“Robert Darch (born in Birmingham, 1979) is photographer, educator & curator based in the South West of England. He holds a Masters with distinction in Photography & the Book and an MFA with distinction in Photographic Arts from Plymouth University. His current practice is motivated by the experience of place, for which he constructs narratives that help contextualise a personal perception of those spaces. As well as the physical location this subjectivisation of place is also influenced by contemporary culture, memory and imagination.
Alongside his photographic practice, Robert initiated and runs Macula a collective for young photographers. He also curates work in his studio and exhibition space Dodo as well as in various locations with the Unveil’d festival….In 2001 aged twenty-two Robert was diagnosed as having had a minor stroke. This episode led to a long period of ill health and It would take close to a decade to fully recover and resume a ‘normal’ life.” (Stirling, 2017)
Robert spoke about his masters projects which were 2 landscape proejcts but each with a distinct nature.
The first, named The Vale although subtly photographed is constructed, its the story of 3 friends walking down the river and what they see and do. This stems from Roberts love of the landscape particularly when viewed in the early morning stillness when you can imagine a sense of being the first, or only person to have viewed the scene.
As he said this I knew exactly what he meant as it triggered a personal memory of being in Yosemite, National Park California early one morning after a 6″ snowfall and the minor road from the main highway to the normal parking place was closed so 4 of us hiked 6 miles to get to the redwood trees and were rewarded with this pristine scene of outstanding beauty and absolute stillness, the road was covered in snow so there were no signs of man and it was easy to imagine you were the first people to discover the valley. Of course this abruptly ended an hour or so later when a snow plough turned up to clear the car park but for that hour we had it to our selves. This happened a long time ago but it was a simply unforgettable experience.
Robert described his process as hing an initial interest, take some pictures and see where this leads. Many of the images form the Vale are timelessly serene often featuring the river which is a recurring theme in the work and then there are images which disturb this tranquilty such as an image of a rotting animal corpse or a couple in the scene with the main subject looking, to me, quite distressed or fearful rather than relaxed and peaceful. More images can be seen here.
Robert described this effect as layering in that different people see different things in the work. I tend to believe that is true of most art, I find it fascinating for example the different interpretations that result from a project brief on our BA course – everyone is given the same brief resulting in 25 unique outcomes. In Roberts case his tutor had also done landscape work in the same region an he obviously didn’t want to simply replicate this.
He also gave a very personal insight into how undertaking this work had helped his recovery and recuperation from his illness describing it as rediscovering his lost decade.
His second project The Moor was photgrpahed on Dartmoor.
From his website Robert’s description of the project is;
“The Moor juxtaposes the dystopian bleakness and inherent wildness of its landscape against the fragility of the humans that inhabit the fictional space. The series relies heavily on a visual narrative referencing local historical mythology to give context, but depicting something altogether more ‘unknown’. The sense of narrative is reinforced by the re occurrence of characters that are choosing to inhabit this unforgiving landscape, often appearing on edge, in peril or distressed. The notion of something ‘unseen’ is readily apparent and a force that isn’t overtly visible to the audience haunts the inhabitants.” (Robert Darch, 2017)
Robert spoke about taking inspiration form literature, painting and film considering it essential to look beyond just photography. In line with his earlier comments about the capricious nature of his process The Moor started out as a pure landscape project and then developed into including people and their experience of the landscape. The idea came from a time when he felt there was a lot of dystopian fiction but not in photography.
He stated he had taken a lot of inspiration from Robert McCarthy’ Pullitzer prize winning book The Road and the subsequent film of the book. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of a journey of a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed most of civilization and, in the intervening years, almost all life on Earth.
He applied a few rules to the photography in The Moor for example going out in bad weather as he didn’t want to replicate only beautiful landscapes as in The Vale, nor a strictly documentary approach but more a story based around a film like plot. Another criteria was that all subjects of portraits in the series are looking off camera.
Both projects are available as books.
As much as his photography I found Robert’s willingness to share other insights into his work and practice helpful. Bearing in mind my own struggles with sketchbooks it was refreshing to hear him candidly state that they didn’t work for him and he only completed them for his MFA “after the event” i.e. at the end of the project to meet the academic criteria and not as a tool during the project. This caused much hilarity in a subsequent conversation with tutors. That said I completely accept and recognise that producing evidence of work done, research undertaken and reflective discourse on your work is an essential part of achieving a decent degree. However, as it is the area that I think I am particularly weak in I can only hope it doesn’t affect my final grades too much. We will see.
The other somewhat sobering, information he shared on was the finances of a photography career. Despite the award winning quality of his photography, the associated recognition in the industry now in his late thirties he still has a couple of part time non-photography jobs to supplement his income. This is not as obviously bleak as it first sounds, clearly his long term illness following his stroke hampered his progress and he chooses to live in a beautiful location facing the same dichotomy that people in many industries do, that if a location is cheap to live there is, generally, little opportunity for well paid work and if there is plenty of work its expensive to live – simply look at London house prices for evidence of this.
I thoroughly enjoyed Robert’s session, an engaging speaker, a friendly and open person with a genuine desire to share information with students. I think this latter is an extension of his work with the Macula collective he organised, click on the link for details.