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Holly Lynton :: images | bio | press mentions  

press mentions :: Holly Lynton | Solid Air

No Safety Net: Photographer Holly Lynton captures the unprotected interactions of humans with the natural world. 


By Laura Holland 

Preview Massachusetts 


Sheep, tobacco barns, barehanded beekeepers, and a bird in the bush—it’s not simple subject matter that links Holly Lynton’s photographs together, but the way something deep within one image speaks to another. Rather than dry theory or didactic concept, Lynton’s photographic practice is guided by a push and pull between her desire to revisit scenes that reverberate for her and her openness to capturing totally unanticipated moments. Extending aspects of “Bare Handed”—an exploration of people who work with animals, but without any protective equipment—Lynton is now photographing sheep farmers and tobacco harvesters in Western Massachusetts.


Explaining how she defines her subject matter, she cites the example of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work is loosely connected but easily recognizable because the images consistently reveal how he sees the world. “It’s his vision,” she says. “And that’s my goal, to have that vision be what links the work.  For me, it’s just like a journey….”


Lynton’s journey through “Bare Handed” began in an earlier series, “Solid Ground,” which she describes as a “backyard safari.” Some of these photographs emerged from a confident spontaneity; others reconstruct intriguing moments from unusual angles.


“Limox” restages a moment when Lynton and a friend were drinking mojitos in the backyard. They went inside briefly and returned to find slugs crawling over their glasses.  “It was disgusting and fascinating,” she says. And she decided to recreate that experience—at slugs’ eye level.


Using sugar water as bait, Lynton collected slugs and set them loose until they wriggled into the composition she wanted. Slugs can move pretty fast, she marvels, so she had to be quick on the shutter.

“Emberizidae” recreates another scene, when a bird flew into a net over raspberry bushes and struggled frantically until it escaped. While the moment was short-lived, recreating it was elaborate. A mechanical bird didn’t look right, she says. So she hired a trained bird, eventually finding a bird trainer willing to work outdoors. Raspberries had to ripen, as aesthetically essential dots of intense red. And then it had to stop raining.


The rain finally stopped, the trained bird effectively fluttered, and Lynton had her photograph. But implications of a trapped bird sparked other considerations. “I was horrified with the possibility of killing a bird over a few raspberries,” she admits. She wanted, in contrast, to find people who worked with animals without harming them and without any defensive shield of equipment, making themselves vulnerable to nature. Her quest led to a beekeeper in New Mexico who works without protective clothing, and to fishermen [“noodlers”] in Oklahoma, who grasp hefty catfish in their bare arms.


“I like to allow myself a certain latitude and leeway to be open to spontaneity,” says Lynton, and one spontaneous moment came during the fishing photo shoot. “We were getting buzzed by mayflies,” she recalls, “and my assistant was really bothered by them. The noodlers joked, ‘You should take his picture.’” So she did, capturing a figure with shoulders hunched, succumbing to the onslaught of buzzing insects. And, she explains, “The little things beyond my control made the picture—the quality of the light, hair tufting up in the wind, the mayflies blurred to look like birds.”


“I didn’t intend “Bare Handed” to be all about creatures,” Lynton insists, adding that she was initially intrigued by the sense of danger and the idea that these people were confronting fear. “But after photographing them, I saw that they came to the situation with knowledge and they weren’t fearful. In their work, they were meditative. They were in the zone. And they approached the animals and the activity with a kind of reverence.”


With her move to Western Massachusetts and a studio in North Leverett, Lynton is more engaged in local farming and, she says, “how aspects of meditative activity are involved in farming.”  But she also looks for drama and fantasy—and symbolism, as seen in “Sienna, Turkey Madonna, Shutesbury.” Along with visual allusions to a Renaissance Madonna, the image portrays the young woman’s strong connection to the animals and her ability to calm the turkeys. Moments before the photograph, however, the scene was anything but serene when an agitated turkey whacked another turkey farmer in the face. The balance of power and dominance is also a theme in Lynton’s images—sometimes a shifting balance, as seen with the mayflies.


Are the tobacco barn images an extension of “Bare Handed” or a separate series? Certainly, there are significant differences between honeybees and tobacco plants. But there are also similarities, seen in the practice of harvesting by hand rather than with large-scale industrial machinery, and in the crop’s vulnerability to nature. “Despite the fact that tobacco is a plant,” she points out, “it all fits.”


Currently Lynton is making photographs of people who work with sheep, including a fifteen-year-old girl who raises lambs for meat and a sheep shearer who wrestles 175-pound rams. “I don’t want to make cute pictures of sheep,” she declares, “so darkness comes out in the images…” In some, the sheep emerge from darkness with an aura of light—a halo effect suggesting a classic religious symbol of purity—to evoke “mythic or mythological” aspects, and not a documentary record.


Lynton emphasizes that she’s not looking at local farms as a photojournalist. “In the tobacco barns, I’m not looking to convey the nitty-gritty of the harvesting process, but the mystery of the atmosphere,” she says. “If I was taking a photo-documentary approach, I would show what the work is. But I’m looking for something more fantastical.”

Lynton’s colors have a saturated intensity that conveys a heightened sense of awareness. Floods of atmospheric light and unusual angles also contribute to a fantastical quality.


“I look for contrasting elements, and I always have a response to light,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll want the light in one [image] and the figure in another, but that would be painting, not photography.”

Eschewing Photoshop and digital manipulation, Lynton finds her images as she frames them, waiting with patience and confidence, and working without a safety net.