Nowhere Newsletter 17: Robert Darch

Interview with photographer Robert Darch

What is your backstory?

It is a long story, sorry! But I guess my interest in photography began when my Grandad gave me his old SLR in the mid 1990’s. At that time I was heavily into skateboarding so I started taking pictures of my friends and landscapes close to where I lived in the midlands (Worcestershire, England). 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.

I made the decision to study photography at university and got accepted on to the Documentary Photography degree at Newport, in Wales in the year 2000. It was a steep learning curve for me, but I loved it. Newport had a great reputation and at that point there weren’t so many photography courses, so the majority of the students there were serious photographers.

Just before the start of my second year I got rushed into hospital after a suffering a seizure, which was later diagnosed as a transient ischemic attack (a minor stroke). It was a terrifying experience and would affect me mentally for years to come. I didn’t recover from the TIA, I felt constantly weak, nauseous and dizzy and a couple of months later I was diagnosed with Glandular Fever and then a year later with M.E. or chronic fatigue syndrome. It took me four years to complete my degree, mainly working from my family home in the Midlands and often confined to the home. 

It took close to a decade to fully recover from the illness and then overcome the anxiety of re-entering the world. By 2010 I had moved from voluntary work into paid employment working at an art centre. I was now living in Exeter, Devon as my parents had moved to Devon a few years earlier. As fate would have it I was living just around the corner from Jem Southam, a photographer whose work had influenced me so much whilst at Newport. Then a year later I met my current partner Jessica, who was being taught by Jem on the Masters Degree at Plymouth University. Both Jessica and Jem suggested I should do the Masters. I didn’t have a photographic practice at this point, although I was doing some commercial photography work and making documentaries for arts organisations. Psychologically I was reticent about returning to education and reigniting those aspirations I had at Newport, but I really wanted to start working on projects again and doing a Masters would allow me the time and opportunity to do that. In 2013 I started the Masters Degree in Photography and the Book and would later complete an MFA at Plymouth as well. I now teach part time on the degree course at Plymouth University and work on longterm projects and commissions. 

What camera gear / editing setup do you use?

I work digitally, using a Nikon D850 in 5 by 4 crop mode. I treat it like a medium format camera only using fixed prime lenses. Most people assume I use film and often a specific camera, like the Mamiya 7 for example. I understand the romance of film, especially for younger photographers. I do still use film, occasionally taking pictures where I grew up on my Bronica, but I don’t share this work, it’s just for me!

I use Photoshop to edit work, although I aim to get everything right in camera, so there shouldn’t be much editing to do. Although over time my photoshop skills have got better. I don’t want people to see any process though, I like my work to feel natural. 

How do you achieve the look of your photographs and could you take us through the process?

For Vale I photographed in the Summer, often very early in the morning or in the evening, so dawn and the golden hour. The use of light is very important in creating a sense of place, which also helps reinforce the narrative of the work. The 5 by 4 frame is also important as it feels more constrained than 35mm. I wanted the images to feel like concise moments, like stills from a film. I took a lot of influence from cinema whilst making this work. The look is really created by the places and people I am photographing, romantic British landscapes with young beautiful people. However there is often something unsettling in their gazes, which creates a juxtaposition between them and that beauty. All the subjects in the pictures were people I knew, friends, work colleagues and members of a youth photography collective I had set up. I very rarely staged pictures, as I wanted the work to feel natural and not contrived. However I often orchestrated situations, for example organising a day when three friends walked along the river for a day, stopping occasionally to swim. Then amongst that, I captured images when they were presented to me.

What is ‘Vale’ and what is the story behind it?

Vale reflects on the long period of ill health I experienced in my twenties and the isolation and loneliness that happened because of that. Vale slowly developed over the course of a few years from an initial interest in the valley landscape outside of Exeter where I live. However I soon realised the work I was making was more layered and it became a cathartic exploration of those lost years. 

Whilst I was ill I would get lost in daydream and fiction creating imaginary worlds to temper the isolation and sadness I felt. This dreamlike imagery became integral to the atmosphere and aesthetic of Vale. A photographer recently said to me it felt like I was dreaming the pictures. 

Vale imagines a romantic summer, spent swimming in rivers and exploring woods. The people almost act as stand ins for me, a romanticised version of how my life could have been had I not become ill when I was so young. Their uneasiness reflects my sadness and creates a conflict between their youthfulness and the beauty of the landscape around them. I have always had an interest in the notion of ‘eerie’, that unsettling feeling you get when presented with something that you can’t understand or comprehend. From a fascination with ghosts as a child to horror films as a teenager, these formative experiences have really influenced the work I make.

Vale is the most personal work I have made, which was one of the reasons I decided to self publish the work. I am really interested in publishing, which is why I created the imprint, LIDO to self publish my work and possibly the work of other artists in the future. 

Could you tell us the backstory of some of your photographs?

Vale initially evolved over a period of time and was shaped by chance encounters, serendipity and situations I found myself in. In the early stages of making the series a friend asked me if I could take some stills of a short horror film he was making in Devon. He had some funding and had rented this old farmhouse that was due to be auctioned in a month, but the cousin of the old couple who owned it was still living in the house. All the  interior images from Vale were photographed in this house. The room with the bed in it was where the old man lived and the final image of the series was taken in the living room of the house. It was an unsettling location and this early experience really reinforced the sense of eeriness which would permeate the series. 

I normally develop series of images from several smaller shoots/stories which then provide a structure for the atmosphere and narrative of the work. Often this is reinforced by pure serendipity. Like the evening I found a chopped log on a ride in a wood that had a swarm of bees inside it. Or another evening when I went to the river and the sky was full of insects which were glowing in the warmth of the setting sun. Perhaps the most prothetic image was a photograph I took of a couple outside an abandoned house I had found on the edge of a small Devon village called Black Dog. On reviewing the images my eye was suddenly drawn to what looked like a figure in the window and as I zoomed into the image, a chill went down my spine, the figure appeared to have a face. 

The rational mind most likely attributes the figure to dirt and the way the light fell on the window. Either way, this figure felt prothetic and the appearance of it felt very fortuitous in the development of the series.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Always make work that is honest, that is a reflection of you. You should take pictures because it is something that you love to do and get enjoyment from. It could be that taking pictures helps make sense of your place in the world, or that it allows you to highlight a concern of yours, or lets people know how you feel. Don’t compare yourself to others, especially if it is negative and effects your self esteem. Don’t chase likes or base your self worth on what others think of you and your work. If you want to have a career as an artist/photographer you should be ambitious, work hard, although be prepared to fail and get rejected most of the time. I know it might sound contrived, but if you believe in what you are doing and you love it, that’s all that counts. It’s not easy making a living from photography, especially if you don’t want to work commercially, so be prepared to work lots of part time jobs as I have done over the last ten years!