Skills, Smells and Spells – Toby Deveson

Skills, Smells and Spells: A celebration of B&W photography


28th May – 3rd June 2012


The Strand Gallery, 32 John Adams Street, London WC2N 6BP

Open Daily: 11.00am – 7.00pm

Admission: Free

For more information: 020 7839 4942

We are very pleased to announce that Toby Deveson will be showing the best of his black and white prints from his 22 year long career as a photographer, in an exhibition entitled “Skills, Smells and Spells: A celebration of B&W photography” that will be displayed at the Strand gallery on the 28th of MayDeveson is purely a black and white photographer who shoots entirely on Kodak Film, with the same camera he has had since his 18th birthday that his father gave to him, a Nikkormat camera with a 24mm lens.

Over the last 22 years, as digital photography has developed, Deveson has continued to revel in the magic of the darkroom, capturing vidid, distinctive photographs. Over the years, he has travelled the world, capturing precious moments and majestic landscapes. This fantastic exhibition will showcase the best of these striking images that highlight the continuing relevance of film photography.

Deveson says, “At a time when iconic brands like Kodak face bankruptcy and photography courses at universities no longer have darkrooms, this exhibition will mark the beginning of a personal crusade. We are faced with a potential revival of analogue photography, and I intend to use this show to evangelize about this beautiful medium. I invite audiences to revisit and reclaim the power of film before it’s too late.”

For this exhibition Deveson will be needing the support of the public to fund him to display this brilliant show; pledges can be made at the bottom of the page. Below we were able to have an interview with Deveson where he explains further about his work:

Film’s not Dead: What draws you to photography?

Toby Deveson: Draws? A good choice of words! Originally as a teenager I used to draw – intricate pencil drawings – and paint, but I never had the patience or dedication to work on a single piece of art for the time required to finish it.

Photography allowed me to satisfy all aspects of my character in one swoop. It allows you to work in short sharp, intense bursts of energy, creativity and excitement.

– Taking the photographs, immersed in a situation, a sports event, a portrait, a riot, a landscape and then immediately putting it to one side, onto the next image and situation, savouring the satisfaction and anticipation.

– Developing the film, the fear, the discipline, the excitement, the joy and adrenalin of seeing the images for the first time, feeling the impatience to see a print. Followed by the hardest part in my view – cutting the negatives into strips, making sure you don’t cut a corner of the frame off – followed by the relief when they are in the sleeve, safe from harm.

– The postponement, thanks to the most tedious yet necessary part of the process – the contact sheets. Then the strange satisfaction of having done them, of having succeeded in fending off the temptation to skip this stage of the process, with an almost religious smugness bubbling inside.

– The printing, the bursts of joy, the sheer will power of trying time and time again to get it right, the claustrophobia of  the darkroom, the love hate relationship between frustration, discipline and artistic satisfaction and euphoria.

– Touching up a print, becoming absorbed in the scratches and dust marks, hypnotised with a tiny paintbrush in hand, and the jeopardy of getting it wrong at this stage. Total immersion in the detail.

– And finally the presentation, mounting, framing, scanning onto the website, whatever way you show your work, the feedback, the joy of time and time again revisiting your image, remembering the moment you released the shutter, the smells, emotions and fears of the moment. The memories a single image can store for you, like a time capsule.

And then there’s the images by other photgraphers, the beauty of a B&W print, the grain, the historical importance and the romance of photographers like Koudelka, Cartier-Bresson, Lartigue, Salgado, Giacomelli…to me they were the James Deans, Jack Kerouacs, or John Lennons of the world of photography. The beauty of their work drew me, the ability to turn an image taken instinctively in a split second into a work of art. Regardless of the social or historical importance, or of the story being told, it was first and foremost, against all the odds,  a work of art.

Film’s not Dead: What makes you choose to shoot solely on film? 

Toby Deveson: I could be glib and say habit, or laziness – being unwilling to learn a new skill or change my ways. But no, there is a beauty and a discipline that surrounds film. The limitations it imposes on you as you work (along with other self imposed limitations, such as never cropping or always using the same 24mm lens) lead to an almost Zen like state of mind, a concentration and focus in the way you work.

There is no distraction, no temptation to check the picture you have just taken, you can concentrate entirely on the process of taking the photograph. And you concentrate on getting it right, not only because film is precious but because that is all you are doing at that moment. Taking photographs.

You learn from your mistakes because the pain of getting to the darkroom and realising you got it wrong is so much more intense as the loss so much bigger. And when you find yourself in a situation where you need to make an instinctive decision on framing, you get it right, it has become ingrained in your psyche.

And then there is the final print, in a frame. A product of your hard work, every step of the way, laden with memories. Almost three dimensional, as if the light you have layered on the paper is contoured, thicker where you have burned, a valley where you dodged. And the smells – perhaps a thick milky smell mixed with medicinal antiseptic of an orphanage, or the marjoram on the side of a mountain in Greece, all oozing from the print because of the time you have spent with it, the effort you have poured into it, turning it into a final product, nurtured every step of the way.

Film has become the way I work, part of my voice as an artist. And yes it may be considered more expensive (I dispute that) and it may be less convenient, but it is me, my photographs and the process I go through to get to that final product makes up the essence of who I am.

Film’s not Dead: Why do you shoot solely on T-Max 400?

Toby Deveson: T-Max has qualities to it that I adore. I have no idea if these are the ‘official’ qualities or if they have just come about because of the chemicals I use or the process I use, but I love the grain, the contrast and the tonal range. In much the same way that when I used to draw I would pick up a softer 4B pencil rather than a harder HB, I am drawn to higher contrast images.

And I guess it is also habit. I have a fixed process I use, a final product I am happy with that has evolved over the years (and is still evolving) and I need that to remain a constant in my world. In the same way that I always use the same lens and camera. It allows me to concentrate entirely on taking the image itself and its framing, ensuring that first and foremost, whatever the subject matter, it is a piece of art.

Film’s not Dead: What do you want your viewers to feel about your work? 

Toby Deveson: Simple. I want a viewer to fall in love with it, to be inspired, to be drawn into it, to lose themselves for minutes on end. No mean feat in this fast moving world, over saturated with images and realities, where peoples attentions are being grabbed constantly. I want the viewer to escape into my work as I do.

And this should be the case whatever the subject. Reportage photography is about telling a story with images. The image should come first, not the story. The images shouldn’t  rely on the story. Transport the viewer into your world and the story will be told more effectively, more powerfully.

Film’s not Dead: Why do you take the images you do? 

Toby Deveson: There is no answer to this – not one that can be put into words. They just are, they have become the images they are and are part of my psyche and the way I see the world. Sometimes it feels as if when I release the shutter the image not only enters the camera through the lens, imprinting on the film, but something leaves me as well, through my eye and into the view finder.

I’m not sure I should be saying these things out loud. Why do I take the images I take? The fairies make me do it….

In all seriousness, I tend to naturally gravitate towards landscapes. They are where my heart is and where I feel most comfortable. They are also a huge challenge. To produce a landscape with the same impact as a documentary or reportage image is close to impossible. They lack the background story and immediacy and must rely instead entirely on composition, atmosphere and nature. You must aim to draw the viewer in gently, where they can lose themselves in a dream like state, to slow themselves down – something that, it can be argued, is becoming harder in this high speed, high octane life.

To take documentary and reportage images is much harder psychologically for me, as it is for most. Dealing with the invasion of pointing a camera at a stranger, is something that all photography students must come to terms with. It is not easy, especially if you want to make a connection and not ‘steal’ a shot in passing as many do. And yet the rewards can be so much greater, presenting you with powerful, immediate images.

The way I have grown to look at it is that I document the world in front of me. My attitude when taking a photograph is the same be it a landscape or a person. I try to connect with where I am, the mood I am surrounded by, be it humanity or mother nature. And above and beyond everything I try to put the image and the composition first and the story second.

Film’s not Dead: How do you approach the subjects you photograph?

Toby Deveson: Very occasionally I will specifically ask permission, but more often than not I will only make my presence felt, make it obvious that I am taking photographs, make sure I have eye contact and go about what I am doing. A relationship will follow on whatever level – try and nurture this, subtly or overtly.

There is no hard and fast rule, it will vary depending on the country or culture you are in, the age group or situation. Trust you instincts but also push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Becoming lost in the moment (a selfish bastard) helps…

Film’s not Dead: What encouragement would you give beginners to the medium? 

Toby Deveson: The camera must become an extension of yourself, so practice, make it a habit, an instinct. Taking thousands of frames in itself though is of no use. You must self criticise, improve all the time. Study other photographers. Not only on the web but in book shops. So many of the old masters have next to no web presence, so pick up a book. Find two or three photographers whose work you covet, that inspires you, makes you itch with jealousy. And then understand why it makes you feel like that. Learn what it is that makes you feel like that, then apply the same criteria to your own work. Be harsh and honest. This will depress you, but keep going, it is the only way to learn, and when you do start to get it right, the elation makes it all worthwhile.

Through this you will learn to self critique, self edit. Do not share everything on Flickr, show only the good stuff. See beyond the memories, the story, the moment – see the bigger picture, see it with the eyes of a stranger and look at it purely as a work of art, dispassionately. Remove yourself from it and then decide if it still holds up to your scrutiny. If it still does, then be proud of it and show it off…

…and enjoy the magic of what you do. Because it is magic – I still have no idea how light can be manipulated and captured like this. I know the mechanics of it, but it still astounds me every time I see a neg or a print. How? Why? Wow, magical

Film’s not Dead: What do you think about the current state of photography, and do you feel differently about it now than say you did 5 years ago?

Toby Deveson: I love everything about the state of photography at the moment. We are going through a hugely exciting time. Never before have so many people had so much access to such high quality cameras or publishing tools. Photography is undergoing a huge revolution (as are most parts of our lives – technology is snowballing) and I love it.

I do have worries and reservations though. I believe that we must do all we can to make sure analogue remains at the foundation of digital or modern photography. Without the so called restrictions and limitations of film, I believe photography is in danger of being cast adrift and losing focus – excuse the pun.

As we move into an era where film and darkroom skills are no longer taught and companies like Kodak have had to face bankruptcy, I worry that crucial skills and knowledge are being forgotten and that materials will no longer be available for those of us who remain.

It is too easy however to point the finger of blame at digital photography. To become stuck in the past or long for the good ol’ days. To resent everything new and digital and fall into the us and them trap. The use of websites, the i-phone and i-pad, cheap home printers, social media and e-mail has revolutionised my life and that of professional photographers. Amateur photographers now have access to hardware and software never before seen and the quantity of talented photographers out there – just take a look through flickr – is staggering. As I said. photography is going through a revolution – yet another one – and these are truly exciting times.

As long as photographers stand together, celebrating what we do and this golden era of photography, and don’t point the finger of blame or resent and resist the changes we are witnessing I think we will flourish. We need to support all aspects of photography, from the humble pinhole to the cutting edge technology of whatever is around the next corner.

All I hope is that while we embrace and celebrate the now (and future) of photography, and all the promise it holds, we don’t forget where we have come from. Access to our history has never been as available and we should rejoice in this and take full advantage.

Lessons learnt in the past – whether in morality or technique – are as relevant now as they were then. I truly believe that as a photographer you can only fulfil your potential if you understand and learn from what has gone before you.

To pledge your support for this in-depth retrospective of Deveson work then please click HERE. To see more of Deveson’s work please click HERE.

Updated:July 29, 2019