This week, we spent some time talking to Robert Darch, a graduate from Plymouth University who is based in the South West of England. Darch’s work re represents to us visuals from books, his past and feelings towards the environment of the Moors in Dartmoor. The photographs which follow are both dramatic and eerie, encompassing both the beauty of the bleak landscape of the moors but also the work explores a real danger the landscape presents to those who step foot upon its ancient ground.
HR: Hey Rob, lets kick things off with what initially drew you to the moors of Dartmoor and Bodmin?
RD: 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 1960’s 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 1980’s 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 farmers 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 experience and fiction.
In 2008 life circumstances forced me to relocate to Devon and a few years later I moved to Exeter, fifteen miles from Dartmoor. The Moors had always played an important role in my imagination and now I found myself living close to them. As a child we never stopped on the high moors, it’s apparent bleakness holding no interest for my parents, yet it was this barren, wild landscape that sparked my imagination. The Moors can appear serene and beautiful on a summers day, but during the winter, covered in snow, fog, battered by high winds and stinging rain you can lose yourself in the landscape.
HR: The concept of memory and place, how the moors have shaped part of your upbringing comes through within the work. There is certainly a meditative state. Images which repeat themselves, zoom in, subject looking like they are in a day dream. Besides your own personal relation to the moors, what other influences did you bring to the project?
Before starting the Masters at Plymouth University in 2013, it had been close to a decade since I had last completed a series of images. So this period was instrumental in terms of establishing a practice again. I hadn’t worked so narratively before, or constructed imagery, so it was particularly interesting how this developed. There is also a definite influence from cinema in the aesthetic visualisation of the series, though not one specific reference, instead a series of visual vignettes collected over time.
HR: How did the moors make you feel whilst working on the project?
RD: We don’t have much, if any, true wilderness in England. Yet, standing in the middle of Dartmoor, I certainly felt isolated and separate from the modern world.
My experience whilst working on the series was varied, influenced in part by the atmosphere of each place and the state of my mind. At times I was excited, inspired or scared.
HR: There are certainly cinematic moments which burst through the projects seams, the portraits in particular help to narrate the work in terms of its fictionalised state. The faces look wild and confused, lost in the landscape that surrounds them. With ‘The Road’ in mind, did your subjects have the same reaction to the landscape you were placing them or did themes from the book take over in terms of the portrayal of each subject?
RD: I chose to work with subjects that already had an existing relationship with the moors. So, although the work is predominantly fictionalised, it was important for me that this narrative was grounded in a subjective reality. In terms of ‘The Road’, the main inspiration I took from the novel, was how Cormac McCarthy locates his characters in a dystopian world, yet offers no explanation for the cause of the dystopia. Obviously a photographic series allows much less space for narrative explanation and character development than a novel, so my aim was to focus on creating a specific atmosphere and sense of place for the characters to inhabit.
The subjects also had varied reactions to the moor, sometimes scared, in awe, or cautious. I had spoken with them about my motivations for the work beforehand, to make sure they understood what I was trying to achieve with the series. Though whilst out, I was occasionally guilty of using the perceived supernatural history and myths of Dartmoor to illicit a fearful response.
HR: With this project being ambiguous in its nature, with the strings of the work holding closely onto personal memory and literature, how did you find weaving the threads together? It’s a harder thing to do than a straight up documentary project…
RD: Yes, you’re right. With a documentary project you’re only working with what is happening in front of the camera, and in theory you have no control over those elements. The content dictates the work, rather than the photographer dictating the content. Although, at present, contemporary photography is more ambiguous, projects don’t always sit within the old generalisations of genre. I often see work that replicates the conventions of documentary photography, yet latterly discover elements were constructed, that liminality between documentary and fiction is much less apparent.
In terms of constructing this series, the initial point of interest was Dartmoor. After spending some time in the landscape, exploring, thinking and photographing, I began to develop an understanding of the atmosphere and aesthetic of the work. At this stage I started considering people to photograph, that I felt would compliment the narrative. After these elements were decided, the story began to develop. However, as I made more images, the narrative continually evolved, until all the influences combined to create the finished series. There was a lot to think about in terms of weaving the threads, but this is where the editing of the work played a crucial role in the construction of the narrative.
HR: I think that’s what drew me to your work initially. It’s workings with portraiture and landscape images are mixed, with the clear lines of constrictive photography projects breaking away. What is it about working in the way you described that you enjoy so much?
RD: There’s definitely a freedom in working this way that I enjoy, that I am able to construct and visualise a series of images is a real pleasure. It’s also quite a selfish act, possibly a lot of photography is. It definitely felt like a luxury to be able spend so much time on the moors, exploring and taking photographs. It’s a fine line though, between finding the time for self expression and earning money to pay the bills. Also, without sounding too much like a megalomaniac, having a level of control was really important, that I was able to dictate the subject and narrative was essential in creating a coherent series of images.
HR: If photography paid the bills I guess we’d have not a great deal to moan about! So what projects are you working on at the moment?
RD: Indeed, that’s the dream, isn’t it! At the moment i’m working on another series of images in Devon, although at present the idea isn’t yet fully formed. In terms of a subject the series will most likely be centered around a Devon village, though working with a different photographic language to my previous projects. In particular, I am experimenting with making images that are less controlled, more fluid and abstract. It will again, most likely contain a mixture of portraiture and landscapes, though perhaps with a more literal narrative. ’The Moor’, although photographed in England, was heavily influenced by the semiotics of American film and photography. So with this series I am planning on referencing more quintessentially English aspects of life, again using literature as inspiration.
HR: That sounds exciting Robert, thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk to me about you’re brilliant work.
All images are copyright of Robert Darch
Interview by Harry Rose