Holly Lynton, Bare Handed

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by L’Artiere Edizioni (here). Softcover in a slipcase (27 x 28.5 cm), 136 pages, with 85 color images. Includes texts by Terence Washington and Carl Fuldner. Design by Margaret Bauer. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The debut monograph by American artist Holly Lynton, titled Bare Handed, offers a nuanced and intimate portrait of modern day sustainable farming in the United States. Lynton spent years documenting farming communities around the country, and her understated photographs portray people who work with their hands, in sync with their environment, honoring the land and nature. Her travels brought her in touch with farmers of various kinds, including shrimpers, beekeepers without any protective gear, catfish “noodlers”, alligator hunters, and plenty of others building a life of attentive authentic engagement with the land. Lynton spent hours observing them and their craft, and her images capture a stream of quintessential gestures and moments. Bare Handed brings the series together in a beautifully produced photobook.

The photobook immediately stands out as a thoughtfully crafted object. Bare Handed is a softcover book, hosted inside a slipcase with a photograph of a silo covered in leafy green vines, immediately putting nature forward; the title and the artist’s name are placed on the book spine. As we get the book out of the slipcase, its front cover shows the shirtless back of a young man walking in the wild, his skin covered with drops of sweat and a cloud of mayflies flying around him and landing on his body. The cover of the book then unfolds to reveal a pair of weathered, working hands (with soiled and cracked skin) placed on top of freshly picked spring onions, providing an echo of the book’s title and a tangible example of healthy work. Inside, the photographs vary in their size and placement on the pages, creating a dynamic and unexpected visual narrative, and the captions are placed at the very end of the book, in a simple list. 

The book opens with a photograph of two beekeepers, Les and his apprentice Amber, framed to exclude their faces. We only see Amber’s extended arm covered with a swarm of bees as she reaches towards Les; Les’ right hand is open, inviting the bees to land. While many people consider bees dangerous, experts like Les feel very comfortable in their environment, and the gentle and beautiful image emphasizes the calm connection with nature. A couple of pages in, another photograph captures a young woman named Sienna gently gathering turkeys into her arms, the inside of her hoodie matching their white fluffy feathers, with more small feathers floating in the air. Her poetic posture and gestures resemble a religious painting of the Madonna.

Many of the photographs reflect the slowness and tranquility found in the rhythms of rural life, their minimalism and stillness setting the tone. We watch the highwire cooperation of barn raising, sheep shearing, and the mistiness of what is perhaps a cold morning in the barn. In another image, a tall haystack casts a giant shadow over the land as the sun goes down, reminding us of nature’s cycles and rhythms. And then the book opens to a full spread photo of Boneyard Beach, with gnarled dead trees scattered along the sand, and an almost invisible girl resting in the thicket, her dangling limbs mimicking the bare branches of the tree. 

Gestures and movements are important to Lynton, connecting her to her childhood experience as a ballet dancer. A picture of two shirtless young men caught in either a playful tussle or helping support on top of a compost pile is paired with a more serene shot of a young woman relaxing on a tree branch by the water, while a young man sits underneath her on a rock; the gentle dappled sunlight makes the scene even more idyllic. And Lynton’s image “Skipper, Christian, Catfish, Temple, Oklahoma” captures another tender moment when a father is pulling a hefty catfish out of the lake with his hands, while his son is right beside him in the water. Many of Lynton’s photographs capture a kind of subtle mysticism present in everyday life, and in his essay, Terence Washington notes that “by incorporating recognisable symbols, Lynton invokes cultural memories, the touchstones that form us as individuals and unite us through shared experience.” 

In this way, Lynton’s photographs celebrate her subjects and their spiritual convictions. Her series stands in contrast to the 1930s surveys of rural life performed by ten photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. They documented the struggle of rural America, its poverty and its despair, and a number of their images, like “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, have become emblematic. Lynton’s pictures search for different mood, where people and nature are in better equilibrium.

Over the years, Lynton has built lasting relationships with the people in her pictures, and her photographs pay respect to their courage, dedication, and passion. Her visual narrative, with its distinct aesthetic and quietly optimistic sensibility, portrays an impalpable set of connections that weave the land back into our lives. Each photograph brings in a genuine personal story, and linked together, they remind us of the complexities and nuances that fill life in that rural America. That engaged and positive message helps to make Bare Handed a solidly good and exciting photobook.

Collector’s POV: Holly Lynton does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked above).

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