LONDON is currently full of exhibitions by significant photographers. Diane Arbus at the Hayward Gallery, Don McCullin at Tate Britain, and Martin Parr at the National Portrait Gallery have now been joined by the photographer who won first prize in the Sony World Photography Awards last year.
Alys Tomlinson deservedly won that prize for Ex-Voto, a photographic series taken at the pilgrimage sites of Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland). Intrigued by these places of great spiritual contemplation and worship, Tomlinson says that she became particularly interested “in the markers left behind at pilgrimage sites”, the ex-voto of her title.
©alys tomlinson/courtesy hackelbury fine artAlys Tomlinson, Untitled (#01), 2016-18, from the series Ex-Voto
These are offerings left by pilgrims as signs of gratitude and devotion, and are placed anonymously and often hidden from view. Tomlinson views them as “creating a tangible narrative between faith, person and the landscape”. Her series includes small, detailed still lives of ex-votos together with formal portraiture of pilgrims and large format landscapes from the pilgrimage sites.
Tomlinson began the project by booking herself on a “pilgrim package” tour to Lourdes, “based on a curiosity and fascination to find out more about this Catholic pilgrimage site, known for its healing properties and spiritual power”. She then expanded the project to include Ballyvourney and Grabarka, tying it in with her dissertation and MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage at SOAS, University of London.
The result, in the words of Mike Trow, chair of judges for the Sony World Photography Awards 2018, is a sensitive illustration of the “idea of pilgrimage as a journey of discovery and sacrifice to a greater power” through “quiet images, beautifully produced, with a calm, spiritual feel that is at odds with so much of our frenetic lives”.
Similarly, the Bohemia-born British-based photographer Markéta Luskacová’s documentary series, “Pilgrims”, an intense study of the Christian rituals and devotions of Slovakian villagers, began as accompaniment to Luskacová’s theses on traditional forms of religion in Slovakia while at Charles University, Prague, in 1967. Photographs from this series are currently on show at Tate Britain, and are illuminating when compared and contrasted with Tomlinson’s series.
Luskacová wanted to record the pilgrims’ way of life, because she thought that it would not survive for much longer. Tomlinson’s fascination with contemporary pilgrimage and the warmth of reception for her images reveal the enduring strength of pilgrimage as a human endeavour that has not been lost in the period from 1967 to 2018. Tomlinson’s images reveal the endurance of faith in the 21st century.
Luskacová’s photography is engaged with the ties that bind people together. Her focus is communal, showing us the deep faith held in common that upholds her pilgrims as they live a common life with determination in the face of change and adversity. Tomlinson separates out these elements into portraits, still lives, and landscapes in ways that capture a solitary stillness and calm beauty in the faith-filled and faithful people and scenes that she documents. By the attention that she pays to her subjects, her images share the same spiritual sense of contemplative stillness and silence which she sees in her pilgrims, their offerings, and the landscapes in which these are left.
©alys tomlinson/courtesy hackelbury fine artAlys Tomlinson (1975), Untitled (#45), 2016-2018, from the series Ex-Voto
Sir Roy Strong wrote in the exhibition catalogue for Luskacová’s first major exhibition in Britain: “In a way that is sometimes uncanny, photographers record details of experiences deep within themselves that actually occur before their camera, and are received at a profound level by an audience which saw nothing of the events but recognises the experience.” The same could be said of Tomlinson’s Ex-Voto images, which have a spiritual power that, as Trow has stated, “speaks of her sensitive engagement with the subjects and places that help define pilgrimage”.
Sean O’Hagan writes of this series as containing “stark, mysterious images” that are a “visual divinisation of belief”, because they go to “the very heart of things unseen”. That Tomlinson has found a style and audience by capturing the essence of faith in pilgrimage indicates the extent to which this spiritual practice and the devotion that it evokes remains, and remains powerful beneath the surface of our more secular age.
If you can see only one of the photographic exhibitions in London, then this is the one to visit; but London is insufficient for this luminous series, works from which can also be seen at Chichester Cathedral and the SIDE Gallery, Newcastle.
“Ex-Voto” can be seen at HackelBury Fine Art, 4 Launceston Place, London W8 (phone 020 7937 8688), until 18 April; Chichester Cathedral until 23 April; and Side Gallery, 5-9 Side, Newcastle upon Tyne (phone 0191 232 2000), until 9 June 2019. hackelbury.co.uk; www.chichestercathedral.org.uk; www.amber-online.com/side-gallery
“Spotlights: Markéta Luskacová” is at Tate Britain (main floor), Millbank, London SW1, until 19 May. Phone 020 7887 8888. www.tate.org.uk