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by Alice Oliver

Robert Darch is a British, photographic artist, primarily working in the South West of England. Sola Journal had the opportunity to speak with Robert to give us an in-depth insight into his recent projects and discuss the evolution of his practice. A practice that is highly influenced by the experience of place, both in a terrestrial and deeply personal sense. His work touches on worldwide cultural events, whilst sensitively telling us his personal narrative,  all of which have an equal impact on perception. Through his practice, Darch uses a balance of fiction and non-fiction to build narratives that allow him to expose a sense of place.

AO: Could you tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?


RD: I was born in Birmingham and grew up in a small town in Worcestershire. It was a suburban environment but the surrounding countryside wasn’t far from my house and I spent my teenage years exploring it. 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. However, I soon started taking portraits and became more interested in the quiet moments rather than the skateboarding. Even at a young age, I realised how emotive photography could be in capturing a specific time and place and that really interested me.  


At college I did a City and Guilds qualification in photography which introduced me to the darkroom, then I was properly hooked. However I never wanted to process my films for fear of ruining them, so always got someone else to load them for me. I had the same issue when I left for uni to study photography at Newport, in that I didn’t know what I was doing. Again, I needed help and my coursemate Alfredo (D’amato) helped me, eventually, I worked it out and was quickly processing lots of films a week.


AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? Where did you study and what were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?

RD: My academic practice started when I left the midlands to study documentary photography at Newport, Wales, I was 21 years old. It was exciting and I thrived in that environment, I 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 at Newport. It was pre-digital, so everyone was working in the darkrooms, you’d see images being printed, spend hours working on colour castes and be inspired by the work around you. Towards the end of my first year, I had made the move to medium format colour so was sneaking into the 2nd/3rd years darkroom to print. Tobias Zielony was a third year and printing his series ‘Car Park’, images of disaffected youths in Bristol, which really resonated with me at the time.


RD: The academic teaching was excellent, these were the days when 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, Nan Goldin, Joel Meyerowitz, Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, Susan Lipper 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. There was an excellent library of Photobooks at Newport and I spent hours looking at them, working my way through them from A-Z. I didn’t feel hindered, perhaps only by my ambition and perfectionism at that time, which in hindsight I feel contributed to my subsequent illness. In fact, after three years working in various low paid manual jobs in the Midlands, having the time to just take pictures felt like an absolute luxury. I was helped by being surrounded by some very talented photography students. There weren’t many photography degrees in the late 1990’s/early noughties, so the standard was high amongst the students at Newport, helped by the reputation of the course.

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AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your book Vale and the starting point for this project?

RD: 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 lived. 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, which is a pretty accurate description. Vale imagines a romanticised summer spent swimming in rivers and exploring woods. The people in the pictures partly 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 quite 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 now.


AO: Was Vale a new step within your practice, or something that evolved out of earlier concepts or themes that you had worked with in the past?

RD: Vale was one of the first projects I worked on as part of my Masters in Photography and the Book at Plymouth University, which I started in 2013. This was a return to education for me after a long period of illness. I hadn’t made any considered work in the intervening years, after Newport and before Plymouth, but latterly had been working with photography and the moving image and was always taking pictures. Although I hadn’t made any considered work since Newport, as soon as I started my Masters, it didn’t take any time to consider how I would make work, the practice was just there. I appreciate this is very fortunate as when I see students, finding a distinct voice is something they struggle with the most. My practice is formed from my life experiences, interests and influences. It was the start of my practice, however everything that came before informed the work I make now.


AO: Can you tell me a little about your relationships with the people and places that you photographed for Vale?

RD: Like a lot of my projects Vale was formed from several different threads and weaved together to create a series. There was the initial interest in the valley landscape just outside Exeter where I was living. A landscape of rivers, woods and fields that was reminiscent of the Worcestershire countryside that I grew up close to. Before I started my Masters I had set up and was running a collective for young photographers, called Macula. Every Tuesday evening we would meet up and go and take pictures and explore, often in the valley outside Exeter. The collective allowed me to share in the experiences of the members, their energy and interest in the world. In one sense I was trying to recapture that feeling of being young and free, it made me reflect on those lost years. I naturally started photographing the members of the collective and in the context of Vale, they acted as stand ins for me, for my past life. Once the atmosphere and narrative of Vale was formed in my mind I started to arrange with friends to photograph them as part of the series. For example, I organised a trip for three close friends, who were all about 10 years younger than me and about to leave for London at the end of the summer. We spent a day walking along the river, stopping to occasionally swim. For them it was about a change in their lives, in their early twenties on the cusp of a new adventure. For me, it was also about friendship, adventure, the warmth of summer and that feeling of being young and content. The Places in Vale were landscapes I visited regularly, locations I had found in the Exe valley, close to Exeter right up to Exmoor in North Devon.


AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?

RD: The Photobook is the ideal context for my work. As my projects usually have a considered narrative the book allows me to present the work in its entirety in the correct sequential order. The book also enables the work to travel, whereas an exhibition is limited to the people that can visit and see the work in that context. An exhibition is exhibitionist, whereas I feel like a book is more reserved, which reflects my character, people can look at the work in their own time.


AO: You self-published Vale under the imprint you started, LIDO Books. What made you choose to self-publish and what do you see happening next with LIDO Books?

RD:  The two main reasons to self-publish were to have creative control and to profit financially from the book. Profit seems like a dirty word for an artist, but it was important that I earned money from the book as I was investing so much time and effort into it. In general, the photo book industry model is ridiculous, the artists and photographers don’t profit or earn money from their work. I appreciate it is a niche market and there are some great independent ethical publishers who do their best to offer the photographers a percentage of earnings. However, a lot of publishers charge the photographers/artists anywhere up to £30,000 to publish a run of 1,000 - 2,000 copies of a book. I just don’t have the money for that and I really don’t agree with that model as it only enables people with serious financial means to publish and it’s not always the most interesting work. Once the publisher has been paid that kind of money, they have little or no incentive to market the book as they’ve already been paid. So the books sit in warehouses. I have heard of photographers years later wanting more copies and having to pay the publisher over cost price for those books, even though it is their work and they are just sat in a warehouse. However publishing is stressful and it’s a lot of work, not just the manufacture, but the marketing is the bit that takes time and you need to do it to sell copies. You need to have an audience already otherwise you won’t sell your book if you’re self-publishing. This is all relative though, you can start out by printing 50 copies of a book.

I can completely understand if people are financially comfortable that they are happy with their work being published by a publisher and not gaining financially from that. There is also the Kudos factor of being published with a well known book publisher. I am of course so grateful for everyone that bought a copy of my book as it helps to support me making more work and essentially pays the bills.


I am hoping to continue self-publishing my work moving forward and building my audience. Brexit is a concern as at the moment it seems very complicated mailing anything into Europe and the costs to send to the USA are increasing, but I’ll just take it a book at a time. With LIDO there is also the option to publish other artists work in the future, but it would have to be a model that benefits both parties, so I’m not sure how that would work yet.


AO: Finally, please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that influence your practice?


RD: Jem Southam’s - The Red River - What can I say about this book, it is my favourite photo book. I am glad I bought a copy whilst at Newport. Large Format poetic colour images, the book flows like a song, full of mystery, beauty and melancholy. I was very fortunate to be taught by Jem a few years before he retired from teaching.


Here’s a few favourite photobooks in no particular order:


Adam Jeppesen - Wake

Robin Friend - Bastard Countryside

Clare Richardson - Beyond the Forest

Robert Adams - Summer Nights

Laura McPhee - River of No Return

Mike Brodie -  A Period of Juvenile Prosperity