Alys Tomlinson, Ex-Voto

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by GOST Books (here). Linen-bound hardcover with foil-stamped title; ninety-eight pages, and forty-seven duotone plates including three fold-out, double-page spreads; 9.13 x 11.4 inches. Includes essays by Professor John Eade, Sean O’Hagan, and Dr. Rowan Tomlinson. Designed by Stu Smith; edited by Katie Clifford, Gemma Gerhard, Allon Kaye, and Claudia Paladini. In an edition of 1000 copies, and a special edition of 50 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Content/Comments: To be a pilgrim is to be at some distance from the ordinary world. It is a specific type of journey, one that is taken out of hope and belief, and usually directed towards a place of worship. It is also a form of an intensely physical search – for the self, the good of others, spiritual meaning, or moral significance. Pilgrimage at its most powerful can lead to an altered state of awareness, humility, and personal transformation; pilgrimage grounded in faith and devotion perhaps most potently.

It is this deep sense of spiritual belonging and reciprocity that British photographer Alys Tomlinson has so divinely captured in her first monograph, Ex-Voto. For her project, spanning five-years, Tomlinson traveled to three Catholic pilgrimage sites – Lourdes in France, Grabarka in Poland, and Ballyvourney (Baile Bhuirne) in Ireland. There, she photographed the people, respective landscapes, and votive offerings left behind as signs of gratitude, from which the book receives its title (ex-voto is an abbreviation of the Latin ex voto suscepto – which translates to ‘by reason of the vow made’): they range from small handwritten notes, folded and left in the crevices of rocks, walls, and trees; small silver medals and images sheltered in hidden places; strips of fabric tied around twigs; to crosses etched onto stones.

I first came across this body of work at an exhibition at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles (where Tomlinson won the New Discovery Award). Entering the small space, I was struck by the bareness and restrained complicity of  Tomlinson’s portraits, most bewitchingly captured in the photograph of a Belarusian nun named Vera, also included in Ex-Voto. Dressed in a heavy, black gown – covering everything except her hairline and radiant face, whose expression recalls an Old Masters painting – Vera engages the lens directly, while her gaze remains impenetrable. This quality unites many of Tomlinson’s male and female sitters, whom she photographed, like all of her sumptuous images, with a large-format plate camera – asking her subjects to think of their faith while she took their picture.

This slow, almost meditative, process is echoed in the pilgrims’ otherworldly, religious attire of cowls, robes, and uniforms. And even though these images portray each pilgrim as separate, lone individual, in book form they accentuate something else: the moment where otherness turns into community and connectedness through place and spirituality.

One, at times two, to a page, these portraits alternate with images of small chapels and derelict houses, wild nooks of a forest or the depth of a grotto, patches of grass and fallen leaves floating in water. There is secrecy and silence, while tenderness is found the close depictions of human traces – pieces of paper, crumbled and washed out; a barely visible handwritten note; a small cross made of twigs resting on a stone – placed anonymously at an unknown time. In their togetherness, Tomlinson’s photographs create a calm, undulating rhythm, slowly revealing the intricate relationship between people, objects, and landscape – as well as the mystery that all of them carry.

Considering the seismographic attention and sensitive eye present in Ex-Voto, one wonders whether Tomlinson is a religious person herself. However, coming “from a liberal, atheist background”, she says, “documenting pilgrimage was not an obvious choice” for her. Instead, she was inspired by Jessica Hausner’s film Lourdes that presented the town as “an intriguing place stuck in time”, but also provided a “somber, cynical storyline”. As a result, Tomlinson wanted to see for herself and embarked on “pilgrim package tour” to Lourdes. Despite a significant amount of research, she did not know what to expect and felt like “outsider” during her the wanderings of her first weeklong stay. After several visits, she began to gain an understanding of the place and its routines, and realized that she wanted to expand the project “to other, less famous, sites”. Seeing thematic connections in different natural landscapes – including the presence of forests, stones, and water, allowed her to explore visual contrasts and similarities, which became crucial not only for the direction of the project – that is the focus on the importance of the ex-votos – but also for her photographic approach.

Aided by a degree in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage, Tomlinson’s skills of close observation enabled her to immerse herself more fully into the respective religious spaces. In this way, her initial rather documentarian approach in color shifted to the slower and classical use of a monochromatic large format.

The pictures’ reduction to a visual essence is also manifest in the book’s elegant design: the cover and cut corners of the first pages mirroring ex-voto tableaus placed on walls of Catholic churches; the thick and creamy paper, providing the richly printed photographs with a generous space to assert themselves; the mixed instead of a chronological order of locations; the three double-spread fold-out pages, each capturing one of the three pilgrimage sites and their expanses of water and trees; as well as the deliberate decision to exclude any captions. In this time of continual photographic noise and its need for explanation, verification, and context, it feels like an act bravery and encouragement to allow images to speak on their own – while three written essays, give voice to a historian, a Catholic pilgrim, and a critic.

In doing so, Tomlinson has created a powerful body of work and a precious, contemplative book. She has been formally compared to the analytic awkwardness of Diane Arbus and the minute precision of August Sander. However, in my mind, she shares a closer space with the German photographer Helga Paris and her delicately attentive depictions people and their environments in the former GDR – capturing the kind of beauty that defies the camera’s scrutiny; one that is strange and touching at once; that falls out of time.

Faith and belief are by definition intangible; their manifestations difficult to grasp, especially when one attempts to move beyond common religious symbolism. Through her profoundly tactful approach, merging documentation and imagination, Tomlinson has captured the essence of spiritual life – its silence and mystery, the dimensions of solitude, the glance of devotion. An innermost place, that gives us pause, and makes us wonder.

Collector’s POV: Alys Tomlinson is represented by HackelBury Fine Art in London (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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