Making Unfamiliar: Theo Deproost interview
Photographic portrait of artist Theo DeProost.

Theo Deproost is a fine-art and commercial photographer whose practice focuses on discovering and re-interpreting the hidden gems of museum stores. Working with physician associate Debbie Jegede they selected objects from the RCP collections which were photographed by Theo to create new, arresting artworks on display in exhibition ‘Unfamiliar’. We recently chatted with Theo about the experience of co-curating at the RCP: 

How did you get involved with the project?

After the first museums project I worked on, with Museum in the Park in Stroud, they kindly posted out a project statement once I finished the collaboration with them. I expressed the desire to work with other collections and they posted that out onto a forum for curators and Lowri (senior curator) of the Royal College of Physicians, fortunately, was one of the people that was interested in it and emailed me. That’s how the collaboration started, I think we were first in contact at the beginning of 2022.

Before this project did you have an interest in the history of medicine or had you seen any of the RCP collections?

I'd actually never seen any of the RCP collections prior to this collaboration, but I have been really interested in the history of medicine for a while. And funnily enough, I was thinking back to where it started, and actually we did a module on the history of medicine as part of my history GCSE course. Obviously it would have been quite basic, but I remember I did really enjoy it and I think it was actually that bridge between history and science that I found really interesting. I struggled to get into science at school. I mean, sometimes it's just the way it's taught, but I think having that narrative and storyline there from the history side really helped me absorb it.

Doing this collaboration has been a great excuse to read up on the subject a lot more again, which I've thoroughly enjoyed.

Compared to other past work, did you take a different approach to the RCP collection?

I think to begin with I probably used a similar framework to the two previous collections projects I've done, as it's a good basis. But then what's great about these collaborations is that the further we go along, they become shaped more individually by other collaborators like Debbie Jegede, Lowri and Liz (collections officer).

The similarities in the process is that it starts usually with a day of just looking around the collection in a freer way so I can absorb what's there - collections can vary wildly from being really diverse to incredibly focused. I remember an initial concern that I had before I visited was whether it would just be mainly books and manuscripts and not really much physical stuff for me to photograph. There was nothing to worry about because there's actually a lot of really fascinating equipment and other objects as well.

How did you find co-curating with someone who works in medicine?

Co-curating with Debbie was a brilliant experience for me. That’s the first time that I've had a co-curator on one of my fine art projects and I think that's the key influence that diverted it away from being exactly the same formula of things I've done before.

It was great looking around the collections initially with her because, understandably, she's looking at it from a much more utilitarian point of view and noticing the similarities and differences with equipment that she still uses today. Whereas I'm searching through the objects and purely looking at them aesthetically, which is important as well. It was great to hear from Debbie about the use of the objects and how much has changed over time.

That [approach] carried on through the throughout the entire project, that balance between the scientific and artistic viewpoint, which was really effective and shaped the project in a really positive way.

Once you had chosen the objects with Debbie, how did you create the artworks?

Once the objects were chosen we then booked in a week of shoot days. It’s always exciting to get to that point because that's where I really have to realise the ideas that I've had when we've looked through the collection previously. I find it really exciting because I've often got an idea of how things are going to look, but it's impossible to fully know how the artwork is going to turn out beforehand.

From a more technical standpoint one of the key things was working closely with Lowri and Liz to make sure the objects are handled in the correct way – some things are much more robust than others. For some things it was fine to have them at an angle or leaning on something whereas other objects had to be very carefully handled. So part of the process was working out what was the most interesting thing I could do with each object compositionally without risking damage.

This brings us on to why the smoky backgrounds, which are an integral part of the images in Unfamiliar, had to be shot separately. A) we’d set off a lot of smoke alarms in the building and B) even though the output is fairly inert from smoke machines it could still damage a lot of the objects. [So the backgrounds] had to be shot separately in my studio then comped together with the separate pictures of the objects.

The two key things that I consider when we're photographing the objects is the use of colour and capturing [of] sharp detail throughout the whole object.

In terms of colour, I always reduce the spectrum of light used down to one or two specific colours rather than the whole spectrum of white light that we usually see objects in. By doing this it instantly allows the viewer to see something quite different from the everyday, and I think it stops you just glancing at an object and going, ‘oh that's a stethoscope’ or ‘that's something I've seen before’.


Theo at light.


In terms of choosing specific colours for specific objects, it's a combination of trying to choose an opposing colour to the natural colour of the object, so if something is a reddish brown wooden colour, I would choose a colder bluer colour. This then lights an object much more sparsely and you see much more of the texture and detail rather than just lighting the whole object.

I also wanted 11 different background colours for the 11 prints in the exhibition. Then equally I had to have different foreground colours to complement the background colours.

Then in terms of detail, that's probably the most technical part of the process because these are very small objects and it's impossible to get the whole object in focus in one shot. That even happens with the naked eye, if you look at something very close to your own eye, you're not seeing the entire object. You're seeing the one area that you're looking at in focus.

To get the whole object in focus, I have to very carefully refocus the camera and shoot a series of focus plates, which are then stacked together in automated software, which then creates one fully sharp object. That it sounds like a lot of effort - which it is! - but it's definitely worth it when you see the large print and the whole object in really sharp focus. It allows the viewer to see details that just aren't visible to the naked eye.

For me, that crosses the boundary between art and science again because that sort of detailed documentation of the object is actually quite useful and educational as well as just being an artistic interpretation. I have in previous collections projects shot objects that the curators and collections officers have never seen certain details of, so that's really rewarding for me to be able to reveal those things as well.

Cycling mask.
Cycling mask (c) Theo DeProost

Which is your favourite artwork?

I think my answer to which is my favourite artwork changes every time I'm asked - but I think my favourite is the cycling mask. It's quite a striking composition and it naturally lends itself to being the lead image for the project.

The other thing I like about that one is that of all the objects, that's the one that I had such a clear idea of how the photo was going to look as soon as I saw the object.

It actually turned out almost exactly how I imagined it - I mean, not the choice of the purple background colour, but the composition and the impact of it. I’d even clocked that it would be the best image for posters and advertising of [the project] as well.

My favourite image from the exhibition, in terms of the provenance of the object itself and its connection to respiration, is the mouthpiece of the ether vaporiser. I recently read a bit about the introduction of using ether as an anaesthetic and I find it so fascinating that obviously we all would jump at the chance of being given ether before a surgical operation rather than the alternative, which would be nothing. But ether in itself was still at that time, in the mid-19th century, a relatively untested and dangerous substance and I think that says a lot about where surgery and medical procedures were at that time.

I think anyone would rather take a bit of a leap of faith with a new chemical than be carved up while being restrained.

I think the image of the ether inhaler really portrays that sense of dark foreboding, that you don't quite know what you're stepping into by using it. At the same time it has a slightly soporific and beguiling nature as well, because, as we've said, it's definitely the more alluring alternative.


Ether inhaler.
Ether inhaler mouth piece (c) Theo De Proost


Was there anything in the collection that you found fascinating, but it didn't make the final selection and why?

One of the objects that I was really drawn to was the antimony cup in the collection, because it's quite sinister. The juxtaposition between it being quite finely ornamented as an object, but then the fact that it is essentially just a receptacle for poison.

To make it even more [sinister] visually, there is a crack down the side of the cup, which I think could actually been caused by erosion from the antimony itself. I think that was a fascinating object as I had no idea about that practice of using them before.

We decided not to photograph it because we honed in on respiratory medicine, which was Debbie’s primary interest when studying and was a really great focus to have. So unfortunately the antimony cup was the one outlier that had to be crossed off the list.


Antimony Cup.
Antimony cup


Has this experience changed how you think about medicine?

Yes, I think the whole experience of creating ‘Unfamiliar’ has definitely changed how I think about medicine. Partly through the experience of getting to talk to Debbie so much about her practice in modern medicine and definitely affirming what I'd imagined from watching the news of how challenging it is, especially through COVID over the last three years.

I think also through the reading around the history of medicine that I've been doing since starting the project. It's made me really thankful to not be living in 18th or 19th century Europe! The fact that we have general anaesthetics and generally a very consummate understanding of disease and we're not reliant on quack medicine or forms of surgery that are based on speed and strength rather than skill and knowledge.



Exhibition ‘Unfamiliar’ explores stunning reinterpretations of the RCP’s medical and fine art collections by photographer Theo Deproost and physician associate Debbie Jegede. Theo and Debbie invite us to approach these objects and images with a curious mind, to experience them in unexpected ways, and reinterpret them through the lens of our own experiences.

From 23 Jan you can visit the exhibition Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm and until 8pm at our Museum Lates.


Read our weekly library, archive and museum blog to learn more about the RCP’s collections, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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