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The Moor

by Robert Darch

Our feature today focuses on Exeter-based photographer Robert Darch, who also runs Macula collective and, along with Jessica Lennan, the exhibition space Dodo Photo.

Darch speaks to us about his wonderful project The Moor, a constructed, fictional documentary work influenced by Darch’s memories and nostalgia. It reimagines the area in a dystopian future without the use of artificial light or staged sets — as Darch puts it, “a shifting between pseudo-documentary and constructed photography”.

Darch’s project is fantastical and yet anchored in the reality and truth of the landscape. It’s a refreshing take on the exploration of memory, history and landscape. An intriguing and moreish combination of genres.

My name is Robert Darch and I am a photographer, educator and curator based in Exeter, England.

In terms of my photographic practice, I have a particular interest in the experience of place and construct narratives that help contextualise a personal interpretation of those spaces. As well as the physical location, this subjectivisation of place is also influenced by contemporary culture, memory and imagination.

I am also actively involved in supporting and promoting photography in the South West of England. In 2012 I set up Macula, a collective for young photographers aged sixteen to twenty-one. The aim was to create a space where young people could meet like-minded individuals who are passionate about photography.

In 2014, Macula member Tom Coleman set up Unveil’d festival and since 2015 has been working with Martyn Windsor (a Macula mentor) to further develop it each year. This year they received Arts Council funding and were able to put on a full programme of talks and exhibitions, featuring international photographers and artists! Myself and my girlfriend Jessica Lennan helped support them in the planning stages and during the festival.

Jessica and I also programme and curate a small exhibition space, Dodo Photo. For the last three years I have been studying at Plymouth University gaining an MA in Photography and the Book, and an MFA in Photographic Arts.

I am currently working on my personal practice and starting to do some commissioned work as well.

What’s your story?

My story is a long one, but I guess my interest in photography was initiated when my grandad gave me his old SLR. At that time I was heavily into skateboarding so I started taking pictures of my friends and that scene. It didn’t take long before I also started taking photographs of the landscapes of the Midlands, where I lived.

At college I also did a City and Guilds qualification in photography which introduced me to the darkroom. Then I was properly hooked. Even at a young age I realised how emotive photography could be in capturing a specific time and place, and that really interested me.

After college I knew if I had gone straight to university I would have spent most of my time partying and skating, so luckily I was mature enough to realise I wasn’t ready to get the most out of a degree. Instead I spent the next three years working in factories and a large chunk of that time in a builders yard, which I loved. The hard manual work and being outside.

I then applied to study documentary photography at the University of South Wales, in Newport, Wales. After seeing in the new Millennium, I started there in the autumn of 2000. I found it challenging at first but knew I was in the right place. I was surrounded by lots of talented image-makers and the no-nonsense, honest teaching suited my personality. The degree introduced me to lots of varying practices, ideas and pushed my thinking.

Just before I was due to start my second year, I got rushed into hospital after having an attack/seizure. At the time I had no idea what had happened and it wasn’t until a couple of months later that I discovered they had diagnosed it as a transient ischemic attack (minor stroke). I spent three days in hospital and when I was released I still didn’t feel well at all.

A month later I returned to University for my second year but I was really struggling to function and keep up with the programme. A couple of months later I received a diagnosis of glandular fever which at least explained why I felt so unwell. Subsequently I deferred my final year hoping a year of rest would help. Sadly it didn’t and I felt more isolated and frustrated as my health wasn’t improving. I completed my third year from home, only making it into university a couple of times.

I had by this time received a diagnosis of M.E. or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which is still a very misunderstood illness.

After finishing my degree my health fluctuated but I didn’t seem to be getting any better. In total this period lasted around eight years and it wasn’t until 2010 that I felt like I was returning to some kind of ‘normality’.

By now my parents had moved from the Midlands and had retired to Devon so I had to move with them as I was unable to support myself. Over the next few years my health slowly improved and I started working in Exeter, initially doing voluntary work.

I had no aspirations to return to education; in fact, psychologically I had given up on doing any photographic work. I felt like that time had passed.

However, there were two things that acted as the catalyst for me to re-engage seriously with photography. The first was that Jem Southam lived around the corner from me in Exeter, and one day I introduced myself to him when he came into the Art Centre I worked at. Whilst at Newport he was one of the few photographers that all three of my tutors included in their lectures and his sensitive landscape images had particularly resonated with me. His series The Red River is still one of my favourite photography books.

Around the same time I had just entered a relationship with a talented German photographer Jessica Lennan who was studying for her masters at Plymouth University with Jem and David Chandler. Jem invited me to attend a few of their MA sessions and I also started going to the evening talks as well. Because of this I slowly started to re-engage with photography.

Tell us about The Moor.

My first conscious memory was the sound of hunting dogs baying on the fringes of Dartmoor. At that time we lived close to Tamworth, just north of the West Midlands conurbation. Although our 1960s semi backed onto fields, the wilderness of Devon and the howling hounds must have appeared other-worldly to me as a three year old.

Over the course of my childhood we would continue to holiday in Devon and Cornwall, often passing over the Moors as we traveled further south.

In the late 1980s, we visited some distant relatives who owned a farm on the edge of Dartmoor. Nestled in a valley, the farmhouse was in the shadow of the high moor, surrounded by tumble down barns and wooded hillocks.

I spent the day exploring with my brother and the farmer’s children, excited to have the freedom to do so. As the years passed the memory of that day has since blurred with stories I once read, making it harder to distinguish between the actual experience and the remembered events.

Dartmoor played an important role in my young imagination, so in 2010 when I found myself living fifteen miles from the Moors it was somewhere I naturally started to explore. I knew I wanted to make a series on Dartmoor and initially considered taking some conventional documentary images of people living and working on the Moor.

However, as I thought about the Moor, it’s history, aesthetic and presence, this instead motivated me to create a fictional series which would attempt to convey my understanding of the Moor.

The realisation of this dystopian future I then created is specifically in response to the perceived uncertainty of life in the modern world. Although the cause of the dystopia in The Moor isn’t literally defined, within the images there are semiotic clues that offer suggestions.

The fiction is grounded within the “real” landscapes of the Moor. Though instead of overt staging, use of artificial lights and constructed sets, the work relies on using found locations, shifting between pseudo-documentary and constructed photography, constantly blurring that liminal space between fiction and reality.

What inspires you?

The Moor relies heavily on a visual narrative, occasionally referencing historical myths, literature and mythology to give the series a context. Although there are elements of storytelling within the work, its reading partly relies on the viewer’s understanding of contemporary culture.

In particular referencing writing, like The Road by Cormac McCarthy as inspiration. Whilst I was making the series I was also watching a lot of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones; in both series the characters are living in landscapes they don’t choose to inhabit, instead they are forced to exist there.

Generally I take inspiration and visual cues from lots of different sources, including: cinema, literature, television, painting and photography. In terms of specific influences, that’s dependent on the series I am working on… the location, visual aesthetic and content will all dictate what influences feed into the series.

What are you up to next?

I had started work on a series called Durlescombe as part of my MFA, which I graduated from in September. This work is ongoing and I imagine it will take a few years to complete. This series is much more rooted in documentary than The Moor.

Initially I started taking landscape images in between Dartmoor and Exmoor, in Mid Devon, and during the course of that exploration I stumbled across places that held particular relevance in regards to my family history.

I was aware that my Dad had traced our family history whilst I was a young child and that we were originally from Devon, but amazingly I was never that interested in the details. Perhaps it’s something that takes on more importance once you reach a certain age.

I discovered a gravestone with my name on it in a small town in Mid Devon and learnt from my Dad that it was my four times Great Uncle — and his brother, my four times Great Granddad, was also called Robert Darch.

More amazingly he had owned and ran the mill in North Tawton which is now abandoned and was somewhere I had stumbled across and photographed a month earlier. As I spent more time researching and exploring I started discovering more family links across the area.

This familial connection was the starting point for the series and from there I developed the fictional place name, Durlescombe, as a device to hold the work together. At present I am taking pictures of people and landscapes in Mid Devon throughout the year following the patterns or rural life and work depending on the seasons.

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