Sunday, 27 May 2012

Skills, Smells and Spells: Photography Exhibition by Toby Deveson

Negrabox, Brighton Festival May 1995

Toby Deveson is knackered. He’s also a gatecrasher. The latter possibly accounting for the former. But when we meet at London’s Southbank Centre one blustery May morning, the only signs that this Italian born, London residing photographer is slightly worse for wear are the shades of grey circulating below his eyes, and his choice of drink (green tea) as we hanker down to talk amidst the formation of what appears to be a two piece concerto.

There’s a good reason he’s knackered though. The photographer has been preparing for his upcoming exhibition, Skills, Smells and Spells which will reside at The Strand Gallery from the 28th May through 3rd June, and as he compares this to the preparation for his previous exhibition back in 1994, he certainly doesn’t remember there being so much to do. But what becomes apparent during our conversation is that this man is anything but a quitter, or resentful for the work he’s taken on. “Once you start you can’t stop really, as soon as you’ve committed yourself that’s it.” Self funded and almost entirely self promoted (Deveson’s application to The Arts Council was rejected, so he has been funding the event himself and through donations via the Indiegogo site), this exhibition really is a labour of love. So why now?

“I’m old enough now to think fuck it, if you want me, to see what my work is like, this is how I’m going to do it. This is my voice.” His voice is something he’s been developing over the past 20 years, documenting landscapes since he picked up his weapon of choice – the Nikkormat (his first, and only 35mm camera), given to him by his father. Simple and without pretension, Deveson shoots only in black and white, coupled with a solid and wide 24mm lens. Keeping his eyes firmly open, so we don’t miss a beat.

How did this exhibition at The Strand, which showcases the analogue photographer’s vast back catalogue, get off the ground then? “I was walking past and saw somebody else’s private view and gate crashed that with a friend. And it’s just a really nice space, so I contacted them.” Seems simple enough then, right?

You could say this exhibition, which fully captures the sensory nature of Deveson’s photography, has been a work in progress since he first pressed the shutter to that old Nikkormat and started his journey as an artist. But don’t let the idea of landscapes fool you. “A lot of these pictures aren’t those big, clichéd landscapes, some are from the side of a road in Norway or outside London. They’re little microcosms that could be anywhere, and I love that.”

Skills, Smells and Spells reflects his personality, and during our time together it becomes clear his landscapes aren’t your average click by numbers. “I’m not hanging around for the sun to come up. If I’m passing through somewhere and it’s foggy, rainy or sunny, I will try and document the landscape. So to me it doesn’t make any difference if I’m interacting with people or with nature, but over the years you have images that become personal favourites.”

Holi Festival, India, March 2011

His exhibition isn’t just the pick of his best work, but rather the careful selection of 40 shots, which determine Deveson’s style, voice and character. He’s driven by sensory, rather then purely visual experiences. With a style that ranges from the Holi festival in India to an orphanage in Romania, what’s captured is not contrived emotion, but an innocent charm, which has made his photography all the more compelling. Describing his work at Holi to look more like “a war zone rather than a celebration – you wouldn’t have seen the proximity or terror and joy in colour”, by shooting in black and white he’s able to document rather than make his subjects subjective, all without losing his own voice in a given shot. That’s no easy task. Sure he’s learnt a lot from his mistakes along the way – and admits developing his prints in Romania was “an absolute nightmare”, paying the price for every time he makes a reprint. But Deveson wouldn’t have it any other way – each reprint takes him back to the moment he pressed the shutter, and no two prints are ever the same. His art is constantly evolving.

The influx of social networking has made everyone with a smart phone an amateur photographer. Anyone can post a million snaps of the same subject, adjust with a number of filters here, a different lens there, to individualise a picture of quite literally anything. From your shoes to whatever you ate that day. We can now all socially comment on how awesome we are at pointing and pressing. Does Deveson ever wish for an easier life then, and go digital?

“No! It’s quite frustrating because people will look at a photograph of a celebrity or a famous situation and go ‘wow, that’s an amazing photograph!’ and you want to scream and say ‘no it’s not, it’s the subject.’ It’s actually a mediocre photograph of an amazing sunset or an amazing person, and the actual photograph itself isn’t very good and that’s the challenges of photography – to incorporate yourself in the picture.”

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to step into a dark room (and if you haven’t, it’s worth a visit) you will know the distinctive sensory experience that comes from developing your own prints. The chemicals, the darkness, the paper (Deveson works with matt paper, a sign of a classic photographer) and how all three come together, magically, to make for not your average 9-5. No print is the same, just as no eye, smell, sound or taste. Although we can never really be sure anyone interprets art the same way, what’s important is that we’re still interpreting, still learning and still exploring. For that, Deveson celebrates the intrepid innocence in us all, eager to keep the magic of photography exciting.
Romania, September 1992

For more information on Toby Deveson’s exhibition – Skills, Smells and Spells, visit Toby's website here and The Strand Gallery from 28th May to 3rd June 2012. You can also tweet Toby here

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