Think back to the night of your prom or even the build-up to it, the months and months of anticipation. Remember all the anxiety of wishing it to go well coupled with the joy of finishing high school and looking ahead to what the world had in store for you. It was an experience like no other, and sadly it was an experience that a lot of students this year missed out on. In her latest award-winning monograph (1st Place in The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2020), photographer Alys Tomlinson brings us “Lost Summer.” A stunning collection of portraits encapsulating the summer many teens lost this year. I was very fortunate to sit with Alys over Zoom to discuss the effort behind self-publishing, the teenagers who were part of the project and why it was more than just Prom’s that teens missed out on this year.
Alys Tomlinson’s book “Lost Summer” is available right now to buy via her website. Lost Summer is also on show in it’s entirety at the HackleBury Fine Art Photography Gallery from now until March 12th.
Elliot Linden: Alys, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Firstly I wanted to say how great I felt the book was. It’s a stunning body of work. Furthermore, was there a reason you chose to self publish the monograph?
Alys Tomlinson: Thank you. Firstly, because the project is quite timely, I wanted to get the book out as quickly as possible, and the publishers are very behind in their schedules because of Covid, so I didn’t want to wait for it to come out in like a year. The downside, though, is that I have to do the publishing, the marketing, the distribution, and everything else. However, you do have ultimate control, of course.
EL: Yeah I was going to say that the control aspect would attract me towards doing it.
AT: It was a bit stressful doing all of it on my own, though. However, I am pleased with how the book turned out overall, but I don’t think I’ll self publish again is the short answer. It’s a lot of stress.
EL: I bet! Moving on, if I may, to the decision to focus on Proms as your topic for this project. What made you decide that the absence of Prom was important to capture?
AT: I guess it had a lot to do with the age range. Back in my day, we didn’t have proms; we had to leave do’s; however, now proms are a huge deal, and most schools in the UK have proms at 16 when you’ve completed your GCSE’s and then another prom at 18 when you’re going onto study A-levels. So two proms. And I suppose in more of a general sense; I started thinking about these rights of passage and significant points in these teenagers’ lives that were scrapped because of Covid. I also quite liked the idea of them getting all dressed up for the prom that never happened; I think if I had just photographed them in their normal clothes, I don’t think they [the photographs] would have had the same impact and sense of loss or missing out on something. I liked the idea of seeing each teenager very much as an individual with their own outfit, which was sad too because some of them had their prom outfits ready months in advance for the event that was never going to happen. I thought it was nice too that, given everything that’s happened, the project kind of gave the teenagers a focal point to get all dressed up as if they were getting ready for their prom.
EL: Hearing you talk there about how much prom meant to these teenagers threw me back to my own one, which was only about five or six years ago, and I remember it being such a huge event, and so much preparation went in during the months leading up to it. It’s heartbreaking that these kids sadly won’t experience that.
AT: Yeah it’s completely devastating.
EL: While we are on them, what were the teenagers like when you approached them about the project?
AT: I would say I got a variety of reactions! First of all, there was no casting beforehand or any styling, so more often than not, I wouldn’t know what the teen would look like when I turned up. It started with sons and daughters of friends of mine; a lot actually came through my netball team and their kids, and I have also had some other friends who are school teachers and were kind enough to post in the school newsletter about it. It started as a tiny project that I didn’t know would keep me busy for most of the summer, and I suppose there was a bit of word-of-mouth after that. Regarding how they reacted, I think their parents persuaded a couple, so they were a little hard work in the beginning. Still, some of the others were really quite excited about it, and because I had this big large format camera, it made it more intriguing for them as they’d never been photographed in this slow, methodical way before. On the whole, they were very receptive, and I think this just gave them something to do in what was otherwise a Summer with very little going on.
EL: And what was the camera you used? You mentioned it being a large format camera.
AT: So Chamonix is the make of the camera, but it’s just a large format film camera, so it involves a tripod, and I have to put a cloak over my head to focus, so it’s all quite theatrical in a sense. And because the film is so expensive, I would only take around between one and six shots per teenager, and at the same time, I’m working out in my head how much this is costing me! But it makes you very careful and very considerate in the way you work and for me, shooting in that way changes the way I shoot. I’m much more methodical in my approach, and I really get into a rhythm when I do that.
EL: That’s funny you mention that because recently I spoke with a photographer in the US, Emily Earl, and she talked about how a film gets her to shoot that way too. She finds it easier to reach the flow state when she is shooting with film.
AT: Well, for me, you’re getting a 5×4 inch negative, too, so the quality is wonderful with a lot of detail. But more importantly, is the way it makes you think when you work; I could of quite easily showed up with a digital camera and rattled off a hundred, and actually restricting it to six shots at the most or sometimes less is a slow way of working, but I much prefer that. And for this subject matter, it suited it because it’s quite reflective and contemplative.
EL: Just continuing with the teenagers themselves, how important was it for you to talk with them not just about the project but about the year they’ve had in general?
AT: I think it was important. I mean, most of them I didn’t know; a couple I had met were friends’ kids, so I was going into their space really as a stranger. Most of the shots were taken when you couldn’t be in the same space as others indoors, but I would photograph them in their backyard if they had gardens or if they didn’t have any outdoor space, we would go to the local park. I needed to make them feel comfortable to get a sense of what they were like because these teens are so individual. Some were much shyer than others, which meant I had to talk to them for longer than those who were more open. I needed to get a sense of what they’d been through.
EL: Completely agree with you. It must be so hard to feel the way they are right now.
AT: Yeah, I mean traumatized is maybe too strong a word, but some of them were understandably directionless and disheartened, a lot of them were due to go to uni, and now they don’t know what’s going on with their places as well all their birthday’s, summer plans and holidays were canceled. So I think having that chat with them to make them feel at ease and show that I was empathetic to their situation rather than bulldozing them and ordering them to stand here or there.
EL: I get that. Was there a favorite image from the project for you?
AT: It’s difficult because my favorite images are always based on my exchange with that subject. I guess I’ve got my favorites, but that’s because there were some I clicked with more than others. So Samuel is one of my favorites; he’s the boy with the big bow-tie who’s one of the images featured in the Taylor Wessing. I think cause he’s an adorable boy as well, and I loved his style. If you look closely, the prom jacket that he’s wearing has dirt all over it because he trashed it at his last prom when he was sixteen! I really liked him; he was one of my favorites. And there’s his mate Ronnie who was great too, and we photographed him in the park. I wouldn’t say I like picking favorites, but I think they all bring something different; I think they are more striking than others.
EL: And there was a lot of teenagers you photographed too, forty-four in the end right?
AT: Yeah, so forty-four teenagers over twelve weeks between June and August. And I decided to keep everyone in the series and the book. Everyone I photographed was included in the book; everyone is featured in the exhibition at HackleBury Gallery. I didn’t edit out anyone, and I felt that was really important because, even though some might not be bothered about being featured, I thought these teens have got through such a hard and challenging year and then to be told, “Oh, you haven’t made it into the project” just seemed really cruel.
EL: Ha! Essentially kicking them when their down.
AT: Yeah, exactly! It just felt fairer to include everyone regardless of whether it was a good portrait. It made the editing a lot easier!
EL: I bet it did! Now, we mentioned earlier why you chose Proms as a theme for Lost Summer but was there an inspiration behind the idea itself, a particular photographer perhaps, or a project you had seen in the past?
AT: Well I’m very influenced by photographers like Andrea Modica and Judith Joy Ross and more recently Vanessa Winship who work in this slow and quiet way which I prefer. Portraiture right now is my favorite type of photography; I find it the most challenging and the most interesting. My last big project before this was called Ex Voto, which was shot as all formal portraits similar to this project and done so in a slow, methodical manner, and so this is a kind of style that I’ve developed and used for the last four or five years. With Ex Voto, I was very interested in the relationship between person and landscape. However, that was very different in terms of its themes from this project, I wanted to use nature and landscape to frame the portraits, and so it was important to me with Lost Summer that you weren’t making any judgment of the teens in terms of their background or social, economic status. I wanted it to be very democratic. I initially thought about photographing them in their bedrooms all dressed up, but I thought you’d be making assumptions about their upbringing or what house they live in, which I didn’t want. Really this project, in some ways, is an extension of my style I’ve used for the last few years.
EL: That’s fascinating the way you talk about portraiture with such detail. For me, I love it; it’s my favorite type of photography as well, and what I love is that it says so much not just about the person you are photographing, but it says so much about you as a person. The portraits you capture are a reflection of who you are.
AT: Oh, absolutely! I think every photographer would do this project differently; you could say to a bunch of them, “Okay, go and photograph teenagers who have had their proms canceled.” and every photographer will go and do something different with that. But I suppose my photography is about how I’m feeling at that point and how I am experiencing things; as you say, that can come through so, I need to let that come out at times. With this more recent project, they experienced the effects of this year worse than I was, but I’m still going through what they’re going through as we all are, so there’s that connection of empathy there. When the photographer brings their own experience to the photograph, you can sometimes see it in the image.
EL: Yeah, completely. And were the teens ever questioning you about your prom or what it was like leaving school?
AT: Oh, I’m much too old to have had a prom! It’s funny because some were more disappointed than others about missing their Prom; some of them weren’t really bothered, and some were really gutted and had really been looking forward to it. But I think what upset them all most was not getting a chance to say goodbye and having nothing official to mark this turning point in their lives. The thing that struck me personally was how mature they all were; some of them were really open and honest about what they’ve been experiencing. On the whole, some of them were staying optimistic about the future and were determined not to let this summer wreck them; they were quite resilient in that sense.
EL: I love that. That optimism of “Okay I’m not going to let this define me and this summer”.
AT: Yeah, I was surprised. I mean, I don’t know about their personal lives, but this is the biggest thing that’s happened to them in terms of live events. I was surprised at how they were able to rationalize it, really. A lot of them said, “Yeah, we’re happy to accept it’s been shit, but I’ve had more time to reflect, and I’ve spent more time with my family” and actually, one of the guys Alfie said, “I’ve invested all my time in the world of Hogwarts!” it was kind of touching actually how they’d spent their last few months.
EL: Now, just as we were mentioning time there, I don’t think I’ve seen a project be turned so quickly from beginning to end. Just how important was it that you got the book out before the end of this year? Why could it not have waited later once all this is over?
AT: Well, obviously, I just feel that it’s very current right now, given the recent events. It was also a logistics thing, you know, I had the images ready and scanned, and I could do it myself, so why not just do it? I think the pictures can really resonate with many people right now, so why to wait two years to publish this book plus, people can have the book now and maybe reflect on it in a couple of years. And also, from a personal point of view, with my own workload, I felt like if the book doesn’t happen now, I might never do it. On top of that, I am also giving copies to the teens as well, so I felt like I owed something to them because they had given me their time and trust, so I wanted to make it happen sooner rather than later.
EL: Yeah, completely. And with that being said, having had time (if any) to reflect on the book, are you proud of how it turned out?
AT: I mean, there are a few things about the book, perhaps, but I think that’s the case with most photographers. I think there are very few who would say, “Yes, I’m 100% happy with it.”. Are there things I would have done differently? It’s funny. I’m quite sad the project is over now cause I really enjoyed it, and it kept me very occupied and creative during lock-down. Still, at the same time, I’m not upset. I don’t regret not continuing it because it needed to end when it did within that confined time and space. I mean, even now, I’m walking around and see teenagers and think, “They would’ve been brilliant for the project!”. I’m really proud of how the young people have responded to it and how it’s given them something to be proud of. They’ve been really excited about seeing the images around in the galleries and the Taylor Wessing etc. That’s something that I hope has made their year a little easier. I think that’s why I wanted to do the book to mark something in history permanently.
EL: I agree; I think having a book gives you that sensory overload. And for the teens, they’ll remember so much more when they flick through the book, such as the smells of that day, what the weather was like, how it was talking with yourself. All of those things they’ll remember.
AT: See, that’s lovely to me if those memories survive and become each a part of the teen’s histories. That would be really lovely.
EL: Yeah, do you think in say twenty or twenty-five years when they have kids of their own, they’ll get in touch?
AT: I’ll probably be dead by then!! Or at least be very ancient! But I would love it, some of them I’ll follow their progress because I know their parents, but I think those projects that revisit people ten or twenty years on can be very interested. I mean, I’ve got their details, so it’ll be fascinating to see where life takes them next. I’d love to keep in touch with them and see what happens.
EL: Yeah, of course, that would be fascinating to see where they end up. So with this project concluding the year for you, what can we expect from you next year and beyond?
AT: So I’ve got two projects on the go. One of the main characters from my previous project (Ex-Voto) is Vera, and she became one of the most powerful portraits in that project; she’s an orthodox nun living in Belarus. And I’ve now recently got Sundance funding to make a documentary feature film about her life, so for the last year I’ve been spending a lot of time with her in her convent in Belarus, and she’s the most extraordinary character you’ll ever meet. I’m co-directing that with my friend Cecile who assisted me on the whole of Ex-Voto, so this is again is an extension of another project I’ve done in the past. We’re hoping to finish that by the end of next year! And the other project I’m working on is part of my nomination for the Prix Elysee Award, where I have to put together a project proposal and then get some money to begin the project and then announce the big winner. So I’m working on a project at the moment called “Gli Isolani” which stands for the “The Islanders” in Italian and in it’s the simplest form it’s about ritual and identity and faith comparing the North to the South of Italy, but that’s very much in its early stages right now. So I’ve got quite a lot of stuff going on!
EL: Goodness me, no shortage of work at the moment! And finally, Alys, I wanted to ask, with us talking earlier about those memories the teens might have, was there an element of that in you almost feeling nostalgic about life at their age?
AT: Yeah, I think there was a slight yearning for my teenage years; I think the way I sympathized with them was that I remember feeling really carefree between sixteen and eighteen. Things were relatively easy, everything was good and stable most of the time, but with teenagers now, they’re forced to think about what’s going on (not to say that you shouldn’t be open to things outside the world). Still, they’re in a time where there’s more pressure coming from various elements like family, education, and mental health. I felt sad that they almost had this burden on them because I don’t remember having that.
EL: No, me neither.
AT: And some of the kids were speaking to me about Black Lives Matter and the impact that had on them, others were talking about how terrified and concerned they were with the effects of climate change, and it’s not that I wasn’t worried about the world issues at their age but I just never felt that real level of responsibility. I felt freer to enjoy things as a teenager without feeling this great responsibility for the future. I did feel a sadness for them that those teenage years had been stolen from them in a way and those big moments like Prom, the exams and when you left school you had a yearbook, and you would sign each other’s shirts, and you would be hugging each other goodbye. Or when you’re eighteen, you can go down to the pub and get drunk, and you can’t do any of that now. And of course, there’s other crisis’ in the world, but I don’t think it’s about privilege or anything like that, I think it’s about them being stripped of life events if it had not been for this Lost Summer.
Alys Tomlinson’s book “Lost Summer” is available right now to buy via her website, as is her aforementioned book “Ex-Voto” along with her wide range of other award-winning projects. Lost Summer is also on show in its entirety at the HackleBury Fine Art Photography Gallery from now until March 12th.
Special thanks to: Alys Tomlinson, Tom Booth Woodger, and to You for taking the time to read this interview.