Skills, Smells and Spells: Telling the story

Image from Skills Spells and Smells, an exhibition by Toby Deveson, held at The Strand Gallery in 2012On one level putting an exhibition together was the most natural thing for me to do.

I had the images, I had found the venue and I had the darkroom. The money was incredibly tight, but it was possible and time was on my side.

Selecting the images was a challenge, but it was one I relished and enjoyed.

And so I prepared, worked hard, rode the setbacks and got on with it. Easy.

Until about two weeks before I was due to hang, with everything pretty much ready, I started hearing – and listening – to voices from deep within, sowing the seeds of doubt:

‘You need more. A collection of images is not enough, they need to tell a story. It shouldn’t be this easy, there must be more to it than this. Work harder.’

Now don’t get me wrong, they were saying nothing new to me. On page one of the exhibition manual, deciding what to exhibit, you consider themes and stories. Should it be Landscapes? Or the story around Holi and the trip to India? Both were possible (and indeed, currently being considered for future shows), but I rejected them on the grounds that this was my first show in over fifteen years. By restricting myself to a particular theme or story I would be unable to show some important and crucial images I had taken in that time. It felt wrong.

And so it became a ‘best of’, a retrospective, and introduction to my work. I was careful to select images that fitted together and were similar in style, so I knew they would tell a story, and tell it well…but still…the voices…

I listened some more.

And then (mild) panic set in.

I realised I had been concentrating entirely on the photographs and getting them printed and framed. Any spare time had been devoted to raising the money, the crowdfunding, the PR, the guest list, the wine and the food.

I had drastically underestimated the work involved in labels, text, background information and price lists. I had been happy with all I had done and achieved and I had sat back and relaxed, resting on my laurels.

Prematurely.

And of course once I started thinking it all through, really thinking it through, I realised how integral and crucial that side of the exhibition would be. Peripheral maybe, but crucial nonetheless.

Image from Skills Spells and Smells, an exhibition by Toby Deveson, held at The Strand Gallery in 2012In the back of my mind I always knew I would include some of the vignettes I had already written, but I soon realised just how much more there was to do. If I wanted to turn the exhibition into a celebration of black and white, analogue photography I needed to write about the process of developing and printing, about the darkroom and what it all meant to me.

I am not confident about my writing. I struggle with it, labour over it and sweat over it. And now I would be writing about something so close to my heart, so instinctive to me that my opinions change from day to day. They swing from extreme to extreme, crumbling under scrutiny, melting under the spotlight. I would be writing about myself – my work, how I work and why I work…and then I would be putting it on show for all to see.

Yes, the (not so mild) panic set in.

But I did it.

Or rather, it was all done on time.

I still had no idea whether it would work in the gallery, on the walls as an exhibition. It looked good and I was happy with it presentation wise, but I found myself in the curious position of being (almost) overly confident about the photographs and how they would be received, yet scared witless about what people would think about the writing.

But I needn’t have worried. It worked brilliantly, on all possible levels.

Throughout, photographers were coming up to me or ringing me up asking me where I bought my chemicals, what I used, how I did it. I had inspired them to go back to using film for the first time in ten years, or indeed, use film for the first time ever. They spoke with emotions ranging from nostalgia through to awe and trepidation and back to regret.

It was wonderful.

But more than that, and in some ways more importantly, people would come in and I would watch them, oozing city bustle, moving fast and abruptly, in a rush, popping in for a quick look. And then they would leave, sometimes over half an hour later, glazed over in a cloud of serenity, peaceful. They would flit quickly past the first few frames, pause at the first piece of text, read a few lines, move to the next frame and then stop. As everything took effect and sunk in. Then, as if by magic, something inside would reset, they would reverse, glide backwards, read the text they had just missed, then go back further, back to the first photograph.

And start again. Only this time they took it in. Properly.

Image from Skills Spells and Smells, an exhibition by Toby Deveson, held at The Strand Gallery in 2012Modern life moves so quickly, we are bombarded with images, sounds and stimulations, continuously. Artists, advertisers, games, shops, music, everyone, trying to shout louder to make themselves heard. Our minds have become used to processing data, visual and aural, frighteningly quickly. We have got into the habit of rushing round galleries, glancing over adverts, seeing without seeing, hearing without hearing, and all to preserve our sanity. We have built protective walls around our inner selves out of necessity, but sometimes we forget to occasionally open the windows, to let some stimulation in, and as a result our minds and souls are in danger of starvation. We need to remember to slow ourselves down.

And this is what I am most proud of.

Not that (most) people enjoyed, or even loved the photographs, because that is what I expected to happen. That is why I chose to exhibit. But that somehow people came into the gallery and, despite the chaos and pace of life outside, they slowed down, and truly saw the photographs.

And this, I believe and hope was down, in part, to the writing and the stories it told. To the punctuation and rhythm it gave the exhibition. To the background it provided, and the – dare I say it – colour the vignettes and musings gave the images that were busy celebrating the mystical, magical world of black and white analogue photography.

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