Alex Ingram’s latest work is an extended – and deeply human – study of the effects of geographical and interpersonal isolation on a series of individuals in remote parts of the British Isles.
The Gatekeepers, a work in progress, is, in many ways, a continuation of the photographer’s previous long-term project, David’s House. That series was a study of life in the UK’s smallest city, and an exploration of how living in such a secluded part of the world shaped the artist’s life. He was happy in St Davids, out on the most western point of the Pembrokeshire coast but felt that he’d “outgrown” that way of life. Like many a creative with pretensions of artistic greatness before him, Alex flew the nest. And, like many a creative with pretensions of artistic greatness before him, he came back, stricken with the realisation that a prodigal son and his hometown never really break up.
“Moving away made me question my relationship with St Davids and Pembrokeshire as a whole,” he tells us. “I revisited places I knew so well and spoke to the people I grew up with, seeking to understand the connections that subjects have with the landscape and their reasoning and choices for spending their lives in such a secluded part of the world.”
One such subject was Malcolm Gray, the former coxswain of the St Davids lifeboat. “He told me about a couple who lived out on Skomer Island all year round,” Alex recalls. Ed and Bee, the couple in question, spend their time conducting research into the rather delicate ecosystem on a micro-island best known for its population of puffins.
Having moved to London to pursue a career in editorial and advertorial photography, the commercial side of things took over and Alex found himself going an entire year without shooting for himself. So he began immersing himself in research about Ed, Bee, Skomer, and other wardens on other islands. “I think it is a bit of an escape for me from the crazy world that is London,” he explains.
In the last nine months, Alex has set foot on a trio of teeny, tiny islands; Skomer, Lundy, and Bardsey. His next trip sees him heading to Stockholm. “Logistically, it is quite a challenge planning these trips,” he admits. “I’ve had to get ferries, bribed fishermen to take me over in their fishing boats, and even flew to one in a helicopter.”
Having established contact with the individual warden, often via the National Trust, Alex spends a week on the islands he visits, tending to “let things evolve organically in front of me.” This might go some way to explaining the naturalism of his photographic output; his figures pose, yes, but they seem to portray something beyond portraiture.
His subjects conduct a variety of roles on the various micro-islands they inhabit, from carrying out early morning bird counts, to seal pup tagging, to abseiling down the side of jutting, jagged cliff faces checking on Manx Shearwater chicks.
Whether it is the stoic sight of a guy called Grant sat alone, arms folded in on themselves in the pub he manages on the island of Lundy – population 28 – or Bardsey-based Steve stood with his dog and his one-man-observatory, there’s a stillness to the lives on display, a sense of temporal standstill, of what happens when many of the anxiety-inducing trappings of modernity recede into the distance, the blue-white of the screen replaced by the white-blue of the horizon.
Shot on film, these are not sentimental images that attempt to eke an unwarranted and saccharine sense of loneliness out of their unavoidable, and intentional, reflection of isolated places, isolated states. Rather, they are people in depopulated places, navigating what it means to live as slowly as most of us dream we could.
For Alex himself, these trips are excursions into a kind of temporary fantasy, explorations of alternative possibilities.
“When I’m on a shoot,” Alex tells us, “I’m usually walking around exploring the space and the amazing landscapes and perhaps having a bit of a recce with David Bowie playing. I find the best way of understanding a place is just to walk around and explore. Be nosey. Ask questions. Wear a smile. As long as you’re friendly and approachable, I’ve found you can pretty much get away with most things.”