The notion of a dystopian society has long provided inspiration for writers, filmmakers and artists. There was of course, George Orwell’s media and information controlled-world in 1984, Anthony Burgess’ satirical and dark exploration of ultra-violent youth culture in A Clockwork Orange, and Masamune Shirow’s mind hacking cyborg-filled Japan in A Ghost in the Shell. The world conjured up in photographer Robert Darch’s upcoming book, The Moor, however, feels much closer to home – and far more imminent.
Produced between 2013 and 2015 while Robert was studying for his master’s degree, The Moor depicts a fictionalised future situated on the bleak moorland of Dartmoor. “I took inspiration from literature and cinema, particularly, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy,” he tells It’s Nice That, “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.” Although initially considering making a documentary project, Robert soon realised he was much more interested in making work about the area of Dartmoor made him feel.
Channelling Robert’s emotional response to the landscape, it’s a series imbued with feelings of isolation and melancholy. “It’s definitely a beautiful landscape, but it’s also harsh, barren and bleak, especially in the winter,” Robert says of the geographic inspiration behind the work, “When the moor is cloaked in low cloud and fog the landscape feels otherworldly, apocalyptic and empty and makes me feel lost, alone, isolated, excited and scared.” In one image, a lonely figure appears in the centre of a vast space, almost camouflaged by the weather beaten grass, as the landscape fades into nothing but fog in front of them. In another, an apparently abandoned house emerges from the woodland.
The combination of abandoned, open spaces and reoccurring unnamed characters builds a narrative throughout the book, although one that is open to interpretation. “I focused on creating a specific sense of place and a sustained unsettling atmosphere,” Robert explains, adding how, “I thought a lot about whether I should include any accompanying text in the book, eventually choosing not to. I prefer the work to be open to interpretation, that ambiguity really interests me and hopefully, it makes people question the work more.”
Robert’s ability to, and interest in, constructing elaborate worlds stems from issues with health he experienced back in the early 2000s. Following a minor stroke and nearly a decade of recovery, he recalls how “The world I knew had changed, become smaller and more defined, the increased isolation and lack of contact except with the immediate family led to an escape into unreality and the fictional worlds of film and television”. The Moor and much of his other work is therefore informed by this experience. Coupled with the knowledge gained from his documentary photography degree, Robert’s photographic work allows him to recreate the fictions, daydreams and films he was forced to live vicariously through for so long.
What makes The Moor so compelling, however, is actually its alignment with reality. It portrays an unease with the modern world, expressing Robert’s concerns in relation to the environment and society. “It feels especially prescient now with the country split over leaving Europe and years of Tory cuts and uncontrolled capitalism which have created insecure and unfulfilling work environments,” he outlines, “Alongside global warming and the continued destruction of the natural environment, it doesn’t feel like we are far off from a dystopian future, in fact, it wouldn’t be too hard to argue for many they are already living in one.”
The Moor launches at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol on 11 December and you can preorder a copy here.
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