ROBERT DARCH. CONNECTION WITH A PLACE
by Steve Bisson


Can you tell us about your interest in photography, what are your first memories?

Robert Darch (RD): I was given a little 110 film camera for my 5th birthday which was my first introduction to photography, although it wasn’t until my Granddad gave me his old Praktika SLR that I began to get really interested in photography. Initially this was taking photographs of my friends skateboarding, however I soon started taking portraits and became more interested in the quiet moments rather than the action.

What about your studies? How your formal educational journey helped your skills and your awareness? Is there any professor you want to remember in particular?

RD: I started studying Documentary Photography at Newport, Wales in 2000 and this was where my formal education began. It was exciting and I thrived in that environment, I am naturally competitive and enjoyed spending hours photographing and processing film in the darkroom. As most students can hopefully relate to there was a great sense of community, energy and expectation. The academic teaching was excellent, these were the days where the professors had to take slide photographs of images from books to include in their lectures, so it always makes me wince slightly at the sight of a pixelated image in a lecture now. Newport was proficient and professional and I always expect that now of others and myself. I looked up to Paul Seawright, Ken Grant and Clive Landen who were my main tutors at Newport and their work influenced my early practice. Alongside these primary influences the lectures at Newport were a great education in the history of photography. Aside from the American photographers, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz and Joel Sternfeld I was really moved by Jem Southam’s work, it had a poetic depth that I wanted to try and express but wasn’t able to yet.


© Jem Southam, Upton Pyne (book 1 #21) May 1999/2004

Later in life, fate and ill health meant a move to Devon and several years later I bumped into Jem and introduced myself, we lived five minutes walk away from each other. In 2013 I started studying for a Masters in Photography and the book with Jem as my professor in Plymouth and after that I completed an MFA with David Chandler as my professor. David has been really supportive in the development of my current practice and it has been invaluable to have someone whose opinion you respect to offer you advice.


© Robert Darch from the series 'Vale'

Beyond your personal work you are involved in other educational and curatorial activities such as the Unveil'd festival. How important is it for you not just to focus on your own personal work?

RD: I think it’s very important to be involved on a curatorial level outside of your own practice, especially if you have an interest in photography. I enjoy seeing other peoples work and particularly visiting Universities and talking to the students about their photography. Unveil’d was set up by Tom Coleman who I met through Macula (a collective I set up for young photographers) and since its inception he has achieved so much gaining funding from the Arts Council and developing the reach of Unveil’d through events and an online platform.

You also run with Jessica Lennan. the Dodo Photo exhibition and studio space in Exterer. Can you briefly tell us about what's running a photo space in South West England? What is the mission of the collective Macula?

RD: My partner Jessica Lennan initiated Dodo Photo in 2013 alongside two friends with whom she studied with at Plymouth University. This incarnation of Dodo Photo ran for a couple of years and was then revived when Jessica and I moved into the flat above Dodo and took over the space. Ultimately it isn’t easy running a photo space in the South West, so primarily we now use Dodo as our private studio space and occasionally exhibit work as we did during the last Unveil’d Festival with Sian Davey’s Martha series and most recently Jessica’s work, the candidates. Jessica lectures fulltime in photography and I have my practice, commissioned work, part time job, Macula and work with Unveil’d, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to plan a programme of events for Dodo. As for everyone it’s often about finding a balance and I would much rather be taking pictures than taking on a more permanent organizational role, so this informal running of Dodo suits us both.


© Opening of the exhibition 'Wild Wood' by Fern Leigh Albert at Dodo Photo, Exeter, 2014

I initiated Macula in 2012, it started off life as a small photography group called Fotoclub for young people aged 15-21 based at Exeter Phoenix an arts and music venue where I still work part time. I had also been working in the youth service and left just before the Conservative government cut all the funding for youth provision, and because of this I wanted to offer something else for young people. I chose to run the collective voluntarily as I wanted to be able to offer a relaxed space where outcomes weren’t an expectation. The group evolved over the next couple of years and having members like Tom Coleman (Unveil’d) join really helped shape the direction and ethos of the collective. In September 2017 a lot of the core members left to study at University so we are slowly building up a new group in the South West. However those that have left return during academic breaks and as most are based in London we meet up when I visit the capital. Macula is easily the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I have done and it’s a genuine pleasure to see the members develop as photographers and individuals.

Tell us about your personal visual research. How do you choose and approach your projects?

RD: For me a project generally develops from an interest in a specific place or landscape. I always spend some time exploring, taking photographs and thinking to allow time for ideas to develop. It’s really important that I have an emotional response or feel a connection with a place before I can start thinking about working in that environment. I also don’t try and limit myself in terms of how the series can evolve; it could be a documentary project, a constructed series or a mixture of both. The constant is always the landscape and often how people use and inhabit that space.

'Durlescombe' series somehow relates to your family history as much to the history of place. You wrote «the photographs are my attempt to map a learnt culture onto direct experience. The work also admits the potential of other, unconscious forces driving the ‘subjectivisation’ of places.» These are 2 interesting concepts: the experience of a past sedimented culture. An almost archaeological and functional view of photography. And then a need for a 'subjectivisation'... Can you explore these words...

RD: I am using the conceit of this imaginary place/name, ‘Durlescombe’ to explore a lot of ideas. Primarily I am documenting the history and practice of working with the land and also examining my own attachment and family history related to this area in Devon. This includes my early memories from holidays and visits and also this ‘other’, that which is carried with us from past generations in our being. Fate brought me back to Devon and I unbeknown to myself I began exploring places that directly related to my own personal family history. I feel a deep connection to Devon and the landscape and I am using Durlescombe to try and understand this relationship. My ancestors used to work the land, owning grain mills across Mid-Devon for many generations. Sadly there are no longer any working commercial mills, most have been knocked down, fallen into ruin or been converted into homes. So initially I made contact with Threshers who process wheat the same crop my ancestors worked with but also used to make thatch for houses. In the autumn a retired farmer I met whilst following the threshers invited me to watch him make cider. He used the left over wheat to sandwich the layers of apple to stack in the press. For me this connection between the wheat being harvested for thatching and processed in the Summer and then used in the Autumn for making Cider was a beautiful thing and told me a lot about working with crops and to use your term a ‘sedimented’ rural history/identity, but one that is slowly getting lost as we move more into the 21st century.


© Robert Darch from the series 'Durlescombe'


© Robert Darch from the series 'Durlescombe'


© Robert Darch from the series 'Durlescombe'


© Robert Darch from the series 'Durlescombe'


© Robert Darch from the series 'Durlescombe'

Alongside these primary influences I am also creating a specific sense of place, one that is my own personal subjectivisation of a Devon that already feels lost. I have a tendency to be nostalgic but temper this with 21st century semiotics and although I am interested in the rural idyll my wish isn’t to create a chocolate box representation of it.

'Vale' as you wrote « is a construct, part a reimagining of aesthetics and semiotics derived from contemporary culture and also a romanticisation of memory, hope, place and remembered landscapes.» I agree that somehow this series follows some precise aesthetic canons. Almost forces them, or puts them on stage. However, the merit of this project, and that is what has attracted me, is the fact that some of these images are able to convey feelings that are not always easy to describe in words. Photography has this force as the music to express universal conditions that we can not explain through a common language. I'm sure you have not thought about all this when shooting (laughing ....)

RD: Ha-Ha, You have just described the beauty and power of photography, it’s ability to express something that I can’t in words, most likely because I don’t have that ability or that photography offers something else, it’s that unknown that is fascinating to me. The work you make as a photographer is and should be a reflection of you. Vale is the most personal project I have made, I am not that emotional as a person, but I am very sensitive and I can express this through my photography to offer some truth about myself.


© Robert Darch from the series 'Vale'


© Robert Darch from the series 'Vale'


© Robert Darch from the series 'Vale'

In the series 'White Whale' you mention your interest «in the human condition, the obsessions, anxieties, ideals and morals that make us human, and how we cope with love, loss and sadness.» As a photographer you deal with the atmosphere and poetic flow of the visual narrative. Blurring between fiction and facts is recurring line in your work. How do you balance this?

RD: Whether I am working on a documentary series or a project that is constructed, I want it to be believable, to have some emotional honesty and the work has to feel cohesive and whole. Although my photography sometimes hints at the fantastical and spiritual, it is always grounded in an understandable reality. To use an example from a current film (which although widely praised) I didn’t enjoy that much because the ‘reality’ didn’t feel believable. In the Shape of Water, by Guillermo Del Toro, the protagonist (a cleaner) falls in love with a sea creature, which is kept in a top-secret institution that has cameras filming every room, entrance and exit, but not the room that the sea creature is contained in. Although this asset (the sea creature) is the most important the institution has ever had, somehow the cleaner is also allowed to be alone with him, to feed it eggs, bring in a record player and play music and dance for the sea creature. It’s not that I can’t get lost in fantasy, It’s just that I found it really hard in this instance as the ‘reality’ of the film didn’t feel believable.


© Robert Darch from the series 'The White Whale'


© Robert Darch from the series 'The White Whale'


© Robert Darch from the series 'The White Whale'


© Robert Darch from the series 'The White Whale'

Any book you would recommend these days?

RD: ‘What The Living Carry’ by Morgan Ashcom (http://morganashcom.com/) is sublime, it is everything that I would want from a project and book. Published by Mack.

Any interesting exhibition you have visited recently?

RD: George Shaw – ‘My Back To Nature’, which I initially saw at the National Portrait Gallery in London and we now have at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. It is a beautiful series of paintings of woodland inspired by his youth in the Midlands. It particularly resonates with me as I was born in Birmingham and grew up in the Midlands. These woodlands often on the edges of conurbations have a very particular feel, slightly unsafe, dark and unpredictable and very different from the bucolic woodlands we have here in Devon.

What's next...?

RD: I am working on several photography projects alongside commissioned work. It’s great to feel so productive but it’s not always easy juggling several projects and other commitments. We are also working towards another Unveil’d festival in 2019 alongside several smaller events, the first being an exhibition of Lola Paprocka’s (http://lolapaprocka.com/) work in Bristol this April.

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LINKS
Robert Darch
Unveil'd
Dodo Photo
Macula Collective