comes out November 28 from New Heroes & Pioneers.

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