The first two figures in Alys Tomlinson’s photo book Gli Isolani (The Islanders) (GOST Books, 2023) offer us something between a greeting and a warning. Covered in shaggy animal skins and wearing enigmatic wooden masks, the figures seem ancient and insular. Their confrontational stances and curved staffs suggest that the rocky landscape around them is the site of some kind of secret rite. Who are these figures, and why are they dressed this way?
Over the course of two years, Tomlinson traveled between Sardinia, Sicily, and the islands of the Venetian lagoon to photograph people who wear traditional garments and masks in community festivals. Her portraits feature figures dressed in animal horns and furs — like these Merdules from carnival celebrations in Ottana, Sardinia — as well as women shrouded in black veils and posed in intricate gowns. The costumes are menacing, mysterious, and enticing at turns, and each portrait suggests a special cultural meaning or role that these figures must represent.
Tomlinson’s carefully crafted, large format black-and-white photos of the islands’ men and women in costume carry a reverent sense of stillness. Despite being made by an outsider, her pictures contain none of the distance or voyeurism that one might expect from attempts to capture such a unique and closely held heritage. At the same time, her subjects’ wide range of dress offer the viewer a fascinating mix of religious, folkloric, and natural elements that spark curiosity about how local histories pour into present day life; each year, Tomlinson’s young subjects decide to don masks and garments that have been passed down from generation to generation.
This latest body of work shares the sincerity and thoughtfulness of Tomlinson’s previous projects, which depicted high school graduates during the pandemic and followed the devotions of contemporary religious pilgrims. With Gli Isolani, the British photographer offers us an intriguing and hopeful look at how these island dwellers choose to carry on and truly embody long standing local customs.