Maria Svarbova’s Swimming Pool series is her largest to the date. The series features models strategically posed in public pools, many of which were built in the Socialist Era of present-day Slovakia. The ongoing series originated in 2014, but continues to grow and develop. The photos were collected into a book, Swimming Pool, published in 2017. Svarbova’s work on the series has earned her a 2018 Hasselblad Masters Award in Fine Art Photography.
The series got its start from Svarbova’s search for an interesting location to shoot simple portraits of the models in their swim caps. After seeing the models in the context of the buildings themselves, it evolved into the series it is today.
Many of the locations from the series take place in public swimming pools constructed in The Slovak Socialist Republic that existed from 1969 to 1990. The stark architecture and pervasive signage is a reflection of the time. In an interview with The Guardian, Svarbova explains, “The building is 80 years old, and dates back to a time when swimming was more social duty than sport – all white tiles and ‘No diving’ signs.” Every scene is heavily styled – each model’s swimsuit was individually chosen to complement the location and some of the props are as old as the pools themselves.
Svarbova says, “the series challenges the viewer to question the ingrained roles people play in society.” In the backdrop of a building rooted in socialism, these civic roles are emphasized. The swimmers in the photographs are highly–controlled, giving off the serious attitude of function over fun. The lack of intimacy between the models resembles that of strangers, underlining the public aspect of the space – an idea that would be at the forefront of a socialist nation. The “single-entity” mindset of socialism can also be seen in the synchronicity of the swimmers and their reflections in the still water. Svarbova carefully composes the photographs to create the feeling of a past utopia that is both eerie and peaceful.
While Swimming Pool evokes the image of a former society, it is also strangely futuristic. This effect can be attributed to the harmony that’s created between the swimmers and the space they occupy. Svarbova explains, “Space has no meaning without humans. It becomes empty – something is missing.” There is a balance between the models, the pops of color, and their sterile environment. The result is a visual experience that transports the viewer to another version of reality, where peace and order rule.