Art & Photography

The Moor

Robert Darch’s fictionalised photographic narrative reflects an eerily recognisable dystopia

Insular populist governments, unchecked climate change and a general abandonment of humanitarian ideals is leaving many with the feeling that they currently live within a dystopian world. These are some of the dark forces implicitly expressed in Robert Darch’s fictionalised future and pseudo-documentary series, The Moor, a photographic narrative that blends childhood memories of Dartmoor with recurring characters surviving in a bleak, unforgiving wilderness.

Drawing on the many myths of the moorland landscape and contemporary classics such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Darch moves from vistas to ramshackle dwellings with uncanny ease, while an undercurrent of dread and fragility scores the scenes of sublime natural beauty. The ambiguity of the pictures only adds to their eeriness, as we attempt to read the meaning behind the isolated figures.

Port talked to the Birmingham-born photographer about memory, myth and the consequences of urban life. 

Do you have a standout memory of Dartmoor from when you were growing up?

One of my first memories 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 rurality of Devon and the baying hounds must have appeared other-worldly to me as a three-year-old child.

Over the course of my childhood we would continue to holiday in Devon and Cornwall, often passing over the Moors as we travelled 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 farmer’s children, excited to have the freedom to do so. That day was a really important formative experience and helped influence my work on The Moor.

Why is dystopia a relevant or effective genre to talk about our current anxieties?

I feel like it’s especially relevant now, it could easily be argued that we are already living in a dystopian world. The Moor specifically reflects the unease I feel about the uncertainty of life at the moment. It seems especially prescient with the country split over leaving Europe and years of tory cuts and uncontrolled capitalism which have created unsecure and unfulfilling work environments. Alongside global warming and the continued destruction of the natural environment these dystopian narratives reflect genuine anxieties that people are feeling.

How did local myth and history influence the project?

Dartmoor has a long history with plenty of local myths connected to the landscape and specific places on the moor. There are the infamous hairy hands which are said to appear floating in front of people and of course the legendary The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which was inspired by the story of Richard Cabell who died in the 1670’s. The ancient druids of Dumnonia (4th to 8th century Devon) worshipped many gods, including Belus (the sun). It was commonplace at the time to make gods of everything that was capable of doing harm or integral to human existence. It is suggested that Bellever & Belstone on Dartmoor are named after Belus, the sun god. I specifically reference the sun and the light from it in The Moor, drawing on this ancient history and suggesting the sun could possibly be something that should be feared. I also reference more universal mythology in The Moor, like a lone figure walking into a dark forest, or a lone dishevelled figure struggling to walk across the moorland landscape. This lone figure is a classic archetype, typified by the escaped convict roaming the moor in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

What parts of contemporary culture contributed to it?

I took inspiration from literature and cinema, particularly, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. The novel (and subsequent film) follows a father and son eking out an existence in a dystopian future. The cause of the dystopia in The Road isn’t defined in the writing and this idea really interested me. I wondered if I could do something similar with a photographic series. The advantage of a novel is that you are able to explain your ideas, develop characters and create a clearly defined narrative. So instead of trying to replicate this I focused on creating a specific sense of place and a sustained unsettling atmosphere.

What are the consequences of becoming increasingly more urban?

It is very easy to lose touch with our connection to the natural world living in cities. As someone who has always been drawn to nature it amazes me that people don’t share the same connection that I have, and when I hear about children growing up in cities never having experienced any open countryside it really saddens me. Humans aren’t meant to live in large urban conurbations and with people living in built up environments you see a marked increase in mental health problems and illness related to pollution, noise and the stresses of city life. I feel particularly lucky to live in Devon and although we are based in a city, the countryside is a short cycle away and ultimately my girlfriend and I are planning to move into the countryside.

Why did you opt for found locations and natural light?

I prefer to work with natural or ambient light as it imbues the work with a naturalistic quality. Although the project revolves around a fictional narrative, I quite like the idea that the work is ambiguous. I prefer the work to be open to interpretation, that really interests me and hopefully it makes people question the work more. If I had worked with more obvious sets and artificial lightning it would have been apparent that the photos are constructed, instead the fiction is grounded in the real landscapes of Dartmoor.

Are you optimistic about our collective future?

Sadly, I don’t feel optimistic at all about our future with Britain looming towards leaving Europe with the country divided and seemingly no solution. I find it particularly sad that politically there is no substantial opposition to Brexit, with Jeremy Corbyn just as happy to exit Europe as much as the Tories. The EU isn’t perfect, but it feels like such a monumental mistake to be isolating ourselves and fuelling global tensions, a pattern that is sadly being reflected around the world.

The Moor launched at the Martin Parr Foundation in December 2018