After her award-winning documentary series Ex-Voto, London-based Alys Tomlinson returns with a new work, exploring familiar themes, but with subjects far closer to home
The Covid-19 lockdown caused many to see their local neighbourhoods in a new light; the corner shop, the local park, even the bus stop suddenly became significant touchstones of everyday life. For Tomlinson, this locality provided the focal point of her latest work.
Lost Summer comprises 44 portraits of young adults, aged 15 to 19, all of whom had their final exams cancelled due to Covid-19. All the portraits feature those living in Tomlinson’s local community in Holloway, London. “I wanted them to be thoughtful,” she says. “There’s a kind of sense of loss and longing… it shows the resilience these young people are displaying at this particularly difficult time.” Tomlinson photographed her subjects in their gardens and local parks, dressed in the clothes they had hoped to wear to their proms, cancelled due to the pandemic.
For Lost Summer, Tomlinson drew inspiration from her five-year series Ex-Voto, for which she became Photographer of the Year at the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. Ex-Voto documents Christian pilgrimages across Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland) and Grabarka (Poland). Comprising landscape, portraits, and intimate still lifes, the seriescaptures spiritual journeys of worship.
Ex-Voto, which was also shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize and the Renaissance Photography Prize, taught Tomlinson the importance of conversation and trust in the act of portrait-making. “I feel like it’s more of a collaboration,” she says. “It’s important they see it as making a portrait and not that I’m taking part of them.” Regardless of whether she is photographing priests, nuns, or north London teenagers, Tomlinson’s approach is always the same; respect, space, and collaboration. “[If the photographer] doesn’t seem that bothered, [they are] not going to want to let them see into their soul.’’
Tomlinson studied photography at London’s Central Saint Martins, before embarking on an MA in the anthropology of travel, tourism and pilgrimage at SOAS University of London, to further develop Ex-Voto. “I very nearly gave up on Ex-Voto altogether, because it wasn’t working. It took five years. It took studying anthropology and it took revisiting the project to really find an approach that worked,” she explains.
Tomlinson’s artistic interests centre upon the interactions between people and place, a theme seen throughout Ex-Voto, Lost Summer, and her second lockdown project, Night Wanderings. The series of nocturnal urban landscapes emphasises the emptiness of London’s streets in contrast to the regular traffic that consumes them; a disconcerting effect of the lockdown. Inspired by American photographer Robert Adams’ Summer Nights, Walking, Tomlinson began venturing out for late-night walks, realising that nocturnal London had become a distant memory. Documenting the new world she found, Tomlinson initially compiled the images for herself as a pastime, before realising the work had developed into a project. “I felt a little on edge, and I found it quite healing in a way, just wandering around the neighbourhood,” Tomlinson explains. “I was interested in shadows and light, the shapes that they created. There was a kind of emptiness, something unsettling and eerie.”
Both projects began as exercises for Tomlinson, keeping her mind and camera active before she could get back to Vera, the documentary she’s currently working on. Yet, as these photographic lockdown experiments progressed, they grew into their own: from beginning as pastimes to becoming an exhibition. Tomlinson didn’t know where they would go and looked forward to discovering what’s next. “I don’t tend to have these big, grand ideas in advance. Often it’s just something tiny that sparks a little thought and then that grows into something more.”
On show at the HackelBury Gallery in London, the latest projects are labours of lockdown. In both works, Tomlinson employs her sensitive style to reflect her community. “I think it’s easy as photographers to think you have to go to these far-flung destinations to be inspired,” she says. “We were all in this strange limbo, this liminal space. Actually working on something very local, really, really suited me.”
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.