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Bare Handed

Photographer Holly Lynton pays tribute to work, in a book entitled Bare Handed, published by L’artiere. In this book, hands are elevated to the status of symbols of work well done.

In 1972 I learned how to stuff live chickens into crates at a kibbutz in Israel, five in each hand with their legs forced between my fingers, the frantic birds pecking away at my hands. The women who taught me — older and hardened by years working in the coops — had hands like pork chops with fingers thick as sausages and scabs and scars from the same beaks. Those marks on my bare hands became a trial-by-fire to a world unknown to me, a twenty-one-year-old American kid thrust into the cackling noise of poultry on the way to slaughter.

In Bare Handed (L’artiere, 2023), Holly Lynton’s loving homage to an honest day’s work, simple tasks like sheep-shearing and seafood-sorting are elevated to art solely through the visceral simplicity of doing something over and over, incrementally getting better each time. Though Lynton’s photos have a beautiful, quiet patina, they still manage to act as reminders of the thick, fetid air in those chicken coops where I learned quickly to work with my hands and not complain, to take control of the task hoping to get better at it every night.

© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
Fairest © Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
Weir © Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.

In photo after photo in Lynton’s flowing appreciation of time lived small but writ large, the repetition of life on a farm or by the sea speaks calmly, especially in our hyper-realized world. There’s an inherent sense of time slowing down and of shadows inching their way across the land. Early in the book (Hands, Clark Fork Organics, Missoula, Montana, 2016), a photo of a pair of hands marked a dusky black reveal hieroglyphics undecipherable by even the most skilled palm reader but offering evidence of working bare-handed. The callouses on those hands describe the long hours toiling at a repetitive task while the wedding band tells of commitment; and the plastic watch band supports the consciousness of getting one task finished before the next one needs attention.

That photo opens the farm gates to pictures that hammer home the long moments spent alone in the fields or in a barn with nothing more than the bleating of sheep or the incessant heat beating down. In one image (Top of the Stack, Peterson Ranch, Jackson, Montana, 2018) three young men appear to be in a primordial dance while working a hayloft; in another (Sienna, Turkey Madonna, Shutesbury, Massachusetts, 2010) a young girl — maybe fourteen or fifteen — is caught in mid-embrace with four turkeys oblivious to their fate; and in a third (Les, Honeybees, the Bosque, New Mexico, 2007), a man’s hands are fully covered in honeybees, mimicking a pair of gloves from purgatory. He’s incredibly calm, still even, evocative of Richard Avedon’s seminal image of a beatific man similarly covered in bees.

© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
Les Honeybees © Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
Hands Scallions © Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.

Agnes Varda, the highly influential film director whose work was at the very core of French New Wave cinema said once that “hands are the tool of the painter, the artist” and though the photographs in Bare Handed seem polished and effortless, it’s clear that Lynton’s camera and hands have merged into a single tool in the pursuit of that art. Spanning a period of thirteen years, Lynton crisscrossed America in pursuit of a timeless purity attached to the land and the fleeting, ethereal moments that float in the air across ranches and farms from Massachusetts to New Mexico, Montana to South Carolina and infinite points in between.

As she states “The events that lead me to the places I photograph often seem like a random set of coincidences, though most of the people I photograph will say there is no such thing. “What brought you here?” people often ask. Sometimes I end up finding a place because of my own research or a word-of-mouth recommendation. But, often, a single spontaneous moment or seemingly arbitrary decision can change my work for many years.”

Some photographs in Bare Handed tell quiet stories of persistence and the inexorable passage of time, qualities inherent in working the land and its output with the simple assistance of ten fingers and a will to tackle a task. Others tell louder stories — of buzzing insects or seagulls screeching their loud ‘ha-ha-ha’s’ of alarm; yet the images work in support of each other through the elegant and restrained design of the book.

Graveley Haystack Dusk © Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
Graveley Haystack Dusk © Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
Miss Sandra © Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.

It’s challenging in a book of photographs to avoid repetition either through the sameness of one photograph on one page, or two facing photographs placed in matching grids. Yet by confining the sequencing in Lynton’s book to a few choices, the book best offers up its secrets through a reliance on visual clues where hands become branches and ropes become arms, an ineffable merging of man and material. 

As the book’s designer Margaret Bauer states: “Holly was intimately involved in all aspects of the book’s design — from sequencing the images to the feel of the paper it is printed on. The collaboration was intense and engaging, as are her intriguing, beguiling photographs.”

Great photography often involves a large amount of patience, where the photographer embeds in a defined world and tries to uncover truths that might remain buried to the ordinary eye. In the case of Holly Lynton’s work, it’s obvious from a cursory glance that her approach to unearthing art is measured and intelligent and full of watchful waiting while the world swirls around her. Her hands hold the key to documenting a certain timelessness in our world, a recording of methods and crafts long associated with agrarian cultures focused on waking up early to work the land and going to bed late bearing the satisfaction of a hard days’ labor.

© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.
© Holly Lynton, Bare Handed.

Bare Handed, by Holly Lynton, published by L’artiere, 136 pages, €150.00.

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