Durlescombe is an ongoing series of photographs made in Devon in the South West of England. The work documents the people, places, landscapes and local industries of a fading rural culture and in doing so explores my own attachment to a region where generations of my family have lived and worked for almost one thousand years. But alongside its preoccupations with a specific place and identity, the work also aims to mirror social changes that extend far beyond its particular context, those that have seen local distinctiveness, as expressed through communal traditions, patterns of labour, crafts and religious rituals, increasingly subsumed into a more globalised economy and culture.
The deep historical resonance of these photographs extends back to the Norman conquest of 1066, which brought with it an influx of new settlers to Devon from Northern France and beyond. In 1631, during the reign of King Charles I, William Darch was born in Dolton, and he became the first in a long line of millers that would own and work grain mills across Devon. Many generations later, my four times great-grandfather Robert Darch owned and ran the mill in North Tawton until his death in 1805. I was born in Birmingham in 1979, and although I was aware that my roots were in Devon, during my formative years in the midlands I knew very little of this family history. More recently I have been increasingly drawn to work in and connect with places in this area, only later discovering their particular family connections and personal relevance. This sense of a shared history of place, along with a developing interest in remnants of that history, provided the catalyst for the Durlescombe project.
But Durlescombe is a constructed, imaginary place. It is an amalgam, a typical village, unspecific and representative, one that provides a narrative distance from the persuasive mode of documentary realism and a space in which questions about familiarity, attachment and belonging might be asked. The images of Durlescombe – a layered assemblage of my photographs, family history pictures and found illustrations – are in this way both actual records and speculative fictions, which track my own pursuits to feel and find points of connection. 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.
Historical Image is used with permission from 'Beaford Old Archive image (c) Beaford Arts
2013 - 2015
In the dark lull of winter, after the autumn fall, bare trees quietly emerge from the decaying undergrowth exposing themselves to the elements and the landscape beyond. Once veiled in green, now uncovered, the land beyond the vale opens up, the remembered hills appearing out of the mist to prey on the valley below. They sit quietly, brooding, still, beneath the mottled grey and amber sky, echoes of which are visible in the river as it flows toward the sea. The land is cold, cloaked in a damp depression, the wild garlic lying dormant under the numbed soil and the summer swallows have long since departed. Although time passes, the river flows, there appears a stasis in the landscape during the winter, nature is in waiting, not sure if it’s in the past, present or future.
As I lay in the ambulance watching the birds, dark black cut-outs stencilled against the white haze of the sky, a calm came over me as my mind slowly dimmed and lost control. In 2001 aged twenty-two I was diagnosed as having had a minor stroke.
This episode led to a long period of ill health and It would take close to a decade to fully recover and resume a ‘normal’ life.
During this period, I no longer wanted to turn the camera inwards, to linger on the reality of my situation, preferring to lose myself in fictional constructs of the mind. The world I knew had changed, become smaller, more defined, often devoid of spiritual nourishment. 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. Always lost in thoughts my propensity for daydreaming increased. Often these imagined unrealities were hopeful, full of desires, dreams and wishes. Though as the years passed and the hope of recovery was becoming lost in the stasis of my situation, the thoughts increasingly became paranoid, anxious and negative. There was a continuous dialogue, an inescapable white noise, only tempered when the mind was distracted. The role of escapist fiction and drama became paramount in stabilising my sanity, it acted as a prescriptive counter point to the reality I was experiencing.
In spring, the landscape is in a constant state of flux, change and regeneration, this natural order dictates life. The rivers flow sparingly, carrying themselves from the slopes to the sea as the landscape is reborn around them. The summer is the culmination of this new life, nature again becomes still, pausing, allowing time for reverie and reflection.
Vale is a series of fifty-five colour photographs taken between May 2013 and August 2015 in the South West of England. In its physical form, the work is resolved as a book.
Vale is in part a nostalgic reinterpretation of summer, youth and the freedom associated with that time, though seen through tainted eyes. The warmth of the Summer is tempered by an internal melancholy of loss and the poetic narrative is in direct response to the emotions, feelings and thoughts cultivated during the period of isolation I experienced. The work therefore sustains a constant dichotomy between the perceived beauty of the landscape and an underlying feeling of unease, tension, sadness and loss. The dense verdant landscape often obscures the view, the natural layers of undergrowth acting as metaphor for the layered narratives and for something that is veiled and unseen. Although within the series, youth and beauty is romanticised, there is an obvious disconnection between the people and the landscape, often appearing uneasy, lost or scared within it. The work blends fictional constructs with documentary images to create a subjective narrative and a sustained atmosphere of unease within a constructed sense of place. Although focused on a valley in the south west of England, the realisation of the landscape in ‘Vale’ 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.
2014 - 2015
'He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.' (Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 2006)
The Moor is a series of sixty-one colour and black and white photographs taken between January 2014 and May 2015 on Dartmoor and Bodmin moor. In its physical form the work is resolved as a book.
The Moor juxtaposes the dystopian bleakness and inherent wildness of its landscape against the fragility of the humans that inhabit the fictional space.
The series relies heavily on a visual narrative referencing local historical mythology to give context, but depicting something altogether more ‘unknown’.
The sense of narrative is reinforced by the reoccurrence of characters that are choosing to inhabit this unforgiving landscape, often appearing on edge, in peril or distressed. The notion of something ‘unseen’ is readily apparent and a force that isn’t overtly visible to the audience haunts the inhabitants.
The realisation of this dystopian future is specifically in response to the perceived uncertainty of life in the modern world. Although the cause of the dystopia in ‘The Moor’ isn’t literally defined, within the images there are semiotic clues that offer suggestions. The fiction is grounded within the ‘real’ landscapes of the Moor. Though instead of overt staging, use of artificial lights and constructed sets, the work relies on using found locations, shifting between pseudo documentary and constructed photographs, constantly blurring that liminal space between fiction and reality.
The White Whale is a series of 24 colour photographs taken in the south west of England. The title of the series takes its inspiration from the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, a tale of one man’s obsessional quest to hunt a mythical white whale.
In the novel, the white whale is a physical entity, a living-breathing beast that exists within the fiction, tangible and ever present in the narrative. There was always a duality though, between the visible and the invisible. That line between the truth and myth within the fiction was always blurred.
This series of images was made after a long period of artistic inactivity, in total close to a decade away from a focused practice. ‘The White Whale’ enabled me to explore and address this quiet period in a cathartic way. Often within the series there is the sense something is missing, both within the narrative and the image.
As a photographer I was exploring, understanding, learning and experimenting with ideas and situations within the series. It quickly became apparent that I was interested in the human condition, the obsessions, anxieties, ideals and morals that make us human, and how we cope with love, loss and sadness. There is an overriding sense of melancholy within the series, emphasised by the bleak landscapes and dark winter light. Each image acts as a starting point, motivated either by an undisclosed narrative, fiction or place. Although the series seemingly deals with disparate subjects and locations, the works cohesion is sustained by the atmosphere and poetic flow of the visual narrative. The work deliberately obscures more than it reveals, blending staged images with landscapes and portraiture, constantly blurring the line between fact and fiction.