If you listen carefully you can hear the sound of brittle twigs and dry leaves as they give beneath your feet, and the sigh of the wind as it pushes through the empty trees. These paths are well-trodden and familiar to the many devotees that pass this way. Long, arduous, and with no obvious reward—physical at least—it is their faith and devotion that drives and reassures them.
Such is the solitary covenant of the pilgrim.
Ex Voto is the result of a five-year photographic study by Alys Tomlinson, winner of the 2018 Sony Photographer of the Year. During that time, Tomlinson visited three historic Catholic pilgrimage sites: Ballyvourney in Ireland, Mount Grabarka in Poland, and Lourdes in France.
In compiling and editing the resulting work, she has produced not only a study of the people—the pilgrims—who undertake these journeys, but also the landscape they traverse, and the shrines that are the inspiration and catalyst for their odysseys.
The book’s title refers to the modest (very often handmade) offerings that connect the pilgrim to the landscape. One of the most proliferate examples in Tomlinson’s study is a vast array of crosses and crucifixes, many crudely assembled or constructed. However, virtually all other heartfelt offerings are considered welcome.
For example, something as unpretentious as a page taken from a book, very often just folded and inserted into a crack or gap in a wall, comfortably grafting onto its host . . . nestling between stones . . . static, yet also emerging, like some curious tendril of a plant, its roots buried deep within the rock, its body eager to claim the light.
The portraits, beautifully paced within the sequence, are captured in natural settings and delicately handled. The subjects themselves are for the most part devoid of emotion . . . maybe the merest hint of a wry smile here and there. The tenure of their respect, devotion, and spirituality is palpable . . . luminous. At times, it radiates from the page. But it also whispers and caresses, like the gentlest of lullabies.
Celebration, it would seem, is a serious business. The confirmation of the unwavering.
Then the landscapes, captured by a large format camera and exquisitely detailed. These images, in which you can count literally every leaf on each tree, are multi-layered and multi-faceted. Not only do they cast an air of meditative contemplation, but they exude a monochrome gravitas . . . melancholy . . . even disquiet.
That, however, is surely not the intention here. These shrines and landmarks are reminders of the dedication and devotion of those who’ve gone before. Knowing Tomlinson’s purpose allows us to view these images for what they were no doubt intended to be: artfully assembled journeys whose topographical landmarks we visit along the way.
Viewed out of context, however, many of the images could be interpreted differently. In fact, they could indicate something a little more unsettling. Secluded, run-down shacks and houses. Woodland clearings filled with nothing but roughly hewn and randomly placed wooden crosses.
This could be perceived as unintentional, save for the fact that every aspect of this collection seems so perfectly considered. One wonders what thoughts were passing through the artist’s mind.
The peril of the isolated image and the active imagination.
Ultimately though, if Tomlinson intends for us to take our own pilgrimage—to experience the beauty and reward of the journey in all of its forms, from the pastoral to the austere—then she has most assuredly succeeded.
The quality of the photography is quite breathtaking, both technically and artistically. One glance at Tomlinson’s archive also confirms that she is an assured and didactic photographer. Ex Voto is both a beautiful and stimulating way for this award-winning artist to present her first published body of work to the world.
This review first appeared on The Od Review