A few years ago, photographer Holly Lynton left New York City for Massachusetts farm country, a setting that better fits her desired lifestyle and has a closer synergy with her recent explorations in photography. The photographs in her “Bare Handed” series – some taken in Massachusetts – find mystery and spiritual resonance in people’s voluntary encounters with natural forces, often dangerous ones like honeybees, wolves, or catfish in raging rivers.
We asked the artist about her work, crowdfunding to support exhibition costs, family in art, and how a photographic idea transforms in her hands.
ArtSake: Your “Bare Handed” photographs reflect a reverent, spiritual connection to nature, subtly exploring ideas like sustainable farming and the locavore movement. Can you talk about what aesthetic and creative decisions you make to open up considerations of broader ideas?
Holly: A lot of research goes into the creation of each one of these photographs. In the case of Les (pictured above), I had to find the right bee keeper. One with 30 years’ experience, who wears no protective clothing, because it’s too hot in New Mexico, but also he works with bare hands so he does not crush the bees or anger them. While I was in New Mexico, via word of mouth, I located the wolf sanctuary. The catfish noodling, I read about in the New York Times. Now, in Massachusetts, I also rely on word of mouth, noticing a farm, and visiting agricultural fairs.
When I approach my subjects, I correspond with them first, either by email, phone, or in person. As I am not interested in photographing in a photo documentary or journalistic style, I look for individuals who will collaborate with me. Sometimes, they don’t even realize we are collaborating, but they need to be able to take direction and work slightly outside of their comfort zone. I need them to trust that I know what I am doing when I ask them to repeat certain gestures or go to a specific place. They have to be comfortable in letting a situation unfold. My photographs are an exercise in combining spontaneity and control.
Sometimes, I don’t have a lot of control over a situation. I recognize when someone is at work, and I can’t interrupt them. In that case, I wait for a magical moment. I practice patience. I can watch people at work for hours, and return over several days to try to make a powerful photograph.
In general, I look for moments where two elements intersect, or two contrasting elements come together to create another meaning. I have a psychology background, and when writing up a study, one often has to dismiss findings as possibly being caused by a third variable not anticipated in the experiment. My photographs are meant to be like that third variable. I hope to reveal an aspect in the scene that isn’t anticipated, or might not even be seen the same way in reality, along a time and space continuum.
In terms of aesthetic decisions, I intend my photographs to evoke a sort of fantasy, and have almost a dreamlike quality. I used to say my images came to me as dreams, not while I was asleep, but rather as daydreams of scenarios I would then go about trying to create. Now, they evolve differently, but I intend them to have that same quality.
ArtSake: Can you talk about your experience in the recent Flash Forward Festival Boston, where you were featured in the Fresh Works exhibition?
Holly: The Flash Forward festival was a great experience. The festival was extremely well run, the work strong, and Paula Tognarelli, Director of the Griffin Museum, who selected my work for the exhibition, was a pleasure to work with. The coverage and attendance of the event was great, and the variety of events presented and the fact that it was all free, a rare thing these days, made it particularly accessible to the general public as well as other artists. I hope they keep it up in Boston.
It’s been wonderful, too, getting to know the art community in Boston. It’s a very photography-supportive city.
ArtSake: You’re well on your way to your goal in a Kickstarter project to cover costs for an upcoming Bernice Steinbaum Gallery exhibition (see prints the artist is offering as pledge rewards, below). Why did you choose crowdfunding? And to what do you attribute your campaign’s strong start?
Holly: I chose to raise funds with a Kickstarter campaign, because going into this exhibition I had two choices, either borrow the money or raise the money. It is a glorious thing to go into an exhibition not completely in debt, (let’s face it, artists always underestimate their expenses and rarely pay themselves for their time) so I thought I would try the approach of raising the money. I chose costs that were limited to the production of an exhibition not the ones that go into just the making of my work, and launched the project on Kickstarter. I had heard about Kickstarter from a fabulous organization called Creative Capital, which is a granting organization as well as an organization that runs programs for the professional development of artists. After researching the site, and watching some fellow artists raise funds for projects, and pledging on several myself (there is great art to be “bought” at prices artists can afford), I decided to launch my project.
Kickstarter is an alternative to receiving a grant. Grants are very competitive and often hard to receive, so this is a way to raise the funds oneself. It’s empowering. With crowdfunding, the hope, obviously, is that a lot of people will give a little money so the artist can reach his/her goal, rather than a few people giving a lot of money. And it’s not for nothing, they get art!
I can’t really say what the initial success of my project was attributed to, actually. People were a lot more generous than I anticipated. I was bowled over. I had read that the average pledge was $71, but in my case people were pledging more than that. I have seen other projects though where they raise a ton of money by generating a huge crowd (300-500 people) where there are many pledges at the $20 level. My rewards are limited edition prints that normally I could not sell at these prices. The small prints would be half as much to produce as the pledge reward. I chose two images that aren’t associated with a series and aren’t even on my website, but were produced for different group exhibitions. Because of the volume and the nature of the project, my lab has agreed to work with me on this, which furthers the sense of community created by Kickstarter. It is a good opportunity to pledge and receive a print of mine at a price point that doesn’t normally exist.
It is also an amazing experience to realize that so many people support my work and what I am doing. Most artists make work to engage in a dialogue, and yet, so often we find ourselves creating in a vacuum or isolated from the general public.
ArtSake: In your Kickstarter video, you daughter serves as your spokesperson, and in fact, she’s contributing drawings as donation rewards and has been featured in past photographs. Can you talk about your decision to involve your family in your creative work?
Holly: My family is hugely important when it comes to my creative work. My husband is extremely supportive of what I do, and has also been a model in many photographs. He hasn’t been my subject for the last several years, but early on, he often agreed to try out physically uncomfortable situations for the sake of my photography. He has amazing hands! At one point, I think he was concerned that my photography might be more important to me than my family. That’s not the case, but I also couldn’t envision a partner or a family that didn’t support me as a photographer as it’s so intrinsic to who I am.
In general, I have always thought that we, as a culture, undervalue the insights of young people. As a parent, I’ve seen first hand that my children often have amazing insights. They are also incredibly creative human beings and love to be involved with what I’m doing. Sometimes the only way to get my work done is to involve them in it! It has it’s limits though. After watching three hours of sheep shearing, or even something as exciting as lambs being born, my son will bore of it and wish his mother would stop taking pictures. But in general, the choice is to include them or exclude them, and I believe including them makes for a happier family. I also want to teach them what it means to have ambitions, creative desires, and a goal to pursue, and how one goes about pursuing one’s goals. I believe this is important behaviour to model directly, so the more they are involved the more they see how that all works.
In terms of being in my photographs, they model if they want to, however, as with all my subjects, I can’t force them do anything they don’t want to do. Although, I can be very persuasive! But if I get a flat out “no” I respect that. With the image “The Red Coats,” which is on my Kickstarter, they ran out into the snow like that, bare legged, to follow me outside while I was photographing something. As I swung around they were too perfect looking not to photograph. I told them to hold still, but the expressions were all theirs. With all my photography, I wouldn’t know exactly what the photo would be until I got the film back.
Both of my children can articulate clearly what it is that I do. Involving them in my art is a sign of respect, and they understand the ups and downs of it, as they see it first hand. Of course, I don’t tell them everything since they are little, but I try to put things in terms they understand and share what I can. I think this is important for them to see as well, as carrying on an artistic practice is not easy. Both of my children are incredible budding artists. My daughter has a real skill in drawing. She already draws a lot better than I do. My son too for that matter! I have her on my Kickstarter doing drawings as rewards, because I truly believe that if she chooses it she’ll be a great artist some day. I could just say that as a mother, but I’m pretty critical, and I don’t like all her drawings. I tell her when she’s made a great one, and I think anyone who receives one from Kickstarter will be lucky! She’s getting paid for them too! I want to teach her that it is important to be rewarded for your art.
ArtSake: You’ve taught at the New School’s summer art program (and in your Kickstarter video, your daughter says you’re always encouraging her to develop her art). What do you try to instill in emerging artists?
Holly: When I talk to emerging artists I try to be honest. A teacher of mine once told me that it was not talent but persistence that carries you through as an artist. I firmly believe she is right. There are many aspects that go into a creative practice. Determination, critical evaluation, perseverance, challenging oneself, and staying true to a vision. I was taught to work to find my own point of view and perspective, to have as a goal the ability to create photographs that would immediately be recognized as mine. If I showed you a slide show of images by truly great photographers (assuming you had a good photo history background), I bet you’d be able to name most of them. That is a lofty goal of course, so I also try to encourage artists to find balance. Happiness. Happiness for me is key, as it’s an attribute that so often seems highly unattainable. At least among several people I’ve known. I try to encourage emerging artists to find a way of living and working as an artist that gives them a happy, balanced life, because I also believe that self-esteem can be fragile when developing an art career. For me, having a family enabled me to stay grounded, that and moving to the country. It took me a while to learn an important lesson, again taught to me by a great teacher, that being an artist is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, a way of thinking, and that you are that no matter what. Having an art career is something separate.
ArtSake: Share a surprise twist in the Holly Lynton story.
Holly: When I was studying at The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts on the Greek Island of Paros, I met my yet-to-be husband on the ferry dock while we were both waiting for ferries going in opposite directions. We had an urgently intense conversation for 20 minutes, during which time I showed him the brochure for my art school and talked about my creative writing and photography. I tried to convince him to come with me to Athens where I was going to buy a mountain bike. He tried to convince me to go with him to Samos. He was on his way to Turkey and had missed his first ferry off of Paros five days earlier so was behind schedule. Both stubborn, neither of us conceded, and we parted, exchanging addresses. It was a year before we saw each other again, and what happened in that time and after is a long story. Is that enough of a surprise twist? We’ve been together now for seventeen years. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be the same person or photographer without him.
ArtSake: Can you point to any one decision you’ve made as an artist that has had the most impact on your career?
Holly: When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I began taking classes in photography. Initially, I was into creative writing and thought I’d be a writer. Immediately hooked on photography, I found a natural ease in making ironic and humorous, street photos very much smitten with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. After a year, I hit a rut. This lasted for three semesters, and each semester I thought about giving up photography, but each semester I found one negative I wanted to print and reasoned that I couldn’t print it without darkroom access. I’d only have dark room access if I signed up for the next photography class, and so I did, and I persevered. In my last semester at Yale, I had a breakthrough in my work that thankfully moved me out of that rut before I graduated. I went from a critique one week with Tod Papageorge where he told me my people looked dead, to having him not even recognize that my photographs were by me the next week.
It’s those moments that add up and have impact. I don’t think I can point to one single decision.
Holly Lynton currently has work in a group show called GREENHOUSE at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Miami, FL. She’ll have a solo show of work – the work for which she’s raising funds on Kickstarter – at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in November 2011. Watch for a profile of Holly in the July 2011 issue of PREVIEW MASSACHUSETTS.
Images: courtesy of the artist, Holly Lynton; LES, AMBER, HONEYBEES, NEW MEXICO (2008), C-print; ANGEL, WOLF, NEW MEXICO (2008), C-print; SKIPPER, CHRISTIAN, CATFISH, OKLAHOMA (2009), C-print; DREW GARDENS and THE RED COATS, the two prints available as rewards in Lynton’s Kickstarter campaign; TURKEY MADONNA, MASSACHUSETTS (2010), C-print; installation view of GREENHOUSE, courtesy of the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, Miami FL.