Looking at the photographs of Anne Schwalbe is something akin to a transcendental experience. From a fairytale white horse captured grazing between white hollyhocks and clumps of purple echinacea, to the stillness of withered brambles delicately coated with hoarfrost, Schwalbe’s images are imbued with both tranquillity and curiosity. They reveal the uncanny in what seems incidental and everyday. “I like silence,” Schwalbe explains. “And emptiness. I’m sure all this influences my photographs. At some point I had to describe my photography and came up with the sentence: I reduce reality to what is essential for me. Photographs are always an excerpt of reality. They capture and preserve a moment.”
At the heart of Schwalbe’s practice is the art of attention – she responds intuitively to the natural world, finding moments of transcendence and beauty in her surroundings. “I rarely plan my photos,” she says, “much arises spontaneously.” Inspired by the “slow” arts of painting, weaving and sculpture, Schwalbe’s otherworldly photographs are a kind of visual diary moving through the seasons.
I’m inspired by the colours of nature. By the sounds. A bird concert in the morning
In her column ‘Die Gärten der Anderen’ (‘The Gardens of Others’) in Zeit Magazin, Schwalbe documents via image and text the labours and beauty of gardening – perhaps an art form in itself – for her green-fingered subjects in Berlin and beyond. Readers learn the importance of leaving the seed heads on the stems for birds to feed on in winter, or how kale is at its most beautiful in the snow. “There are so many beautiful forms in nature. I am certainly also inspired by the colours of nature. By the sounds. A bird concert in the morning. The calls of owls. Emptiness. Wood. Life. Everything possible,” she says.
Schwalbe’s development as a photographer came hand in hand with her burgeoning passion for the natural world. Born in East Berlin in 1974, she grew up in the urban landscape of Mitte and later Lichtenberg but was always drawn to nature. She spent summers in the wilderness of northern Brandenburg with her grandparents and later opted for a voluntary ecological year with the Grüne Liga (Green League) in Berlin. Schwalbe eventually settled on a degree in German philology and cultural sciences at Humboldt University, during which she worked part-time in a flower shop: “It was so much fun! Though unfortunately very badly paid. I’m much more interested in practice than in theory,” she says. After graduating, Schwalbe was accepted to study photography with Ute and Werner Mahler at the prestigious Ostkreuz School of Photography in Berlin.
It was on a class trip with the photography school back in 2003 that Schwalbe first visited the tiny village on the banks of the Elbe between Berlin and Hamburg, where she would later buy a dilapidated farmhouse with an 800sqm garden of her own. Both the garden and the village have proven to be sources of inspiration. “I held an exhibition of my work there and got to know the people and the place,” she says. “I was lucky to find my house there, and it wasn’t that expensive because it needed renovating from the ground up.”
Since the farmhouse doesn’t have a bath, Schwalbe has come to appreciate the benefits of taking cold showers outside in the garden. She has tried to spend at least every other weekend there, and she will be there much more often this year in order to supervise the much-needed renovations. “There’s always something to do,” she smiles, adding that the local community is as full of life as its flourishing gardens. “There are concerts and exhibitions; there’s an initiative to restore the organ in the church, and another to take care of planting new trees and sowing seeds, plus the preservation of the historic village centre. There’s so much life there.”
There is a sense of tranquillity in Schwalbe’s images – the poetic solitude of a pale pink columbine growing under a willow tree, the glow of freshly harvested onions drying in the sun – that reflects the life she splits between an apartment in Mitte and a tiny village on the Elbe. “I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but my life is about finding that slowness,” she explains. “I don’t watch TV and I only use my computer for work. I rarely buy new clothes. I prefer to sew them myself and wear them until they fall apart, then I repair them. I travel on public transport, I don’t have a car.” So how does she get to her farmhouse out in the countryside? Schwalbe laughs. “There’s a train and bus connection, but I often get a lift from people. It takes about two and half hours, so we have that time just to talk, and I find that really nice. In spring and summer I can take the train and ride my bike the rest of the way. But it can also be very difficult and inconvenient, to be honest.”
Most recently, Schwalbe has been traveling to photograph flocks of sheep on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen and is now busy documenting the signs of spring in Berlin for Zeit Magazin – including the emergent hazelnut blooms at a local park. While Schwalbe typically works with a Yashica Mat 124g camera using 6×6 film, she has come to rely more and more on her smartphone, in keeping with her intuitive method of working: “A smartphone is better for those moments like the white horse that appears in the garden, or the cat sleeping on the stool,” she explains. “If I had to set up my static camera, the moment would have passed.”
When she’s in Berlin, Schwalbe can be found in the photography lab processing her prints by hand or updating her website and online shop. There she sells her prints and other hand-crafted products including organic wool sweaters and ceramics, packing and shipping the orders using recycled cardboard and paper, or in the photography lab processing her prints by hand. Thinking of her farmhouse garden, Schwalbe says she plans to grow pumpkins this year, but she’s reluctant to grow too much because of the slugs: “They really do eat everything that tastes good – kale, salad, dahlias. I’m going to get some Indian Runner ducks at some point – they eat slugs!”